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Michigan House weighs bills to protect families from unfair abuse claims

Kent County couple Gary and Melissa Judis
Kent County couple Gary and Melissa Judis were put on a state list for child abuse and neglect as they desperately sought mental health care for their adopted son. (Bridge photo by Ted Roelofs)

Dec. 15: Michigan House unanimously approves changes to system that tracks child abuse
Update: Michigan House panel approves changes to state child abuse and neglect list

Decades ago, Michigan’s Children’s Protective Services program created a list to serve a simple goal: protect youngsters by identifying adults who posed a serious risk to their safety. 

There are now upwards of 300,000 names on the state’s Central Registry — indeed, too many, according to a growing chorus of child-safety experts, foster care advocates and parents. They argue that the registry too often flags adults who pose no danger to children, separating families, staining reputations and potentially harming the foster-care system the registry was designed to safeguard. 

“One of the unintended things that happened with laws like that in Michigan is that they created a very wide door as to who gets placed on this registry,” said Phil Decter of Evident Change, formerly the National Council on Crime & Delinquency and the Children's Research Center, a nonprofit focused on improving social support systems.

Phil Decter
Phil Decter, a national expert on child welfare, testified in favor of reform of Michigan’s Central Registry. (Courtesy photo)

“There are people going on that registry that should not be on there,” Dexter told Bridge Michigan, following his testimony at a state House hearing Nov. 2 in support of the new legislation.

A House committee this week may vote on legislation, which would provide more safeguards before adults are placed on the state registry, and would also allow people on the registry to file individual appeals for removal after 10 years.

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Consider the listing of Melissa and Gary Judis of Kent County. The couple said they made the painful choice a year ago to leave their troubled child in state custody so he could get the mental-health care he needed; help the boy was less likely to receive had he stayed in their home. Their account of the circumstances that led them to surrender the boy, one of six foster children they adopted, was verified by officials at Grand Rapids-based Bethany Christian Services, one of the state’s largest adoption and foster care agencies.

“It was our final, last hope,” Melissa Judis told Bridge Michigan of their decision to give up the boy. “It was just awful, but at the same time, when that conversation was done, it was like, ‘OK, he’s going to be helped.’”

The Judises said they were then shocked to learn weeks later they’d been added to the state registry. The state cited “physical neglect” of the child. 

“They knew that we did everything in our power to help him,” Melissa Judis said of state officials. 

Bob Wheaton, a spokesperson for Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services, which runs the Children’s Protective Services (CPS) program, said he could not comment on the Judis case specifically. But he said in an email the state “takes very seriously its responsibilities when investigating allegations of child abuse/neglect to preserve families, provide services to keep families together safely, and protect children.”

He indicated careful deliberation goes into who is listed on the registry, including “a systemic, objective, and unbiased examination of the facts and evidence which support the determination that a preponderance of evidence of child abuse/neglect exist or does not exist.”

A CPS investigation is typically completed within 30 days and is handled by one CPS investigator with oversight by a CPS supervisor, Wheaton said.

A lower burden of proof

Unlike Michigan’s Sex Offender Registry, established in 1994 to publicly track people convicted of a variety of sexual offenses, a person does not need to be criminally convicted to go on the Central Registry. A criminal conviction requires a finding “beyond a reasonable doubt” that a defendant committed a sex offense. A much lower standard must be met for the state to add someone to the Central Registry — that there is “a preponderance of evidence (more than 50 percent chance) the individual has abused or neglected their child and the future risk to the child is high or intensive.”     

The list is not directly available to the public. But schools, foster care and childcare agencies, as well as organizations that deploy volunteers who have contact with children, can indirectly access the registry by asking applicants if their name is on it. The burden then falls on applicants to get a clearance letter from MDHHS confirming they are not on the list. 

An employer or volunteer organization can then use the lack of a waiver letter to deny someone a job or volunteer placement.

When the list was first created in 1975, people named to the registry were on there until death.

A change in the law in 2015 requires MDHHS to notify alleged perpetrators of abuse or neglect by certified mail of its findings, and allows MDHHS to remove names after 10 years if CPS investigations did not show serious physical abuse, criminal sexual conduct or abandonment of a young child.

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Under current law, people can appeal their placement if they do so within 180 days of receiving a letter from the state notifying them they are on the registry. An administrative judge hears appeals, with most being rejected. In the past two years, there were more than 1,500 appeals, with fewer than 200 listings reversed.  

While not directly familiar with Michigan’s Central Registry, one national child-protection advocate urged state lawmakers to be cautious in changing how the registry functions, so that vulnerable children aren’t left in homes that prove dangerous.  

“It really is a balancing issue,” said Victor Vieth, chief program officer for the Minnesota-based nonprofit Zero Abuse Project.

“How far do you lean in the direction of protecting children? If you lean in the direction of (more fully protecting adults’) civil liberties and want to be very protective of that, then you may have to accept that there would be children that would be harmed that would otherwise be protected,” Vieth said.

Registry laws under scrutiny

Child-protection registries recently have been under the microscope in several states, with critics of the Texas law citing the damage caused to families by unsupported findings of child abuse, and some evidence that child welfare policies disproportionately impact families of color.  

Livonia attorney Rod Johnson has represented a handful of people who sought to remove their names from the registry. He said appeals of CPS findings are hard to win, and also pricey ─ costing anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000 to litigate. He said the cost intimidates many from filing an appeal.

“It’s a huge impediment,” he said, adding that, in his view, people who try to save the legal expense by representing themselves “are going to be eaten alive.” 

Backers of the bipartisan Michigan package, introduced this summer in the House, say it provides more checks in the process. Under the measure, before the House Committee on Families, Children and Seniors, adults who CPS has determined seriously abused or neglected a child in their care would no longer be automatically placed on the registry. It also allows individuals to appeal their place on the registry after 10 years.

The package would require MDHHS to take additional steps before adding someone’s name to the registry. The state would have to notify individuals that CPS has determined they committed serious abuse or neglect within 30 days of making that finding. They would be offered an administrative review before their names are included in the registry. 

Committee chair Rodney Wakeman, R-Frankenmuth, told Bridge in a statement he is “working on substitute language to help clean up a few issues” in the bill package, but did not specify what those changes are.

“I am doing everything I can to make this bipartisan bill package as viable as possible.”  

Representatives of the foster care system are calling for reform of the registry as well, saying that some foster care parents wind up on the registry through no fault of their own.

“The purpose of the Central Registry is to ensure the safety of children by putting in protections around people who are deemed a threat to child safety,” Emily Schab, of Grand Rapids-based Bethany Christian Services, testified at the committee hearing.

Emily Schab
Emily Schab of Grand Rapids-based Bethany Christian Services: “We have seen many families in our community unnecessarily harmed by this process.” (Courtesy photo)

“Because of the one-size-fits-all approach of the current registry, we have seen many families in our community unnecessarily harmed by this process,” Schab testified.

She cited the ordeal of the Judis family as a case in point.

“They are on the Central Registry because the system failed their child, not because they did,” Schab said.

Tough calls in difficult cases

Schab told Bridge in an interview there’s an ongoing need for foster care homes for Michigan children with significant behavioral issues ─ often the most difficult children to place.

But families that take on those challenges can become unfairly entangled with the CPS system, which deters other adults from becoming foster care parents. For example, she said, biological parents of kids who have been placed in foster care may recklessly accuse the foster parents of harming the child when the child came to visits with bruises that were the result of normal play.

“I was a licensed foster parent and I distinctly remember during my training being told, ‘It’s not if CPS is called on you, it’s when,’ she said.

“The decision to open your home up to CPS involvement can be extremely scary when the result could put your career at risk.” 

The bill package is backed by the Michigan County Social Services Association, which represents local MDHHS administrators and child welfare directors in all 83 Michigan counties.

“As you know, by being on the registry, it can have profound effects on your life,” Karla Ruest, the social services association’s executive director, told the committee in a letter. “Everything from missing school and church activities to prohibiting a person from getting a particular job.”

Ruest suggested in the letter that, too often, a parent whose child slips outdoors while unsupervised is put in the same category as an adult who sexually abuses a child. The pending legislation is intended to put those “at risk of future harm to children on the list, not those who might have made a mistake one time and do not pose a future harm.”

“There are cases where a parent had fallen asleep and a young child might have gotten out of the house somehow and somebody finds the child and calls CPS,” Ruest told Bridge of the kind of serious, but unintentional  lapses she was referencing. “That’s just a mistake they made and they end up on the registry.”

Wyoming resident Tina Cansler said that eight years she learned that her daughter was having emergency complications in her pregnancy. Cansler said she rushed to a local hospital and told her adult son to watch her 2-year-old foster care daughter and 8-year-old adoptive daughter while she was gone.

She said her son fell asleep in the room next to the children. The 8-year-old girl, thinking she and her sister were home alone, dialed 9-1-1. 

Tina Cansler said police arrived at the door, but did not come inside, and the children were taken to a neighbor because it was assumed they had been left home alone.

That led to a CPS investigation.

“They said I wasn’t there. I guess they figured I left them there by themselves. That’s when I learned I was going on the Central Registry,” Cansler told Bridge. She too testified in favor of the reform bills at the recent House hearing.

Cansler said she was fortunate to have her name removed from the registry for that incident, after intervention by a local state representative.

But Cansler said she landed on the registry again, in 2017, when her adopted daughter, then 13, told someone at school that Cansler struck her on the head with a baseball bat. Cansler denied that it happened.

“She had behavioral issues. She was rebellious. She didn’t like structure,” Cansler said.

Cansler said she decided shortly thereafter to give up her parental rights to this child, saying, “I did all that I could for her.”

MDHHS said it could not talk about the circumstances of Cansler’s cases, making it difficult to verify her account. 

But Cansler said she continues to be haunted by the fact that her name remains on the registry.

“I have grandchildren and they take trips here and there. As a grandparent, I would love to go with them. But if a school class is going on a trip and they need volunteers, I can’t volunteer because they check to see if your name is on the Central Registry.

“Your name is important. You are important,” she said.

Targeted for a painful choice

The Judises, of Kent County, say they were punished by the system for prioritizing their child’s mental-health needs last year. 

Their adolescent son had been acting out for months. He was one of six foster children the family took into their home and later adopted.

According to the family, the boy, who had been diagnosed with autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, spiraled into a disturbing pattern of behavior after he was taken off a series of medications. He got in trouble for sexually harassing a teacher at school. He scratched and bit his father. He was setting fires and assaulted the family dogs. At one point, he flooded the basement and ruined the furnace by running a water hose down an exhaust flue. 

So in the summer of 2020, the boy was hospitalized for emergency care at three in-patient psychiatric centers in metro Detroit and Grand Rapids. Once he was stabilized, the parents struggled to find a local residential care program outside the home they believed he needed. Similar frustration has been expressed by other parents. As Bridge Michigan reported this summer, resources are scarce for Michigan children and young adults in  mental-health crisis.   

Melissa Judis said she was advised by local mental health officials that the best way to secure residential care for their boy was to decline to pick him up when he was discharged from his latest hospital stay. Essentially, they were told, the fastest path to help was abandoning their child to the state. As Bridge reported, this echoes advice other Michigan parents said they have received: that relinquishing parental rights was the fastest route to their kids getting immediate psychiatric treatment. And so that’s what the Judises did.

“I was crying the whole time. I was in physical pain,” Melissa Judis said of having to tell a hospital official they would not pick up their son.

Five weeks later, they got the letter from MDHHS informing them they had been placed on the Central Registry.

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‘This notice is being sent to you because of a (CPS) investigation in which you are named as a perpetrator of child abuse and/or neglect,” it stated. It specifically concluded the couple was responsible for “physical neglect.” 

While the Judises’ listing on the registry indicates they pose a risk to that child, court proceedings suggest something else. Even as their child remains a temporary ward of Kent County’s family court, the couple retains unsupervised visitation rights to see him, according to family court documents the Judises shared with Bridge.

Bridge reached out to 17th Circuit Court Judge Deborah McNabb — who presided over that case — for comment, but did not hear back. It is unclear whether the judge considered the Judises’ placement on the Central Registry when she allowed the parents’ unsupervised visitation, or is even aware of it.

Grand Rapids attorney Donna Mobilia, who has practiced family law and handled family abuse and neglect cases for decades, told Bridge courts will not award parents unsupervised visitation if they know of evidence that they pose a risk to the child.

“The court takes the safety of the child very seriously,” she said. “If a therapist says, ‘Don’t do it,’ they don’t do it. If the child says, ‘I don’t want to see them,’ they don’t do it.” 

Melissa Judis said the boy, now 13, is flourishing at a suburban Detroit residential facility for children with autism, where he has been for the past several months. She said they visit him every other week and bring him home some weekends. In May, she said, they took him on a trip out West with the family.

For all the heartbreak, Judis said she and her husband made the right decision when they elected not to pick their son up that day from the hospital.

The couple said they missed the 180-day deadline for filing an appeal of their placement on the registry because they were preoccupied with other family matters. Under current registry guidelines, that means they will remain on the list for at least 10 years.

That troubles Melissa Judis for more than one reason.

She resents what their placement on the list, by law, says: They are a danger to their child.

But she also worries it could affect their ability to be foster parents for a future grandchild.

“My oldest adopted daughter, who’s 18, is due to have a baby. And we don’t know what’s going to happen with that child. We were told if that baby goes into foster care, you can’t have him.

“And that just breaks my heart.”

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