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Article of Interest - Children At-risk

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Bridges4Kids LogoState Puts Kids at Risk, Oakland Says
Mike Martindale and Amy Lee, The Detroit News, February 13, 2005
For more articles like this visit our Children At-Risk section located at


County 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 prosecutors charge.

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 families together.

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 children.

"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 Township.

Repeated failures

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 hose.

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 immunity.

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 children's presence.

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 approaches.

"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 psychiatric counseling.

"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 interviews.

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 another environment.

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 Prosecutor's Office.

"They not only decline to join us in petitions to protect children, they send people to oppose our efforts," Zivian said. "It's incredible."

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 not investigated."


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