On Saturday, April 12, Christopher Ratte did his part to fulfill the Rockwellian father/son ritual by taking his 7-year-old, Leo, to watch the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. All went fine until the man bought the boy a bottle of lemonade.
It was Mike’s Hard Lemonade, which is spiked with alcohol, in case you didn’t know – and Ratte says he didn’t. But a security guard did, and soon Leo was thrust into emergency foster care, Ratte was banned from his home, and the negative publicity once again painted a child welfare system as cold and clumsy.
In defending itself, the already battered Michigan Child Protective Services (CPS) said it was the victim of a court process that it was powerless to stop. That’s a frightening idea for child welfare workers: Can a CPS system be so tightly constructed that once someone raises abuse suspicions, the youth workers involved can’t exercise any judgment?
“We didn’t get independent judgment in this whole process,” says Don Duquette, the lawyer for Leo’s parents. “It was all procedure.”
It didn’t have to be that way. A step-by-step walk-through of the case shows how the process worked, and where the fiasco could have been avoided.
The trouble began when a stadium security guard noticed what Leo was drinking, which meant he was a minor in possession of alcohol. Although Ratte identified himself as the father, “the security guard doesn’t know the relationship for sure,” says Tigers spokesman Rob Matwick. “The protocol is to intervene. It’s a violation of law.”
Reality check: The guard’s intervention seems reasonable. For all he knew, the dad could have been a child predator with an Amber Alert out on him.
The cop and the doc
Once the guard established the legal violation, Matwick says, officers at the Comerica Park police substation had to investigate further, while the on-site physician from Detroit Medical Center had to examine the child. Leo showed no signs of inebriation, but said he was nauseated, according to the April 28 story in the Detroit Free Press that brought the case to public attention. Based on that, the officer and doctor sent Leo to the medical center’s emergency room.
Reality check: They had a nauseated 7-year-old. Maybe the boy goes to the hospital for a blood alcohol test if one can’t be done at the stadium. But why not call the mother to pick up Leo or meet him at the hospital?
Doctors drew blood for an alcohol test less than two hours after the father and son left their seats at the stadium. “Completely normal appearing” was the assessment by a resident physician. Leo “is cleared to go home.”
Reality check: The hospital did its job in deciding whether Leo was in medical peril or had been abused.
An officer at the hospital interviewed Ratte and believed his story that he had bought the lemonade for Leo with no knowledge of its alcohol content. But the officer’s supervisor insisted on petitioning a judge for custody of Leo, pending an investigation.
Reality check: If the officer can’t make an educated decision about how to proceed – which in this case would have been to take no legal action – why have a cop at the scene?
Mike Patterson, the CPS director for the district in which Comerica Park is located, told the Free Press that the agency had no choice but to take Leo into custody. The reason: Police had already requested and obtained a court order from a juvenile referee.
“Once the court has authorized a child’s removal, we cannot return the child to the parental custody,” Patterson told the Free-Press.
Reality check: Can police and a judge really make such a decision without input from CPS? And if the child had to be removed from his father, why couldn’t he be returned home to his mother? Or placed in the custody of his two aunts, who drove from Massachusetts to help?
CPS indicated to the aunts that it could place Leo in their care, Duquette says. But when the aunts showed up to get him, they were told he had been moved to “an undisclosed foster home,” according to the Free Press.
Patterson is now deflecting questions to CPS spokesmen, who are not answering them.
“I’m not at liberty to discuss any details about a particular case because of confidentiality,” said CPS spokeswoman Maureen Sorbet. Only one of the questions from Youth Today was specifically about the Ratte case. Among the others: When police decide to remove a child from parental custody, does CPS in Wayne County have no authority to object if it wants to?
Attorney Duquette, who heads the University of Michigan’s Child Advocacy Law Clinic, says other counties would factor a CPS opinion into a decision to execute a court order. Wayne County is “more complicated: It’s big, heavily impacted, and there are more serious social problems.”
Ratte said in an e-mail that he is sympathetic to the constraints placed on CPS by police: “While we felt that the CPS personnel we encountered further down the line also failed to exercise common sense, we recognize that the earlier police actions gave them less freedom of maneuver.”
Leo was taken into custody because juvenile court referee Leslie Graves had agreed to a court order recommended by police, but we use the term “agreed” lightly. Duquette says he learned that when police petition for a court order, the protocol is for the judge’s clerk to stamp the approval without any review. Such approval, Duquette says, is supposed to be given by an independent judicial officer – in this case, the referee – who queries the police about a petition.
The petition said the boy was intoxicated, Duquette says, although the hospital report said he was not.
Neither Ratte nor Duquette has seen the court order, although Duquette says he’s asked for it “repeatedly.”
On Monday, after Leo had been in foster care for a little over a day, Graves let him return to his mother, but ordered the father to stay out of the home pending an investigation. Three days later, she dismissed the complaint and all the family members were back home.
Reality check: Duquette and Ratte say they would have accepted a decision Saturday night to ban Ratte from the family home, thus allowing the boy to go home. But the only person from the court who had weighed in on the case before the preliminary hearing on Monday was whoever stamped Graves’ approval on the court order – if that even happened.
Sensitive trip wires
One statewide youth advocate says the Rattes were victimized by a child welfare system on edge.
“It really comes down to subjective judgment,” says Jack Kresnak, CEO of Michigan’s Children. Increasing scrutiny of the state’s child welfare practices probably affected those judgments.
“It could be attributed to CPS workers feeling under the gun and being second-guessed by a lot of people in the media,” Kresnak says. He would know: Kresnak spent many of his 30 years as a Free Press reporter covering the child welfare system. Last year, the paper published his 14-part series on a boy who was killed by the foster parent who adopted him.
What’s more, a class action lawsuit from the nonprofit advocacy organization Children’s Rights is slated to go to trial in early June. The plaintiff wants a $100 million commitment to system reform.
Kresnak says no reform or law will fix what was wrong in this case. As he says, “You can’t legislate common sense.”