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Lethbridges and youngest children won't reunite


Lethbridges and youngest children won't reunite

March 30, 2007
Jack Kresnak

A Washtenaw County judge decided today that Matt and Jennifer Lethbridge, whose nine children all have landed in foster care, will not be reunited with their two youngest children.

Family Court Judge Darlene O'Brien ordered the couple's parental rights to their 11-month-old daughter terminated, but she did not end their rights to their 4-year-old daughter, saying it would not be in the child's best interest. Instead, the judge ordered the child's current foster parents in Washtenaw County to consider becoming her permanent guardians.

O'Brien said the girl "would have the benefit of continuing to have her parents in her life, but she wouldn't leave the foster parents' home. She would be raised by them."

The Washtenaw County foster parents have expressed an interest in adopting the girl's 11-month-old sister.

The 4-year-old was in foster care in Detroit with her 2-year-old brother Isaac when he was killed in his foster mother's home last August.

On hearing the ruling, Matt Lethbridge, 33, initially broke down and then appeared confused about the implications. He said he and his wife would try to keep a relationship with the 4-year-old through her foster parents.

Six of the Lethbridges' older children were removed from their care after complaints involving neglect. All were later adopted. Isaac and the 4-year-old landed in foster care in 2005, and an infant daughter born last April was placed in foster care almost immediately. The couple's 10th child is due next month. Washtenaw County authorities plan to file a petition to remove that child after its birth.

The Lethbridges, who now live in Canton, had contended that they have matured as parents and recognize why their children were removed from their care. Among the past problems: Their homes were filthy and there were signs of emotional and medical neglect of the children.

Washtenaw County Assistant Prosecutor Stacie Shaw told the court that the couple's living conditions get worse when authorities are no longer involved with the family. "Their history and their actions speak louder than their words," Shaw said, adding, "I don't doubt in my heart that the parents truly love both of these girls," but the risk is too great to entrust the children to their care.

The children's attorney, S. Joy Gaines, also asked O'Brien to terminate the Lethbridges' parental rights.

"I'm clear that they love their children and that they want to be parents," Gaines said, but "with the extensive protective services history, there are more issues than just cleanliness. There are real mental health issues." She also said it would not be good to move the 4-year-old, who is in her fourth foster home, again.

Earlier today, O'Brien heard testimony from Washtenaw County Protective Services worker Joseph Lanczki who said, despite the family's long history of involvement with protective services and the juvenile court dating to 1997, things had not improved by September 2005, when Isaac and his 4-year-old sister were removed from the Lethbridges' filthy Westland home.

"When conditions of the home reach a level of criminality, it's pretty severe," Lanczki said. The couple were charged with misdemeanor child neglect after the children were removed. Jennifer Lethbridge, now 30, served 45 days in jail; Matt Lethbridge, now 33, received probation.

Matt Lethbridge, given one last chance to convince the judge to return his daughters to their care today, said, "We are fanatic cleaners at this point.

We don't even think the old way any more. We are not those people any more."

Jennifer Lethbridge attended today's hearing by phone. Matt Lethbridge said he and Jennifer quit smoking last Friday, though he said he cheated twice after having a vasectomy on Tuesday.

Isaac's foster mother has been charged with involuntary manslaughter and second-degree child abuse in connection with his death, but no one has been charged with the fatal beating. His death was the subject of a three-day series in the Free Press in January that detailed the failings of the Lula Belle Stewart Center, the Detroit foster care agency that handled Isaac's care, and the state Department of Human Services, which supervised the agency.

Contact JACK KRESNAK at 313-223-4544 or jkresnak@freepress.com.

2007 Mar 30