Families torn apart illegally? Heather Catallo investigates

(WXYZ) - When protective services take children from their parents, state law says a judge must first personally review the case and sign off. But that was not happening in one of Michigan's busiest courts.

It's called "rubber stamping," and last August 7 Action News first exposed how court staff were literally stamping a judge's name onto orders that allowed the state to take kids from their parents.

After our investigations – the rubber stamping stopped – but no one has ever been held accountable — not the judge, not the chief judge or child protective services.

"Why was this allowed to happen in your court," Catallo asked Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Leslie Kim Smith.

Smith is the presiding judge at the James Lincoln Hall of Justice, the county's juvenile court. It was her name that had been stamped on removal orders. And legal experts tell us, that stamp allowed children to be taken from their parents illegally.

Here's a look at how the practice called "rubber stamping" came to light.

"I knew the system was broken, but I didn't know it was this broken, where anyone, literally anyone could come and take your child," said Maryanne Godboldo.

Godboldo's case made international news after she was accused of firing a gun after police officers and child protective services came to take her daughter in March of 2011.

They showed up at her door after Godboldo told two local agencies that she was working with her doctor to wean her daughter off the controversial anti-psychotic medication Risperdal.

Godboldo's lawyers say those agencies reported her to CPS.  And after that happened, a caseworker used a rubber stamped court order that a judge later called invalid to take then 13-year-old Ariana from her mother.

Under Michigan law, unless it's an emergency, where a child is in imminent danger,Child Protective Services workers are supposed to request a hearing in front of a judge – where the parents accused of neglect or abuse can tell their side of the story before a child is removed from the home.  But court insiders tell us that wasn't happening in Wayne County.

Testimony under oath in the Godboldo case revealed that caseworkers routinely took their petitions to probation officers inside the court, who would then stamp Judge Leslie Kim Smith's name onto the removal orders.

"It is completely illegal," said Joshua Kay a professor with the University of Michigan Law School's Child Advocacy Law Clinic.

"What does that mean for the children of Wayne County," asked Catallo.

"What it means is that they are in greater danger of being removed from their homes unnecessarily," said Kay. He added, under Michigan law, a judge must personally review a child removal order.

"I think it's important to emphasize the tremendous impact of a decision to remove a child.  It is one of the most wrenching things that can happen in a child's life, in the life of a family, and it changes people's lives forever," said Kay.

Last August, the day after the 7 Action News Investigators confirmed that the rubber stamping had been going on – the court stopped doing it.

After we exposed the practice, the State Supreme Court Administrator's Office, or SCAO, sent a memo to all the family courts in the state, recommending they review their procedures.

An SCAO official also told Wayne County's Chief Judge that the rubber stamping must stop.  The court is now using an iPad for their on-call judge to review after-hours child removal orders electronically.

But we knew there was more to the story—how many children had been taken illegally? How long had rubber stamping been going on?

Some court insiders tell us, it's been happening for decades.  But those are questions no one seems to want to answer .

Last fall, we asked the court in writing for all their records on removal orders going back to 2009. But they won't provide them. And guess what? The court doesn't have to because it's not subject to public information laws.

After Judge Leslie Kim Smith and her boss Chief Judge Virgil Smith denied our many requests for information, we caught up with the juvenile court judge on her way into work.

Judge Smith tried to pass us off to the court's lawyer – the same one who denied our earlier requests for information on child removal records.

"We'd like to talk to you – it was your name on those removal orders that was rubber stamped," said Catallo.

"Alright, well you need to talk to Liz Kocab, who's the general counsel for the court," said Judge Smith.

"But it was your name on those removal orders – why was this allowed to happen in your court," asked Catallo.

"I understand," said the Judge.

"Are you going to talk to us or not," asked Catallo.

"Have a good day," said the Judge.

We also asked the state's Department of Human Services, which oversees protective services, for the same information. They wanted to charge us $32,742 for the public records request.

Following one of our first stories a year ago about child removals, DHS Director Maura Corrigan refused to

speak to us on camera.

The day after our investigation aired, Corrigan wrote an opinion piece in the Detroit Free Press.  The headline: "Removing children from families always follows legal procedures."

Now that that's been proven to be false – we asked a DHS spokesman if they have been trying to determine how many children may have been wrongly taken from homes with invalid court orders.

"We did not review all court orders, as that is not proper procedure on our end.  Instead, in recent months we have focused our attention squarely on addressing structural deficiencies within the system. The goal here is to go at the root cause, and not the symptom. To that end, we have worked with Senator Rick Jones and the State Court Administrators Office, which has resulted in Senate Bill 320, one that requires a written order for removal and clearly addresses after hours procedure. That bill has now passed the House Judiciary Committee and sits currently before the full house. We testified in clear support of this bill," said DHS spokesman David Akerly.

"This system is destroying the future of America.  And if something is not done about it, we won't have a future," said Godboldo.

Maryanne Godboldo is now suing the state, Wayne County, and Detroit police for illegally taking her child.

As for her criminal case for allegedly firing a gun — a judge threw it out—because he said the removal order used to take her daughter was not valid, and he said there was no evidence presented that she fired the shot.

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