Dad's simple mistake leads to serious consequences when son is taken away

Relates to:
Date: 2008-04-28
Source: mlive.com

Jordan Miller
The Ann Arbor News

The sign above the Comerica Park concession stand said: "Mike's Lemonade 7.00."

So when Christopher Ratte of Ann Arbor ordered one for his 7-year-old son at an April 4 Detroit Tigers game, he had no idea that he was purchasing an alcoholic beverage. Or that the boy would end up spending three days and two nights in the custody of Children's Protective Services.

A park security guard spotted 7-year-old Leo Ratte drinking the Mike's Hard Lemonade, confiscated the bottle, and took the family for questioning.

The guard asked Christopher Ratte, a University of Michigan archaeology professor, if he knew that he had given his son an alcoholic beverage, and Ratte told him no.

At that point the matter was turned over to the police, following the protocol for dealing with minor-in-posession cases, according to Detroit Tigers Vice President of Communications Rob Matwick.

Leo was sent to Children's Hospital in Detroit, where he was examined, found to have no alcohol in his blood, and cleared to go home. But he was instead taken into custody by Wayne County Children's Protective Services, a division of the state Department of Human Services.

Leo spent Saturday night sleeping on a couch in the CPS building while Ratte and his wife, Claire Zimmerman, waited anxiously outside.

"Obviously, I made a mistake in buying this lemonade, which I didn't realize was alcoholic," Ratte said Monday. "I probably should have read the label carefully, so I'm not critical of the police who were concerned. I just thought they overreacted terribly."

CPS can take custody of a child with a court order after emergency removal by law enforcement, according to Michigan DHS spokesperson Colleen Steinman.

Don Duquette, a U-M clinical professor of law and director of the child advocacy law clinic, said he got a call from the chair of Ratte's U-M department at 9 a.m. the next day. Duquette spent most of that day on the phone, trying to get Leo back into his parents' custody.

The Michigan standard for the emergency removal of children from their parents does not reflect current constitutional law on a federal level, Duquette said, which requires proof of immediate danger to a child. Instead, in Michigan, law enforcement officers have the power to "remove a child whose surroundings are such as to endanger his or her health, morals, or welfare."

Duquette spoke of a bureaucratic run-around, where at one point he was put on hold for over an hour after calling an 800 number that was set up by CPS for quick response to child abuse crisis situations.

A court hearing was scheduled for that Monday afternoon, and Leo was taken to a foster home in an undisclosed location. At the hearing, the judge was prepared to take the advice of the assigned case worker, who recommended that the case be extended for a week pending investigation, standard protocol in emergency custody cases.

It was only when the state said that they were not interested in pursuing the case that the judge released Leo to his mother, on the grounds that he have no contact with his father, who would have to stay in a hotel until the matter was cleared.

Duquette said that cases of unwarranted emergency removal are common, and "one of the main problems with our child protection system is that it doesn't nicely differentiate between cases where there's serious harm and cases where there's not."

He said that the fact that Ratte and Zimmerman got their son back so quickly is the unusual part, and due only to the fact that they had sophisticated legal counsel.

Ratte said that he and his wife know that they were lucky to have the resources of the U-M behind them.

"Class has something to do with the fact that the child was only in care for two days," Duquette said. "What the referee said was that she would have kept the case for at least a week while the department completed the investigation. ... If you're not sophisticated, the system isn't set up to give you very much of a chance to work against the ritual that's ordinarily done."

It took three more days for the judge to dismiss the complaint, allowing Ratte to return to his home, and only after Leo and his 12-year-old sister, Helena, were taken back to Detroit for further interviews.

Ratte said that Leo is doing well now.

"He described it as really weird, and said that he wanted to put it all behind him, and we do too," Ratte said. "But we explained to him that we're not ready to close the book on it quite yet. ...

"It's an extraordinary power to delegate to the state to remove parents from the children. And yes, it was really awful, and we just hope our story can highlight the overreactions authorities sometimes make so that better guidelines can be instituted for the excercise of this power."

Jordan Miller can be reached at jmiller@annarbornews.com or 734-994-6679.

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