"Mike's Hard Lemonade" Parental Rights Case Allowed to Move Forward Against Judge Who Pre-Signed Child Removal Orders
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DETROIT – A federal judge ruled today that claims against a Wayne County Family Court judge could proceed in a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan on behalf of an Ann Arbor family whose 7-year-old son was placed in foster care after his father mistakenly gave him a Mike’s Hard Lemonade at a Detroit Tigers game in 2008.
Through depositions, the ACLU of Michigan discovered the boy was removed from his parents even though Family Court Judge Judy A. Hartsfield had not made a determination that the child was in danger. Instead the judge had a practice of providing pre-signed child removal orders for the on-duty desk clerk to be filled out after hours based on police allegations. Neither the judge nor a probation officer scrutinized the claims of the police.
“Today’s ruling is a victory for all those who believe that the government should not be taking children from their parents unless a judge finds the parents pose an immediate danger to their kids,” said Michael J. Steinberg, legal director of the ACLU of Michigan. “The Wayne County Family Court’s practice of instructing clerks to simply fill out pre-signed child removal orders based on the say-so of a police officer violates all notions of due process and common sense.”
In allowing the case to proceed, Judge Avern Cohn ruled that if the allegations are true, the practice of pre-signing orders violated the parent and child’s fundamental right to family integrity and the “clearly established” rights of parents to notice and a hearing before the removal of their child, unless emergency circumstances exist. Furthermore, Judge Cohn ruled that the family court judge was not entitled to judicial immunity because in pre-signing the orders, she was not exercising her judicial discretion, but rather acting in an administrative capacity.
Judge Cohn also dismissed the ACLU’s claims against two Department of Human Services supervisors who, according to the judge, were relying on what they believed to be a valid court order when they placed Leo in foster care. Finally, the claims against Detroit police officers have been put on hold pending the bankruptcy proceedings in Detroit.
The lawsuit stems from an April 2008 incident, in which Leo Ratté, then 7 years old, attended a Detroit Tigers game with his father, Christopher Ratté, a professor of classical archaeology at the University of Michigan. Christopher accidently purchased what he thought was lemonade from a stand advertising “Mike’s Lemonade,” and, not knowing that it contained alcohol, gave it to his son. A security guard saw the beverage in the boy’s possession and turned the matter over to the police even though Christopher insisted he did not know it was an alcoholic drink.
While Christopher was being questioned by police, Comerica Park medical staff examined Leo and gave him a clean bill of health. Nonetheless, Leo was taken to Children’s Hospital in Detroit, where he was examined again and found to have no alcohol in his blood. Despite the fact that he was cleared to go home, he was taken into custody by Wayne County Children’s Protective Services (CPS), a division of the state Department of Human Services.
CPS refused to release Leo into the custody of his mother, Claire Zimmerman, who was not at the game, or to his aunts – one of whom is a social worker and licensed foster parent. The first night, Leo slept on a couch in the CPS building with his parents waiting outside on the sidewalk. The next day, he was sent to a foster home.
Several days after the incident, with the assistance of the University of Michigan Child Advocacy Clinic, Leo was finally released into his mother’s custody after Christopher agreed to move out of the house and only have supervised contact with Leo. Soon after, the case was dismissed and Christopher was allowed back into his home.
In filing the lawsuit, the ACLU of Michigan argued that the state’s standard for the emergency removal of children was unconstitutional as it did not require state officials to prove that the child is in immediate danger. After their experience, the Ratté family was instrumental in amending the law to conform more closely to constitutional standards.
Though the law was amended, the ACLU of Michigan argues that the new law fails to adequately protect the rights of innocent parents like Leo Ratté’s mother. The federal judge is expected to rule soon on the ACLU of Michigan’s request to declare that Claire’s constitutional rights were violated when her son was removed from her custody even though she was not present at the ballpark and had nothing to do with the Mike’s Hard Lemonade mistake.
In addition to Steinberg, the Ratté family is represented by ACLU Cooperating Attorneys Matthew Lund, Robert Ludolf, Adam Wolfe and Andrea Hayden of the law firm Pepper Hamilton LLP and Amy Sankaran.
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