(WXYZ) - Michigan families are being torn apart and critics blame the privatization of the foster care system. Families desperate to care for loved ones say they are spending thousands of dollars to fight a hostile bureaucracy to get children out of state hands.
A grandmother has done everything she can to get her grandson and she says she has been sharing her story because she doesn't want anyone else to face this kind of pain. Roxanne Gant adores her grandson.
"He's a little sweetheart. He's blond, very loveable," says Gant.
When she learned Bradley was taken from his parents and put in foster care, she came forward immediately.
"Right away. That day I said, I want, I want Bradley," says Gant.
But Gant says she was met with strong resistance.
"They got the ball in their court. They can do what they want and they did," says Gant.
Gant is talking about the private agency the state contracts to handle foster care and adoption cases. By law, extended family members must be given first consideration when placing a child taken from their parents.
"Both federal and state law require that the agency and the court give priority to relatives seeking placement of children in foster care," says attorney Vivek Sankaran, who heads the Detroit Center for Family Advocacy and is an expert on child welfare law.
"All too often what happens is that systemic road blocks are created - license, home study, requirements, criminal background checks take time because bureaucracy is taking too long to get them done, the child is living somewhere else," says Sankran.
That is what happened to Gant. Fed up, she got a lawyer and has spent $15,000 fighting for Bradley. The private agency finally approved her to adopt—another child. But Gant didn't want just any child.
"I just want Bradley," she says.
She went to the State Office of the Children's Ombudsman (OCO). It investigated her complaints and issued a report. It says both the private agency and the Department of Human Services violated a half-dozen policies.
"It was so blatant they didn't even try to hide it," says Gant.
The OCO report says the agency referred Bradley to a couple for adoption months before a court terminated his parents' rights, "…and had fully intended to implement that plan despite policy requiring first consideration be given to relatives."
"They already made up their minds. The Ombudsman's Office told me that promises had been made," says Gant." There was nothing I could do."
Attorney Elizabeth Warner represents families in these kinds of disputes. She says this is exactly why private adoption agencies should have no part of the foster care system.
When the state takes a child from a parent and places the child in foster care, private agencies are supposed to make every effort to reunify the child with their parents— they are not supposed to adopt them out.
Warner says what the agency did in Bradley's case may be more than a policy violation.
"It's a crime," she says. "It's a misdemeanor, people can be prosecuted for it. People who are doing that should lose their job. And somebody ought to be calling Bill Schuette at the AG's Office."
Warner explains that it is illegal in Michigan to tell a couple they have been chosen to adopt a foster child and to place the child with them before the child's parents' rights have been terminated.
The private agency, D.A. Blodgett-St John's in Grand Rapids declined to do an interview. But in an email said that their priority is to reunify foster kids with their parents… "and they "…strongly advocate for relative placements for children when safety can be assured."
But the Ombudsman's report tells another story. D.A. Blodgett admitted fault to every violation, including not placing Bradley with his grandma. How was the agency punished? It wasn't. The Ombudsman does not have that kind of authority.
"They're getting away with it," says Gant.
The Department of Human Services oversees the private agencies it contracts. DHS also wouldn't talk to 7 Action News. Why did the agency deny Gant her grandson?
"The private agencies simply have an affiliation, a familiarity, a working relationship with their foster family, they recruited and they want to help those people get a child," says Warner.
Warner claims private agencies have an allegiance first to their clients – the couples looking to adopt.
"They may say they are doing this for the children, but in reality you can tell when a case is being managed by an agency," Warner says.
Warner and other experts told 7 Action News they have seen widespread problems with private adoption and foster care agencies. They say they don't follow policy, stonewall families and manipulate cases to get the outcome they want.
"It's some pretty blatant tactics to try and shut the doors to relatives who want to adopt," says Warner.
One report says Michigan ranks sixth in the nation for placing children with relatives. DHS numbers show that for each year from 2006 through 2009, a little less than half of foster care children were adopted by extended family members. Despite those numbers, experts say too often, relatives are losing loved ones to the system.
"They're not just doing it to the grandparents or the aunts or uncles. That's eventually going to mess up Bradley. He's going to wonder why my family didn't want me," Gant says.
Private agencies don't have final say on foster care adoptions. They make a recommendation to DHS, which then reviews it and sends a decision to a judge. But experts say judges rarely go against DHS, and children can be cut off from family forever—that's exactly what has happened to Bradley. Remember that Ombudsman report? Bradley has a half-sister Kelsi, who he also may never see again.
State child welfare policy says that private agencies are supposed to maintain sibling bonds. But the report says D.A. Blodgett also violated this policy when it denied Bradley visits with Kelsi, and even told the ombudsman, "the children do not know each other."
"Every time we get her, she asks about Bradley," says Gant.
But Gant's legal appeals are done. Bradely is gone – to the very couple the agency had referred him for adoption. Gant finally broke the news to Kelsi.
"She cried. I cried with her. You know, what else do you tell her?" says Gant. "I said some day, hopefully, they'll tell him he's adopted and he'll come looking for us."
7 Action News has been asking DHS Director Maura Corrigan for an interview for months. She eventually agreed and then cancelled citing adoption confidentiality laws. On November 9, she issued this statement:
Laws protecting family privacy prohibit DHS from discussing specific cases, but the department is committed to placing children in homes that best meet their needs. Relatives are always our first choice, as the law demands. And, in fact, children in out-of-home care are more often placed with relatives than with unrelated foster parents.
However, relative families are not always a willing, able, or appropriate choice for a child. Ultimately, this decision is made by the courts with the child's well-being at the forefront.
DHS's responsibility is to ensure the health and safety of children. That is our mission and our highest calling – and it applies to every single child in our care.