Puts Kids at Risk, Oakland Says
Mike Martindale and Amy Lee, The Detroit News, February
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officials: Department of Human Services investigators have left
children in abusive homes.
Children have been harmed and killed in abusive homes because a
state agency isn't doing enough to protect them, Oakland County
Assistant prosecutors, investigators and victim's relatives say
many suspected child abuse cases in Oakland County were
preventable, but children were left in the care of adults whose
failings had been repeatedly brought to the attention of Family
Independence Agency investigators, according to Oakland Circuit
Court documents reviewed by The News.
"They (FIA) may be doing their job, but they have to do better,"
said Oakland County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Deborah Carley.
"There are situations that require immediate attention, and
taking days to do an investigation and then not substantiating
complaints puts children in jeopardy."
The prosecutor's office and the FIA have been at odds for years
over what's best for victims of suspected child abuse or
neglect. Two years ago, such concerns prompted letters from both
Oakland County Prosecutor David Gorcyca and Sheriff Michael
Bouchard to FIA state offices in Lansing.
The fears of Oakland County prosecutors extend beyond the
county's borders. They say they are the only prosecutorial
office in Michigan that gets directly involved in matters of
child protection. In other counties, the FIA is the only agency
watching out for children, Carley said.
FIA case workers say there just aren't enough of them to go
around, and the agency's policy is to make every effort to keep
Steven Yager, director of the FIA's Office of Family Advocate,
stressed removal of children is a difficult decision for
workers, judges and the courts because it, too, can traumatize
"It causes workers to lose sleep," Yager said. "Removal is
always traumatic. We have to weigh the trauma of the removal
versus the risk of harm to that child."
In one recent case, an Orion Township woman was charged with
murder in the Dec. 20 scalding death of her boyfriend's 22-month
old daughter, Jasmine Lawrence Phillips -- only eight days after
an FIA case worker was at the couple's apartment investigating
the suspected abuse of another child by the father.
Letitia Johnson, 27, who is pregnant and has six children, and
Louie D. Phillips have been investigated by the FIA for at least
six abuse and neglect complaints of children dating to 1998. Yet
none of the incidents was apparently serious enough to warrant
actions or removal of children. Investigators say she
deliberately held Jasmine in 147-degree water because she
resented the infant and the infant's mother interfering with her
relationship with Louie Phillips.
"I didn't know they (FIA) had been out there just a few days
earlier," said Jamila Lawrence, the baby's mother.
The cases are not confined to any locality but reported
throughout Oakland County, including Berkley, Clarkston,
Farmington Hills, Novi, Ortonville, Orion Township, Pontiac,
Southfield, Troy, Waterford Township and West Bloomfield
Prosecutors point to numerous cases over the past several years:
• In January 2002, the body of Donna Rollo was found on the
floor of her Commerce Township home. It was later determined
that Rollo, 43, died from alcoholic liver disease and had
hemorrhaged in the stomach and esophagus due to alcohol abuse.
Her adopted 16-year-old daughter, Amanda, who has cerebral
palsy, mental retardation, legal blindness and spastic
quadriplegia that confines her to a wheelchair, was found
rocking on her knees in a bedroom, covered with her mother's
blood three days after Rollo's death.
"I tried to get the Department of Human Services to see there were
problems," said Kirk Rollo, Donna's ex-husband. "I knew it
wasn't safe for Amanda there, but I couldn't take her in. I
wanted her to get proper care."
Donna Rollo's substance abuse caused her daughter to miss 19
days of special education classes; a friend once saw Rollo bathe
her daughter by rinsing her down in her wheelchair with a garden
An Oakland Circuit Court lawsuit filed by Rollo's family notes
that on Dec. 12, 2001, Donna Rollo was hospitalized for her
alcoholism and workers visited the home Dec. 27 -- less than a
week before her body was found. And while workers noticed
"deplorable conditions," they apparently did not find enough
evidence to substantiate neglect.
The negligence lawsuit against the FIA is now in the Michigan
Court of Appeals after Oakland Circuit Judge Gene Schnelz ruled
the agency and others named in the lawsuit had governmental
• Two Troy boys, ages 8 and 10, had been subjects of 13
complaints including an August 2004 allegation regarding sexual
abuse by a stepfather, Jessie Burns, and their mother's failure
to protect them. Burns is now charged with five counts of
criminal sexual conduct and is awaiting trial. Their mother was
suspected of abuse and neglect and had been on the FIA's central
registry for neglect since 2000. The registry is supposed to act
as a red flag to workers and prospective employers that the
person has had trouble providing health and safety to children.
• Two children, 7 and 4 years old, were left without custody or
guardianship after their mother was arrested July 9 for crack
cocaine possession. The mother admitted she used her child's
urine to pass drug screens. Her convictions included retail
fraud, drug possession and felonious assault. There had been
concerns about her parenting dating to March 1996, including her
being in jail; leaving a child without care; medical neglect of
a child; improper supervision of a child found alone on the
street; being homeless; beating the 4-year-old; no food in the
home; sending a child to school dirty; and smoking crack in the
Beyond the individual cases, the FIA and prosecutors don't even
agree on the number of cases they've handled. Carley said the
prosecutor's office made 849 referrals in 2004, not the 412
cited by the FIA. In a referral, the prosecutor's office makes
it known to the FIA that it suspects an abuse problem.
Prosecutors also say they filed 561 child abuse/neglect
petitions last year, considerably more than the 330 the FIA
recorded. An abuse/neglect petition asks the court to intervene
on behalf of a child, including steps such as removing the child
or parent from the home.
Attorney Karen Gullenberg Cook, who has won the state bar's
Child Advocate of the Year award, says part of the disagreement
between the FIA and prosecutors comes from their different
"The prosecutor's office has never met anyone they haven't
wanted to prosecute, and the FIA has never met a kid that needed
help," she said. "I think we need to overhaul the whole system."
If a child is deemed unsafe, the FIA petitions the county family
court to intervene and remove them from the home and place them
in temporary wardship with relatives or, as a last resort, in
foster care. The FIA seeks all alternatives to removal,
according to Margaret Warner, Oakland FIA director, including
parenting classes, anger management, substance abuse and
"Our staff have complicated jobs," Warner said. "We just don't
leave it up to the worker. It's a team decision, and that
includes input from the family."
Forced to change
Frustrated assistant prosecutors say providing services to
adults in hopes of turning their lives around is fine. But
adults can't be forced to change without a court order.
"We will go with them or without them to court to protect
children," Carley said. "The FIA may do some investigating, but
we do all the litigation and they do bring some referrals in on
their own. But not nearly enough."
FIA caseworkers counter that the state agency is often unable to
substantiate abuse because the sources of referrals are often
unreliable. Other times their suspicions cannot be proven
because the suspects are uncooperative or cannot be located for
Overworked caseworkers point out that thousands of cases are
investigated, and there are only so many people to pursue cases.
In Michigan, there were 135,775 complaints of suspected child
abuse or neglect reported to the FIA in 2004. Of those, 8,773
were reported in Oakland County, where the FIA recorded a 30
percent increase in cases of suspected abuse and neglect. It's
unclear if the upsurge was due to more at-risk environments or
if the public has become more sensitive to child abuse.
The FIA says because of confidentiality laws, it cannot discuss
its action in any specific cases. The agency stressed that its
own numbers show it is responsive to problems and stressed that
every effort is made to keep families together and to provide
counseling and needed services to address problems of abuse and
neglect, rather than traumatize children by placing them in
While assistant prosecuting attorneys say relations have
improved with the state in recent years, they say the FIA is
slow to respond to situations where children are at risk and, at
times, even seeks to block the county's efforts, said Robert
Zivian, head of the juvenile division of the Oakland County
"They not only decline to join us in petitions to protect
children, they send people to oppose our efforts," Zivian said.
Carley also said FIA figures are conservative and don't measure
up to numbers kept by her office.
"They (FIA) are not very good record-keepers," she said. "But
even by their own numbers, only 62 percent are investigated. And
our numbers and conversations with them put the number closer to
40 or 50 percent. Even at those numbers, that's too many cases
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