(WXYZ) - A couple months before her 5th birthday, a little girl, who had been raised by her grandparents in Gibraltar, was ripped from their care without warning. A local judge handed the child over to her biological mother who she barely knows-- and who is married to a man with a history of child abuse.
7 Action News witnessed the dramatic moment when the little girl got word that she would have to say goodbye to her grandma and grandpa for good, and that she would be moving to Salt Lake City, Utah with the mother who she has spoken to only a handful of times. It all happened in the hallway of the Coleman A. Young Administration Building in Detroit where family courts are located.
Little five-year old Lia, whose last name we are not providing to protect her privacy, sat between her grandparents in the court hallway when she was told that her world was about to change forever. Grandma broke the news to Lia that she would be moving immediately out of state and her grandparents would not be going with her.
The sound of Lia crying shattered the hallway silence. Then she asked, "Will I ever come back?" and "Will you come to visit me?"
The road to this emotional day was long. When Lia's parents divorced, her then 21-year old father was granted custody of Lia. When he wasn't able to care for his daughter, his parents became the legal guardians—that is until a battle over child support lead to the biological mom coming to Michigan last year to retrieve her daughter.
At a hearing, Lia's mom, Amber Haning, told Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Susan Hubbard that she, along with her new husband and their daughter, were a family. She said she was ready to support Lia in their Utah home.
"I would like to take the child with me. I have everything for her there .I have medical for her. Everything," Amber Haning told the court.
But then, Amber's new husband, 40-year old Ray Haning took the stand with shocking testimony. He had been convicted of child abuse, and his child from a previous marriage had been permanently removed from his custody for slapping the little girl.
"When the child was screaming…I was trying to get her to calm down," Haning said. "I thought maybe tapping her face might get her attention. I did it a couple of times and it left a mark, it went away in 24 hours."
He said since then he had anger management counseling and was taking drugs for depression, schizoid tendencies, and mild paranoia. For Lia's grandparents, it was a stunning revelation that had not known until that hearing.
Troy Huffaker, Lia's grandfather, told 7 Action News, "The whole risk of that fact that she's living with someone whose been convicted of child abuse, that's a whole separate issue."
They thought the risks might be enough to convince Judge Susan Hubbard to leave Lia in her grandparents' care. But Hubbard had a surprise for them.
Weeks after that hearing, court records show the Judge told the Huffakers she wanted to interview Lia before she decided the case. But just moments after she took the child in her chambers, the Judge handed their attorney an 11- page decision. The Huffaker's attorney believes the judge had made up her mind long before Lia was in chambers, and that the interview was only a ruse to take the child away.
"I don't believe there was any intent on the part of Judge Hubbard to reconvene an evidentiary hearing, nor to interview the child," said the grandparents' attorney Mike Pendracki. "But I think the order was deceitful in nature and inappropriate."
But something else made the sudden, unexpected decision by the judge to immediately deliver Lia to her biological mother even more shocking.
Dr. KayVonne Cason is a Ph.D psychologist who evaluated Lia at the Huffakers' request. Cason testified that the court should allow for a transition period of several months before Lia was permanently moved so far away from the only life and family she's known since birth.
"There should be time for family reunification," Dr. Cason explained to us as she did with the court." Lia definitely needed some time to get used to the woman who was virtually a stranger to her, someone she called ‘that lady', someone who actually frightened her."
7 Action News spoke to another expert, who agrees with Dr. Cason; Wayne State University professor Angelique Day, who has a Master's in Social work.
"Placement, even to a biological home can be traumatic if not done in a way that works for the child," says Day, who believes what appears to be the judge's harsh decision may have come from a lack of understanding what trauma can do to a child.
"I think part of that is because we have a judicial system that is not trauma informed or hasn't been trained in understanding the ramifications of these decisions on a child's development," she says.
So why did Judge Hubbard ignore expert testimony recommending that, at the very least, Lia be given time to get used to her new home before moving her there permanently? And why did she also ignore the fact that her mom's new husband is a known child abuser? Judge Hubbard isn't talking. She told 7 Action News that the judicial code of conduct prohibits her from commenting on a case. But in her 11-page opinion Judge Hubbard says that Utah law is on the mother's side.
Will Lia remember being ripped from her grandparents and escorted by eight Wayne County Sheriffs deputies to the car of her new family she had not had one day to warm up to? Her grandparents are concerned what happened that day will leave Lia with scars, but they are hopeful.
"She's going to be an amazing asset to this world," says Holding back tears, her grandmother Diane Huffaker. "If she grows up in the right place."
The grandparents claim several scheduled phone calls to see how Lia is doing have not been answered.
They have appealed Judge Hubbard's decision, but they are concerned about how long it will take the court to review what happened, and how Lia may suffer as days and weeks of no contact with them roll by.