Nadia* stared down at the floor more or less throughout the pretrial hearing, blocking out the family members and the lawyers around her at the table in a small Wayne County, Mich., courtroom.
The 15-year-old Lebanese girl from the Detroit suburbs looked unquestionably cool in a black dress with colorful prints of the solar system, large black-frame glasses and a short, styled hairdo.
But the thriving student and theater junkie described by witnesses and the judge was not in the courtroom today. Here, she was a girl who wanted to reunite with her mom, and who sat quietly as the details of her troubled life spilled out for the record.
“I just want to go home, really,” Nadia said. “I don’t believe buildings are home – people are home.”
Her arm bore the scars of a serious problem with cutting, and as the record would later make clear, she struggled with thoughts of suicide. Her mental state was certainly not helped by the trauma of the past four months. Nadia had been pulled from her mother’s home after her mom struck her during a blowup over a boyfriend she was forbidden to have. She was placed in a shelter, where she said she was assaulted by another youth, and was later held in psychiatric care before landing with a foster parent.
In the opinion of Judge Tracy Green, a recently elected juvenile court judge for Wayne County, she probably never really needed to leave home in the first place. And today, Green heard arguments on whether Nadia could return home, at least for the time being.
With all parties gathered around a horseshoe-shaped conference table, an attorney for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) requested that Green leave Nadia in the foster home until the next scheduled court date of March 14. But an attorney for Nadia’s mother and a lawyer representing Nadia said the girl should go home right away.
Nadia’s mother had shown up hours early for the hearing, silently clutching a thick leather binder of records. As the proceedings began, she stared straight ahead or at the table.
Green asked Nadia’s lawyer whether Nadia was ready to go home.
“I am willing to trust her judgment,” he replied. “I don’t think it will place her at risk. She’s willing to abide by mom’s rules.”
After Nadia’s parents divorced years ago, she stayed with her mom. Her dad could visit her, but he had his own date looming with this court over allegations of sexual abuse committed by his brother against Nadia when she stayed with him.
When her mother found out this fall that Nadia had a boyfriend, the two had a screaming match. Her mom hit her, and then threatened to kill Nadia and herself. When the episode was over, she passed out on the floor. There was no indication that the violent outburst was a commonplace occurrence in the home.
In the aftermath, Nadia went to stay with a friend for a month. A caseworker with DHHS – who had already been assigned to Nadia’s case related to the abuse incident with her uncle – testified that upon learning what happened, she planned to ask the court to remove Nadia from her home. The court signed off on the removal in late December.
Judge Green asked what reasonable efforts had been made to prevent that action from becoming necessary. Federal law says that systems must make reasonable efforts to prevent the removal of a child from his or her home or face the loss of federal funds related to a case. Green suggested that anger management classes for mom might have been enough to keep them together as the court sorted out a long-term solution.
But the child welfare worker assigned to the case said no services were offered or ordered for Nadia’s mother, “because I already knew I was recommending removal.”
That did not sit well with Green, who only recently became a judge after decades serving as a parent’s attorney in Wayne County.
“The reasonable efforts to prevent a removal in this case were lacking,” Green said, speaking to the DHHS worker. “There were no services in place because you decided to recommend removal. I think that’s backward.”
It is worth noting here that Nadia’s mom had retained counsel for today’s hearing, and he was dogged in his cross-examination of witnesses supporting DHHS’ position that it was not safe for Nadia to come home. It is not clear if she had a lawyer present during the early stages of this case, and she left before I could ask her. It is hard to imagine the attorney representing her today allowing DHHS to move quickly toward removal.
The attorney for DHHS was visibly bothered by his insistence at rehashing details of the case, once muttering, “I can’t believe this is happening at a pre-trial hearing.”
“I’m afraid we did more harm to her today,” the DHHS attorney told me later, referring to the long discussion of her mental health challenges and her parents’ messy divorce. “I can’t prove that.”
After Nadia was taken into foster care, it was not in the DHHS worker’s power to refer her mother for services like anger management; everyone agreed on that point. In Wayne County, that usually means the next person who will order services in a case is the judge who actually decides on the alleged abuse or neglect in a trial.
But Green, presiding over a pre-trial hearing, went off script. As the court heard testimony via speakerphone from Nadia’s therapist, she asked if the therapist could be available to see them in family therapy. Yes, was the reply, at least twice before March 14.
So Green ordered the counseling that had not been ordered earlier in the case, when months of family separation might have been avoided. But since no professional had yet spoken with the mom about her anger response, she also approved the request to keep Nadia in foster care until the March 14 court date.
Like most cases, this one is hardly as clear cut as this description suggests. Nadia’s therapist worried about rushing her back home, more out of concern for Nadia’s stability than her mother’s. DHHS said that Nadia had recounted other instances of being hit with a wooden spoon, assertions Nadia did not correct when she was questioned by Judge Green.
But it’s impossible to know if some early help for Nadia’s mother could have staved off a removal during which Nadia alleges she was assaulted in a shelter. The decision by the DHHS worker that removal should happen, which the court had yet to agree with, effectively stopped any real effort to keep them together.
After Judge Green gaveled the hearing to a close, attorneys for all parties quickly chatted with their clients. Nadia’s mother, who had stared straight ahead in silence throughout the proceeding, gathered her briefcase full of paperwork.
Before she walked out the door, she held her daughter in a long embrace, whispering to her as Nadia nodded forlornly. The 15-year-old wouldn’t be going home today.
*Nadia’s real name has been changed to protect her privacy.
This story is a part of a new Chronicle series called “Hearings,” where our reporters and guest contributors provide an inside look at how child welfare courts function.
In about half the states in the country, child welfare proceedings are closed to the public and media – despite the fact that they are places where children enter foster care; where families are ripped apart, sometimes put back together and otherwise – through adoption – made anew.
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