(WXYZ) - All parents make mistakes, but in Michigan, one mistake could cost you your child. Critics say it’s happening all too often because we have one of the worst laws in the country when it comes to how and when the state can take your children.
“It was an unbelievable nightmare! Far worse than the death of my first child,” said Claire Zimmerman. Zimmerman’s son was taken from her for only three days but it was a harrowing experience her family will never forget.
It started as a night out with dad at a Tiger’s game and ended with their 7-year old boy in foster care.
“I felt totally helpless, I felt desperate,” Zimmerman told Action News Investigator Heather Catallo.
Zimmerman won’t allow current pictures of Leo to be publicized but she and her husband, Christopher Ratte, want everyone to know what happened.
At the ball park Christopher bought Leo a lemonade but it turned out, the University of Michigan archeology professor accidentally bought Mike’s Hard Lemonade, which has alcohol in it.
“It was just a mistake,” said Zimmerman.
Now, the couple is suing the state for taking their son because of what appears by all accounts to have been an honest mistake.
So exactly how did little Leo end up in foster care? At the end of the ballgame, security alerted Detroit Police and from there Zimmerman says everything spiraled out of control.
According to the lawsuit, a Detroit Police officer turned the boy over to the State Department of Human Services and the next day DHS put Leo in foster care.
Test results that were taken even before getting to the hospital, showed no alcohol in Leo’s blood.
“It’s terrifying, it makes you understand what it’s like to live in a totalitarian regime or something, where you have to fear for your own safety and where the government doesn’t provide you protection, it actually threatens you,” said Zimmerman.
Michigan ACLU Legal Director, Michael J. Steinberg says Michigan law is unconstitutional because it allows a child to be taken from his parents without having to prove the child is in immediate danger.
“Courts across the country have said, if you’re going to take a kid without a hearing there has to be a finding or a showing that the child is in harm,” said Steinberg.
Steinberg and other lawyers say there’s another major flaw with the system: the state fails to place children with family even though Michigan law requires DHS to try to do that. In Leo’s case, Steinberg says DHS refused to release him to his aunts and even his own mom, who had nothing to do with what happened at the ballpark.
“What’s happening in Michigan is a pattern of kids being taken away from parents against whom no allegations are made, simply based on the other parent’s conduct,” said University of Michigan Law Professor Vivek Sankran. Sankran challenges DHS decisions in the court daily and he’s alarmed by what he calls the “guilt by association” problem. Sankran says both DHS and the courts are equally to blame for perfectly “fit” parents losing their children.
“We are one of two states in the country that have this type of doctrine. Most states have clear case law that unless you make allegations against a parent, that parent gets their kids back immediately,” said Sankran.
Sankran points to another troubling case. Bryson Stone’s mom abused drugs and willingly gave up the baby to his biological father, Milton Stone, right after Bryson was born.
“They said I would be able to take him home, and I was there at his birth,” said Stone.
Instead of allowing Milton to take his own son home, Wayne County DHS workers had Bryson put in foster care, even though Milton was never accused of abuse or neglect.
“These teddy bears represent all the foster kids I had with me,” said Stone pointing to a row of stuffed animals.
Milton is currently the foster parent to his cousin Antonio. This means Michigan DHS approved Milton to foster parent his cousin, but refuses to let him parent his own son.
“This is a clear violation of this father’s fundamental right to parent. It’s one of the most closely guarded rights we have under the U.S. Constitution, and its being completely trampled on,” said Stone’s attorney, Tracy Green. She says DHS should have never brought this case before a judge.
DHS officials tell Action News that “safety comes first,” so the child is often placed in foster care until it can be determined if the other parent is complicit in the danger.
Experts say a child’s time in foster care is often prolonged because DHS requires the parents who are not even accused of abuse or neglect to comply with something called a “service plan” or “service agreement.” It’s a list of requirements that can include psychological evaluations and parenting classes, which often conflict with parents work hours.
If you fail to follow the plan you may not get your kids back. DHS blames the courts for this even though they create the service plans the judges approve.
“If a parent decides not to work with the court, if they decide to disregard the court’s orders, then that case is going to move forward in all likelihood towards termination of parental rights,” said Steve Yager, Deputy Director of the DHS Children’s Services Administration.
“But why does a parent who’s not accused of abuse have to follow one of your service plans? They’re not accused of the abuse! Why should they have to jump through your hoops? It’s their child,” asked Catallo.
“Again, the court has jurisdiction over the entire family,” said Yager.
DHS officials insist their workers have no greater authority in the courtroom than the parents’ lawyers or the child’s representatives. But many legal experts tell Action News, in many cases, the state and the court have no business stepping in, in the first place.
“We cannot take for granted the idea that the state is going to protect our rights. It’s not true,” said Claire Zimmerman.
DHS officials say they cannot comment on specific cases but they insist the safety of children is their number one priority.
The case against Leo Ratte’s father was quickly dismissed and Leo’s family is working hard to change the child seizure law. They want a requirement that the state will have to show that a child is in immediate danger of serious harm before he or she can be taken from a parent.
They’re hoping to call it Leo’s Law. If you would like more information about Leo’s Law we have posted a copy of the proposed legislation below.
Copyright 2011 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
More from The Investigators
The 7 Action News Investigators are digging deeper into the rare complaint filed by Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper against Novi District Judge Brian MacKenzie.
The Wayne County Commission agreed to enter into a Memo of Understanding with Dan Gilbert’s Rock Ventures this morning.
In a blistering complaint, Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper says her office has found seven cases where Novi District Judge Brian Mackenzie improperly dismissed misdemeanor charges where plaintiffs had already pled guilty or no contest.