Melanie Morgan sits at the kitchen table of a mobile home in Lansing, nervously smoking a hand-rolled cigarette.
She’s nervous because she’s talking to a reporter with a photographer snapping pictures as she answers sometimes deeply personal questions about her four-year ordeal with the Michigan Department of Human Services and the Clinton County Prosecutor’s Office, which successfully petitioned the court to have her three sons taken from her.
She’s smoking cigarettes she rolls herself because they’re a lot cheaper that way.
Melanie Morgan, you see, is poor. And if her supporters are to be believed, that is a primary reason she had her parental rights terminated, a procedure so drastic it has been described as the civil equivalent of the death penalty.
The mobile home park on the north side of town isn’t far from a landfill. The two-bedroom home itself cost $9,000 and won’t be paid off for another three years. The front porch sags in places and feels as if it might give way when stepped on. With paneled walls, the inside is cozy but cramped.
The lack of room is one of the reasons authorities cited in taking Morgan’s three boys — ages 14, 6 and almost 3 at the time they were removed from the home — and placed in foster care.
There are two justifications for the state to take a person’s children. One is abuse, either physical or sexual. The other is neglect, the definition of which in Michigan includes “… the failure to provide adequate food, clothing, shelter, or medical care.”
Drug and alcohol abuse were also an issue. Morgan’s husband, from whom she is separated, had problems with booze and pot, according to court documents. Instead of fighting to keep custody of his kids, he voluntarily took himself out of the picture. “He didn’t have a strong will to keep them like I did, I guess,” is the way she describes his withdrawal.
Which left Melanie to carry on without him, often without a job, dealing with depression and a Vicodin habit precipitated by chronic pain. But she had help — from her father and her stepmother and an uncle. There’s also her 78-year-old grandmother, who lives in the trailer with Melanie.
Sharing a small home with extended family is another reason the state used to bolster its contention that the boys would be better off without their mom in their life. She never stopped disputing that claim, taking her case all the way to the Michigan Supreme Court.
The story of Melanie Morgan and her three boys is a cautionary tale, say experts, who fear that what is already a problem will only get worse as the state’s economic situation grows more dire, and already-stressed programs designed to help keep families like hers together are cut back or eliminated while the hardships that accompany job loss expand.
As lawyers from the Children’s Law Section of the State Bar of Michigan wrote in an amicus curiae brief submitted to the state Supreme Court in support of Morgan:
“At a time when our state ranks near the top with the highest unemployment and foreclosure rates in the country, we must avoid setting a trend that condones termination of parental rights as legally appropriate remedy based on poverty-related concerns alone. Nor can we impose unreasonable requirements, such as total financial independence and independent home ownership, as prerequisites for maintaining parental rights. With 20 percent of Michigan’s children under five years of age living at the poverty level, it is highly unlikely that their parents are able to provide for them without some form of assistance — whether provided by the government or family members.”
In that same brief, the court was urged to reaffirm that neither “complete financial independence” nor “perfection” should be required “for our citizens to preserve their parental rights.”
As Morgan’s story shows, such cases are rarely, if ever, clear-cut. Poverty — along with issues of class and race — are frequently crucial factors. However, other issues, such as alcohol and drug abuse, or mental illness, complicate them.
In that sense, too, the Morgan case is in many ways typical of what social workers and judges across the state deal with every day.
“I do battle with depression,” says Morgan, pausing to take a deep drag on her cigarette before adding, “It runs really deep on my mom’s side of the family.”
“I lost my mother when I was 7, going on 8,” she says. “And when I was 14 I found her death certificate. It said the cause of death was an overdose of barbiturates. No one knows for sure what happened. But she would drink and take pills.
“So that hurt and confused me. Yeah. And I was depressed. Life had no meaning, no purpose.”
Morgan feared that she would end up like her mom, who was just 25 when she died.
Then she became pregnant with her oldest son, Ryan, when she was almost 16. In her words, “That turned everything around. After that, I had something to live for, and I’ve never thought about it since.”
“It” being suicide.
“I’d never leave my kids like that,” says Morgan, now 34. “There’s just no way.”
Given that, it’s hard not to see a brutal irony in the turn of events, with the kids that wiped away thoughts of suicide and gave her a reason to live being taken away from her.
“Yeah,” she says. “It’s been really hard.”
But even one of the lawyers who has fought to help Morgan regain custody of her kids points out that, in the beginning at least, it was appropriate for family services to step in.
That was in September 2005.
Ryan was 14 by then. And he had two half brothers, Dennis, who was 6 at the time, and Jordan, who was one month shy of his third birthday.
According to court records, the family’s home was “in deplorable condition.” Dirty dishes and “old food” filled the kitchen counter, piles of clothes were scattered throughout the house, and “floors were littered with small items that posed a risk to the two-year-old …”
Along with her husband, several other people were living in the home, which had beer and vodka bottles scattered about, according to a caseworker. Morgan had failed to pick up Dennis twice during his first week of school, and the oldest child had “anger and aggression issues.”
And Morgan tested positive for opiates. She was diagnosed with, among other things, “anxiety disorder, opioid dependence and antisocial personality features.
“Her prognosis was poor due to the chronic component of her substance abuse and her depression as well as individual personality related issues,” according to court documents filed by the Clinton County Prosecutor’s Office.
Because of bad teeth and back problems, she continued to use Vicodin. Other adults, contrary to a court order, kept living in the home. As a result, her boys were placed in a foster care home. All three required extensive dental work “due to extreme decay. …” The oldest boy needed a hearing implant in one ear.
By July of 2006, Morgan and her husband had separated, and she was living in the mobile home with her grandmother. Already, the size of the home was becoming an issue. As one of her caseworkers wrote: “I have some concerns about the reunification plan … because of how tiny the house is …”
Morgan wasn’t working, getting by on state cash assistance and Medicaid.
As it turned out though, placing the boys in foster care wasn’t a panacea.
That comes as no surprise to Richard Wexler.
According to the biography posted on the website for the nonprofit National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, its executive director learned about the issue of child abuse by covering it as a journalist: “Richard Wexler’s interest in the child welfare system grew out of 19 years of work as a reporter for newspapers, public radio and public television.”
Now, as head of the nonprofit based in Alexandria, Va., he authors frequently scathing reports such as “Cycle of Failure: How Michigan Keeps ‘Throwing the Fight’ for Children — And How to Make the State a Contender Again.”
Released earlier this year, the report is a broadside fired at what Wexler calls the “foster care-industrial complex.”
Wexler contends that, even though foster care is more expensive than the “intervention” available through such programs as Michigan’s Family First — which provides “intensive family preservation services” like help finding day care, job training and housing aid — the way federal funding is structured makes it easier for states to pay for removing children from their homes.
He writes: “For every dollar the federal government spends on safe, proven alternatives to foster care, it spends at least nine dollars on foster care and at least three dollars more on adoption.”
Factor in expenses such as court-ordered counseling and medical treatment and the cost differences become even more extreme: $10 a day per family for intervention, compared to $57 a day per person for foster care and a host of associated services, such as counseling and medical care.
The problem, says Wexler, is that foster care is an “entitlement” — like, say, Social Security or Medicare. “For every eligible child, states get back anywhere from 50 cents to 74 cents on the dollar. In Michigan it’s 60 cents and may soon rise to 63 cents.”
That translates to about $100 million a year flowing into the state — a huge pot of money that can be used only for foster care.
“In contrast,“ he continues, “far less is available for prevention and family preservation — and it’s not an entitlement. In American child welfare, children are deemed ‘entitled’ to be trapped in foster care but not to remain safely in their own homes.
“It’s no wonder that the National Commission on Children, one of the most distinguished groups ever to study child welfare, found that children often are removed from their families ‘prematurely or unnecessarily’ because federal aid formulas give states ‘a strong financial incentive’ to keep doing so rather than provide services to keep families together.”
He cites two Michigan studies that spoke to the effectiveness of the Families First program. In one, he writes, “judges actually gave permission to researchers to ‘take back’ some children they had just ordered into foster care and place them in Families First instead. So we know that 100 percent of these children would have been placed in foster care. One year later, after being diverted to Families First, 93 percent of these children were still in their own homes.”
He also cites a study done by the state auditor, who found that “Families First could serve an entire family for just over one-third the cost of placing one child in foster care — and less than one-tenth the cost of placing one child in an institution.”
Despite that, Wexler reports, funding for Families First has gone from $23 million a year in 1995 to less than $17 million now. Adjusted for inflation, that represents a decrease of more than 40 percent.
Foster care is inherently traumatic, Wexler argues, because it involves “separation of a child from everyone she or he knows and loves. Sometimes that separation must take place anyway, because leaving the child in the home is even more harmful. But often separation is unnecessary.
“The trauma is compounded, however, by impermanence. The moment a child finally gets used to new substitute parents, new friends, a new school, he may be uprooted again. Do that to a child often enough, and a child learns not to love or trust anyone.”
Wexler is a contentious figure.
“Our position is that Mr. Wexler’s reports contain inaccurate, inflammatory information about Michigan’s efforts to protect children while ignoring the strides taken to protect their safety,” contends Colleen Steinman, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Human Services.
However, the department, when asked specifically about budget numbers reported by Wexler, didn’t directly dispute any of his reporting.
As far as being inflammatory, Wexler, in an interview with Metro Times when he was in Detroit earlier this summer, didn’t shy away from being described as provocative. The way he sees it, for more moderate reformers to make headway, “they need someone to kick down the door.”
Think of his reports as a battering ram.
And though he has his critics, he’s not without his fans.
Vivek S. Sankaran, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Michigan Law School’s Child Advocacy Law Clinic, and the lawyer who represented Morgan in front of the Michigan Court of Appeals and Supreme Court, called “Cycle of Failure” a “long overdue wakeup call.”
The report, Sankaran said at the time of its release, “paints a system that needlessly wastes money by favoring the most expensive and least effective options for children and details the ways in which the system routinely frustrates, humiliates and overwhelms the very families it seeks to heal. Not surprisingly, less than 40 percent of foster children in Michigan are reunified with their parents, a frighteningly low number.”
It is, he said, a system that “often focuses on how to keep children in foster care, rather than explores how to keep kids out.”
“The Department spends more than $200 million a year in payments to foster care providers while allocating less than $70 million for prevention and family preservation programs,” noted Sakaran in a press release.
For the Morgan family, the foster care experience was anything but smooth.
In April 2006, a DHS caseworker testified before a Clinton County judge that the “children had a difficult time adjusting to foster care and that Ryan [the oldest boy], in particular, had a very difficult time rationalizing why he was placed into care.” Subsequent testimony revealed that Dennis, the middle child, “frequently inquires as to when he can go home with his mother, and being in foster care is clearly stressful to him.”
Unable to get along with his first foster parents, the oldest boy left his brothers behind and landed in three other homes before turning 18 and returning home to live with his mother.
According to court documents, the two younger boys were spanked in that first home. It eventually had its license suspended, and the boys were moved to another home.
“I have a pretty serious issue with having kids removed from one home for neglect, going into another and then being physically hit,” a caseworker testified.
That’s another bitter irony for Morgan, to have her children taken from her, only to have them mistreated.
“We never laid a hand on our kids,” she says. “We were time-out people.”
The way Wexler sees it, the Morgan case bolsters a contention that lies at the heart of “Cycle of Failure”: “Family preservation is the best choice for most children most of the time.”
From the time the Department of Human Services became involved in the lives of the Morgan family in September 2005 — and especially after Melanie’s husband relinquished his parental rights — the court forced her to deal with her problems. For her part, although Melanie Morgan tested positive for opiates, she told the court that she had only taken the painkiller Vicodin, and that it had been prescribed by a doctor.
Months after the first inspection, a caseworker told the court that the home, though cluttered, was being kept clean, and that even though other adults were also living there, they “interacted appropriately with the children” and there was no evidence that the kids faced any physical risk.
Nonetheless, the judge handling the case ordered the children placed in foster care. That was in January 2006.
With her husband now out of the picture, the children were allowed to have supervised visits with their mom every week. Although she once tested positive for cocaine — she claims it was a false positive — she continued to attend a substance abuse treatment program as well as AA and NA meetings weekly.
By September 2006, her therapist was reporting that Morgan was “doing really well” in her sessions and was “really addressing the issues and kind of delving deep into those right now. … She truly wants the best for her kids.”
The small size of the mobile home that had been purchased, however, continued to be a concern.
With her grandmother living in one bedroom, that would mean the three boys would have to share a second small bedroom while Morgan slept on the couch.
“But what’s the matter with that?” she asks. “I don’t mind.”
For a year after that, Morgan continued attending AA and substance abuse classes. She also found a job.
Then, in September 2007, a hearing was held to consider the issue of terminating Morgan’s parental rights. A caseworker testified that her drug tests had been coming up clean, and that she had provided a prescription for the positive test that resulted earlier in the year after she had had eight teeth pulled.
There was also testimony that her therapist believed Morgan’s had reached the point where she could regain custody of her children. Although a separate therapist seeing the boys felt that they would “have an opportunity to be successful long term in an adoptive placement,” it was also noted that the “boys clearly have a bond with mom and termination would be harmful.”
It was pointed out that Morgan had quit her job at a construction company. Her caseworker, however, had verified she did so because she wasn’t being paid.
As a result, finances continued to be a problem. “She knows she’s really on her last legs here,” the caseworker testified.
What made this hearing different from others was that Morgan wasn’t present to hear what was being said. She didn’t show up because notice of the procedure had been sent to her previous address.
“I guess the only thing that I can say is — her not showing up here to court today speaks volumes about, I guess, where we need to go with this case,” the caseworker told the judge. “And I think it’s tragic, I think it’s sad because she clearly loves these kids”
Saying that this was “about the children … it is their safety and well-being I have to look out for …” the judge authorized the state to file a petition with the court that would set the stage for termination of Morgan’s parental rights.
Two months later, with Morgan present, a termination hearing was held.
Four different caseworkers who had been involved with Morgan and her boys testified at that November 2007 proceeding. One noted that “the family continued to struggle financially,” and that Morgan had occasionally tested positive for opiates, and that she had “struggled with depression and was in counseling.”
Another talked about her “dependent personality,” lack of housing, and her failure to divorce the husband from whom she was separated. It was that caseworker’s opinion that Morgan couldn’t meet the emotional and physical needs of her children.”
After first taking note of the circumstances that were originally present — and mistakenly saying that problems such as a dirty home and substance abuse had not been addressed — the judge made note of the fact that Morgan remained unemployed, and that the only housing available to her was being provided by her grandmother and father.
“It’s concerning to me — her father’s testimony was concerning to me that she’s never lived on her own, she’s never supported herself and the children, and that he even agrees she can’t support herself right now. And there’s no likelihood within a reasonable period of time that, considering the children’s ages, that she’ll be able to care for them.”
Adding that there was no evidence that it would be “contrary to any of the children’s best interest,” the judge ordered that Melanie Morgan’s right to be a parent to her children would be terminated.
Her oldest son returned home when he turned 18. The two younger boys, now 10 and 7, however, haven’t seen their mother in the 20 months that have passed since Morgan’s rights were terminated in November 2007.
What has Jack Kresnak worried is the number of similar stories that may be in the offing as Michigan’s economy continues to deteriorate.
From reporter to activist
Like Richard Wexler, Kresnak initially made his mark as an award-winning reporter covering child welfare issues. After a 38-year career with the Detroit Free Press, he became president and CEO of the nonprofit group Michigan’s Children last year.
The combination of an economic tsunami that’s overwhelming the state in terms of job losses and a budget crisis that has its roots in a tax-reduction policy that stretches back 20 years has resulted in a situation where the state is “severely cutting or outright eliminating programs designed to help keep families together.”
Unlike Wexler, Kresnak doesn’t see the shadowy hand of some foster care-industrial complex at work, but rather shortsighted politicians who won’t look beyond their own term-limited time in office.
Cut housing subsidies and you have homeless kids, reduce aid to poor families and you have water and heat and electricity being shut off and food being taken off the table.
Lose that on the front end, he says, and you end up “spending a whole lot of money paying strangers to take care of other people’s kids.”
As of June, a total of 16,545 kids were part of the state’s foster care programs, according to the DHS.
It’s a problem that Maureen Taylor, state chair of the group Michigan Welfare Rights, has seen growing for the past several years.
When a family can’t afford food, or can’t wash their clothes because the water is turned off, the official reason children are removed from those homes is because of neglect, she says. But the real reason is poverty.
Add to that the stigma faced by poor people — the perception that middle-class people can raise your children better than you can.
It’s not just activists who see things this way. Maxine Thome, executive director of Michigan Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, agrees that there is a “strong correlation between children in foster care and poverty.”
The Morgan case provides some insight: The court requires a parent to attend counseling and perhaps AA meetings, but how do you do those things and still hold down a job or maybe two jobs if you can’t afford a car?
“What we do know is that, as poverty increases, people are trying to do their best just to survive,” says Thome. “You get issues like poor nutrition, lack of clothing, children without housing, children walking the street because no one is home.”
Overburdened caseworkers are a factor too.
“What I’m hearing from people in the field, folks who are dong the frontline work, is that they have such phenomenal caseloads, and so little time to do thorough assessments, that, because the ultimate goal is to protect the child, the first reaction oftentimes is to remove the child from their homes.”
A professor at Eastern Michigan University, she also acknowledges that issues of class and color also play a role — even though significant efforts are made to teach aspiring social workers how to overcome innate prejudices.
Far more significant, though, are the cuts to essential programs.
That view is echoed in a needs assessment complied by the Child Welfare Resource Center at Michigan State University’s School of Social Work and submitted to the Michigan Department of Human Services.
The assessment was brought about as part of a settlement to a class action suit launched by the nonprofit group Children’s Rights.
Insufficient staff, insufficient resources and “limited geographical locations” result in people having less access to needed services, the report points out. It also recognizes that “there is strong connection between the challenges that exist when a family experiences poverty and the barriers that often must be overcome before reunification can occur, even when those barriers are not related to the original reason a child was placed. Issues such as housing, transportation, employment and financial assistance.”
However, the state is moving in the opposite direction, observes Kresnak.
“Despite increasing child poverty rates, investments to ameliorate the effects of high unemployment and low opportunity have faltered. Funding for Michigan’s Family Independence Program monthly grants has remained largely unchanged since 1993, causing the purchasing power of the grant to decline by over one-third.”
Likewise, as Kresnak reports in an analysis of the state’s budget, “since the fiscal year 2000, funding for most of the major child abuse and neglect prevention programs has been cut, even as the number of substantiated child abuse and neglect victims has grown.”
Richard Wexler’s analysis of an executive order signed by Gov. Jennifer Granholm earlier this year says it led to the cutting of “$19.8 million from prevention programs and basic support for impoverished families. … Also, the proposed FY 2010 budget calls for at least $38 million more in such cuts.”
And the DHS’ response when asked about further cuts being made to these programs?
“We agree that these are very painful cuts, but these are unprecedented times in Michigan,” wrote the department’s spokeswoman Steinman. “We will continue to work proactively with our community partners, including the Children’s Trust Fund, to find alternative ways to fund child abuse prevention programs across the state.”
Vivek S. Sankaran, of the U-M Child Advocacy Law Clinic, began his career as an advocate for children. That’s still his primary focus, but after witnessing the child welfare system in action, he came to realize that the best way to protect the interests of kids was to help keep parents from losing custody.
As he and others interviewed for this story point out, even in homes where there are problems, studies consistently show that, in general, removing children is far more harmful than allowing them to stay with their parents.
Which is why he took up the case of Melanie Morgan after her parental rights were terminated. What he found was, from the first day Morgan and her husband stepped into that Clinton County courtroom, a miscarriage of justice.
At the outset of their original hearing, the judge advised both parents that they had a right to be represented by an attorney, and if they could not afford one, then the county would provide one.
Both parents said they did want to be represented by a lawyer. According to Sankaran, everything should have stopped right then so that counsel could be appointed. But that’s not what happened. Instead, Melanie Morgan continued to go to hearings for more than two years without having the benefit of a lawyer’s advice.
Not until two weeks before her rights as a parent were terminated was the asked-for attorney made available. At the start, says Morgan, she believed the judge was trying to help keep the family together. There’s a reason she thought that.
“If I take jurisdiction, that doesn’t mean the kids leave the house,” the judge told the couple. “Sometimes it’s — I have to remove the kids but there are times that I don’t have to remove kids. We can still provide services and work with you, but the kids don’t have to be put in foster care or with a relative. So if you look at this and say, you know, we can admit certain things here — and I take jurisdiction, we don’t have to remove the children just because that happens.”
In other words, show me you are honest, admit to your mistakes, and we can work things out. And so they did just that.
They admitted that, six years earlier, that there had been previous neglect charges — evidence of marijuana use was found in their home, says Morgan — but that the case was eventually dropped.
They also conceded that conditions of the house were deplorable, that an alcoholic relative had been staying in the home, that there’d twice been a failure to pick up their middle son after school, and that the oldest boy had anger and aggression issues.
In addition, her husband admitted to twice testing positive for marijuana a year earlier, and that he had a few previous run-ins with the law.
What they didn’t realize, argued Sankaran in court filings, was that these admissions could be used against them in termination proceedings. What they were told was, that by waiving their right to a trial and putting their fate in the hands of the judge, they and their children would begin to get “services.”
As the lawyers from the Children’s Law Section of the State Bar pointed out, “The entire process was characterized by the trial court as purely benevolent.”
For the next two years, no challenges were posed to the witnesses testifying against them, and no questions were raised about any of the proceedings.
The lack of an attorney was one reason to overturn the decision to terminate parental rights, Sankaran argued. Among the other grounds for challenging the decision was the fact that, according to Sankaran, Melanie Morgan essentially did everything the court and DHS asked of her. She underwent counseling, attended drug programs, kept a tidier house, found employment, and began paying off debts.
But the judge, when terminating Morgan’s parental rights, failed to recognize the progress she’d made and the goals she accomplished.
Sankaran agrees that termination cases such as these should be treated with all the care of a death penalty case.
After the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Morgan, deciding that the trial court had improperly terminated her parental rights, DHS and the county Prosecutor’s Office appealed to the state Supreme Court.
Their argument was that, if the appellate court ruling was allowed to stand, the children would be “detrimentally harmed if they were suddenly sent back” to Morgan.
“The result of the termination did not cause substantial injustice, the reversal wreaked havoc in the lives of the children. The two younger children were stable and ready for adoption.”
The high court disagreed, ruling that Morgan has been denied her constitutional right to counsel, and noting that the “interest of parents in the care, custody and control of their children” is “perhaps the oldest of the fundamental liberty interests recognized by this Court.”
The ruling was handed down in April. But Melanie Morgan still hasn’t been allowed to see her two youngest boys. In essence, she’s back at Square 1, forced to prove to a new trial court judge that she is a fit parent.
And there’s a new hurdle in her way, according to attorney Elizabeth Warner, who is now representing Morgan: The state is arguing that the boys, who have been told they were going to be adopted, would be traumatized to learn that instead they would have to be returned to their mother.
“They say I’m being selfish by wanting them back now,” says Morgan.
But the way she sees it, the boys need to know that their mother didn’t abandon them.
“They don’t know that I’ve been fighting all this time to get them back,” says Morgan, brushing away a tear.
Appointed by Gov. Granholm to the Court of Appeals in 2007, Judge Elizabeth Gleicher says she’s been shocked by the number of parental termination cases she and her fellow judges are being asked to rule in. Looking over a docket for June, she counts off 13 such cases one three-member panel reviewed.
“Parental rights are being terminated at an astonishing rate,” she says.
It is the number of cases involving accusations of neglect — not physical or sexual abuse — that has her concerned.
“We are often not confronting issues of poverty, and to some extent issues of race,” she says.
Part of the problem, she adds, is the overall capability of lawyers assigned by courts to represent these poor parents.
“The quality of advocacy is all too often not as effective as it should be,” she says during an interview at her office in Detroit’s New Center area. “They are not well-paid, and they get beaten up by the system.
“Our resources as a state, and as a system of justice, need to be targeted toward keeping families together. Something needs to be done to rescue this system.”
And from what she’s seen, many of the cases she’s being asked to review share a lot of similarities with what Melanie Morgan has gone through, and that we as a society should be paying attention to.
“What more important issue could there be than protecting the makeup of a family?” she asks.
As for Morgan, what keeps her going, she says, is the belief that she’s going to be reunited with her boys. She can’t allow herself to think that day might not come.
What she’s not sure about is the way her sons will react.
“I can’t wait for that day, but I wonder what will happen,” she says. “Will they run up and hug me, or will they stand there looking at me thinking, ‘Who is this woman?’”Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-804 or [email protected]