(WXYZ) — A local family desperately wants to adopt their 4-year-old relative, but they say the state is preventing them from keeping the little girl in the family. Instead, the family’s lawyer says one of the employees at the adoption agency they used is trying to adopt the child.
To protect her privacy, we’re not using the little girl’s real name. Instead, we’re calling her Elizabeth.
The Mihailoff family feels like the system has failed them, and says their only option now is to share their story about how they’re losing their relative to strangers.
“She’s my heart,” said Ruth Mihailoff through tears. “She’s very loved… She is a member of a very loving big family.”
Ruth has been fighting for her granddaughter, Elizabeth, since 2018.
That’s when the one-year-old became a ward of the state after Elizabeth’s mom had her parental rights terminated because of a drug addiction.
“Nobody will love or care for that little girl as much as her family will. Period,” said Ruth.
Under the law in Michigan, family members have priority to adopt their relatives. So why is the state saying the Mihailoff family can’t do that? And why was Elizabeth found at the home of one of the adoption agency’s employees?
A state-contracted foster care and adoption agency in Livonia called Forever Families was in charge of evaluating Ruth and her family. State officials say the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services paid Forever Families $1,958,350 in 2020; the agency acts on behalf of MDHHS.
Under Forever Families’ oversight, both Ruth and her other daughter, Tayler, took care of the little girl. They say Elizabeth thrived with her cousins and half-sister.
But after several months, Forever Families told Ruth she could not adopt. They said she had been placed on the MDHHS Central Registry for child abuse and neglect for something Ruth’s ex-husband had allegedly done 13 years ago. Even though Ruth has paperwork from MDHHS stating she’s not on the Central Registry, the decision had been made.
“What did you think when they said you couldn’t adopt her,” asked 7 Investigator Heather Catallo.
“I was floored. I felt like I wasn’t good enough,” said Ruth.
So Tayler applied to adopt Elizabeth instead.
“Do you feel like you had the same amount of time and ability to be ready for that process that your mom did,” Catallo asked Tayler Mihailoff.
“No! I had 2 months, I believe, to turn in all of the paperwork. While I’m working full time, while I’m being mom.”
Tayler’s lawyer says Forever Families reports about Tayler are filled with inaccuracies that the workers used against her, including falsely claiming Tayler didn’t have a car and that her son is special needs.
Then in June 2019, Ruth and Tayler got into an argument about Ruth’s divorce and Tayler sent her mom some threatening text messages. Both mom and daughter say they quickly reconciled, but they say the state used those text messages to deny Tayler’s petition to adopt.
“Things happen in life, and you can’t determine someone’s entire life off of some text messages that somebody made,” said Tayler.
“If this wasn’t in front of a child and they weren’t screaming and making a scene, and this how they were texting each other – it’s not the worst thing in the world,” said Macie Tuiasosopo Gaines, Tayler’s lawyer.
She says emails she uncovered during their legal challenge revealed Forever Families was working behind the scenes to deny Tayler’s adoption bid with the woman who had the final say over Elizabeth’s fate: the Michigan Children’s Institute (MCI) Superintendent.
MCI is part of Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services, which contracts with agencies like Forever Families.
“They’re all part of the same agency,” said Vivek Sankaran, the Director of the Child Advocacy Law Clinic at the University of Michigan. “That recommendation is almost binding on courts. It’s an incredibly high standard for someone to go into court to challenge the recommendation made by the Michigan Children’s Institute.”
Sankaran says the MCI system needs to change.
“To give this one agency this much authority to make decisions over a child should concern us all,” said Sankaran. "Because I think that many times the concern you hear from families is they don’t even have an opportunity to get their story told. They don’t have attorneys through this process. The test I always apply in child welfare is what would we want for our families -- if our kids were in foster care? And I’m not sure we’d want one governmental agency to have this much authority over who gets to make decisions.”
Gaines says the MCI Superintendent told Forever Families to remove Elizabeth from Tayler’s home just before Thanksgiving in 2019.
“Even though prior to the removal of Elizabeth, we went to the Foster Care Review Board. And they issued an opinion saying that she needs to stay with her family. Her family is bonded. And MCI overrode that immediately,” said Gaines. Gaines says the lawyer, known as a Guardian ad Litem, who was representing Elizabeth during the process also believed she should stay with her family - but the MCI has the final say.
“They didn’t just take her from me. They took her from her cousins – my kids. And everybody! It’s not something you get used to,” said Tayler.
Two years later, Tayler and Ruth are still trying to fight the MCI’s decision in court.
But Attorney General Dana Nessel is fighting back, defending the MCI decision to deny the family the chance to adopt their own relative, arguing in court records that Tayler was immature and “overwhelmed.”
As part of their legal challenge, Gaines says she learned that someone else had petitioned to adopt Elizabeth.
Gaines says the person trying to adopt Elizabeth is one of the Forever Families employees.
“I was appalled,” said Gaines, calling that a huge conflict of interest. “They stole this baby!”
“Her name is on this file, she’s been to these people’s home, and as social workers they are able to do as much as they can to make sure this placement is possible and that was not done,” said Gaines.
Gaines says records show that Forever Families employee was at Taylor’s home for an evaluation and the Forever Families worker signed off on other reports that impacted the adoption decision.
For the last two years, the Mihailoff’s haven’t been able to see or talk to Elizabeth, and they haven’t known where she was living. But the 7 Investigators found the child recently, and she appears to be staying with the Forever Families employee who Gaines says is trying to adopt the now 4-year-old girl.
“I will keep fighting if I have to work five jobs, I will keep fighting for my granddaughter. Because she does not deserve what has been done to her,” said Ruth.
Forever Families would not comment for this story, citing confidentiality rules, but Elizabeth’s case was transferred to another agency due to a “conflict of interest.”
The Attorney General is also not commenting, a spokeswoman saying only, “The Department cannot discuss specific adoption cases as they remain a confidential process.”
Both sides will be back in court for something called a Section 45 hearing Tuesday morning, as the family tries to argue the MCI decision was wrong.
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