The Action News Investigators look at who has the power in the state's foster care system

(WXYZ) - - We do stories on kids abused in the foster care system. Action News has uncovered cases of foster kids who are loved and cared for by family members, but are still taken away. It's a heart-wrenching saga of children stranded in the system.

The Martins were Jake's foster parents when their niece couldn't care for the little boy.

Action News was there the gut-wrenching day little Jake was taken from the only family he has ever known—that was likely last time they would see him.

Renee Neal's step grandson Immanuel has been in her care since he was born. Now, he's gone.

"I just hope he's not feeling anything like I feel," she says.

Neal will likely never see him again.

Richard McNeil had hoped to adopt his great grandsons. But the state took them away.

"I can't put it into words. Take a mother who just had a baby taken away from her. It's the same feeling," says McNeil.

Records show the state admits all these children were loved and well cared for, but in each case the state decided the kids would be better off with someone else. The man who makes those decisions is Bill Johnson. He heads the Michigan Children's Institute. By law, he could not speak about specific cases when we interviewed him last year after the state took Jake

"…those obviously are people who you lived with, who cared for you and we are going to care for you here," says Johnson, explaining what new foster parents would tell foster kids. "It's sad, you're going to miss them, and the child will adjust."

But some believe it's too much power for just one man. Cases like these are examples of his power. In Jake's case Johnson removed him because Cheryl Martin, his great aunt and former foster mom, had a run in with the law because she was drunk in public. She has since quit drinking. Cheryl and her husband Rob Martin loaned money to a woman who later accused Rob of assault. He was charged though the woman's own daughter told the court her mother has made the same accusations of others she owes money.

"I'm not denying that I made mistakes, but we learn from our mistakes and move on. We don't get our children taken away," says Rob Martin.

The state gave Jake to a couple who planned to adopt him, but Action News has learned that just three months later they changed their mind because Jake was having trouble adjusting. Now, he is with yet another foster family.

"It's so hard, I miss him so much," says Cheryl Martin, crying.

"Whether it's Christmas or birthday, there is no easy date," says Rob Martin.

In Immanuel's case, Renee Neal and the boy's grandpa were his foster parents. When they divorced, Immanuel stayed with Renee. Records show the state had granted Neal the right to adopt Immanuel. Records say it would be in Immanuel's "best interest" to remain in Neal's care.

"I was the only person who had an application in to adopt Immanuel," she says.

But Renee says when she complained about a social worker not getting Immanuel services the worker accused Neal of interfering with Immanuel's visitation with his grandpa—and recommended the adoption be revoked.

"…the only thing I had throughout the whole process was my word against the workers and they won," says Neal.

Now, Immanuel's grandpa is adopting the little boy and Neal has no right to see the seven-year old ever again.

"It's like a death," she says, crying.

Richard McNeil was the foster parent of his two great nephews. He was trying to adopt them when the state removed the boys based on a single accusation.

"I would rather have state police come to my home and do an actual investigation like it's supposed to be done, not some half-baked investigation all slanted one-sided…" he says.

The boys were taken when a nurse's aide accused McNeil's ex-wife of slapping the oldest one. At the time, they were visiting a friend at a nursing home.

"…being accused of this is devastating to me," says Anne McNeil, Richard's ex-wife. "I don't sleep."

The McNeil's say their nephew has attention deficit disorder. sometimes they hold is face to talk to him. They believe that is what the aide saw. The aide did not return our calls.

"What they did is not right. they say, oh the boy's will bounce back. yeah, right, sure," says Richard McNeil.

"I try to think about it as if I was to have a conversation with this child 20 years down the road," says Johnson. "Would I be able to say that the decision I made was something I could defend to the child?"

Johnson decides 2700 of these cases a year—but says only about 10 percent are complex. It's difficult to challenge Johnson. You need money for a lawyer to appeal him in court and the chances of succeeding are slim.

"It has been very rare that I have reversed him," say Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Mary Beth Kelly.

Kelly has presided over hundreds of adoption cases. She says although she often has disagreed with Johnson, the law limits her ability to reverse his decisions.

"…it's a very high legal standard," says Kelly.

"…you have power that is concentrated in the department

of human services within specific branch to make life altering decisions for children," says Vivek Sankaran, assistant professor at the Child Advocacy Law Clinic at U-M. He also represents parents who appeal Johnson's decisions.

"They're relying on often one-sided information from a specific case worker without hearing, kind of getting the wealth and breadth of information from different parties…"

Sankaran says Michigan is unique in giving one person final say in adoptions. Most states rely on the courts to decide those cases and he believes Michigan should as well.

"…not because judges are perfect, but because we've created open processes," says Sankaran. "We don't have that type of openness right now in Michigan."

In written responses the state says it works hard to get foster kids in good homes and that adoptions increased 10 percent last year—the highest number of adoptions ever in one year. The Martins and Richard McNeil have taken their cases to court. Renee Neal does not have the money to appeal.
 


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