agencies question ruling in Holey custody case
New questions have risen in the custody case of Jennifer Holeys
Liliandra (21 months) and Pearl (9 months) were taken from the custody
of their adoptive parents, Chadd and Tamera Smith of Dewitt, in April,
and awarded by the Oakland County Probate Court to an Oakland County
couple, who are their distant cousins.
35 foster parents demonstrated in downtown Lansing June 5 against
the ruling by an Oakland County judge that took Jennifer Holeys
children away from a Dewitt, Clinton County, couple. Protesters
include Chadd Smith (center), who with his wife, Tamera, had been
awarded the children by a Clinton County judge.
in prison after pleading guilty to sexually assaulting a 14-year-old
girl. After they learned police wanted to question them about the rape,
Holey attempted suicide and her husband committed suicide. His mother
was convicted of assisted suicide.
The two private adoption agencies that placed the girls in the Smiths
custody are both questioning several arguments in the court ruling.
In April, Oakland County Judge Elizabeth Pezzetti overturned the adoptions
by the Smiths, who had been both childrens foster parents until
a Clinton County judge awarded them permanent custody. In her ruling,
Pezzetti said social workers at Lutheran Social Services of Michigan
in Lansing and Lutheran Adoption Services in Southfield had deliberately
misinformed the Oakland couple, Jonathan and Donna Cromwell, about their
Pezzetti wrote in her April 15 decision that the Oakland couple encountered
nothing but resistance from the adoption agencies in their efforts
to obtain custody of the girls, or even to establish a relationship
with them by allowing them to become familiar with them and their home.
The judge argued that social workers repeatedly and wrongfully told
the Cromwells that, as cousins twice removed (Donna Cromwells
aunt was Jennifer Holeys grandmother), they did not have a close
enough relationship as relatives to give them special consideration
under state law. The judge said the social workers advised the Cromwells
that they would have to become licensed foster parents in order to be
considered for adoption.
The question whether cousins twice removed, or a sixth-degree relationship,
would qualify Donna Cromwell as a relative is in the center
of the debate.
Judge Pezzetti argues that Jennifer Holey and Cromwell are cousins and
thus count as relatives. State law not only encourages but also mandates
placement with relatives if appropriate applicants come forward. Pezzetti
said that the social workers treatment of the Cromwells as distant
relatives with no special status was a glaring misrepresentation.
Pezzetti concluded: The blatant disregard by [the social workers]
of the law and FIA [state Family Independence Agency] policy with regard
to relative placements
is very disturbing to this court.
However, the adoption agencies say they were going by the books. According
to the FIAs publication, Adopting a Child in Michigan,
the Cromwells do not qualify as relatives. The FIA manual defines a
potential adopting relative as a person related to the adoptee
within the fifth degree by marriage, blood or adoption. The Cromwells
relationship to the two adoptive children is sixth degree.
Christine Rehagen, a program director at Lutheran Social Services, said
that FIA employees had frequently reminded her agency that relative
relationship was defined as being within the fifth degree range. Rehagen
added : There was no question: If they were very distant relatives
they needed to be licensed foster parents like the Smiths were.
Rehagen said that her agency handled the case according to FIA policy
and is unaware of having made any mistakes.
She also said that Lutheran Social Services wasnt given the chance
to respond to any of the accusations made in court and were not notified
of the trial. The Smiths attorneys also claim that the FIA, the
Cromwells lawyers and the courts never informed the adoption agency
about the Oakland County hearing. Judge Pezetti declined to comment.
As a result of the case, Rehagen said she has requested clarification
from the Ingham County FIA office regarding how the relative status
will be judged in the future. Is the Family Independence Agency
going to go by the adoption code, which says the fifth degree is considered
to be relative, or are they just going to go with the word cousin?
Ingham County FIA Director Doug Williams was unavailable for comment.
Judge Pezzetti based her decision on the testimony of Donna Cromwell,
who criticized the Lutheran Adoption Services handling of the
case. As an example, she said that unlike the Smiths, she was
ordered to undergo psychological evaluation.
In her ruling, the judge said that during the April 4 hearing, Wendy
Odlum, a foster care monitor at the Ingham County FIA, testified by
telephone that this extra examination was a stalling tactic
by the two Lutheran adoption agencies to withhold overnight visitation
rights from the Cromwells.
Kari Mascar, director of Lutheran Adoption Services, denied it. Mascar
said no tactics were involved, and that the psychological study was
actually requested by the Michigan Childrens Institute, which
is a part of the FIA. We contract for the MCI, and so we did what
we were requested to do, Mascar said.
Judge Pezzetti also concluded that a home study conducted by Lutheran
Adoption Services was biased. The judge quoted testimony presented by
Donna Cromwell that a field worker for the adoption agency, Linda Wilkinson,
was excessively badgering the Cromwells about their desire
to adopt Liliandra and Pearl. Pezzeti quoted Cromwells testimony
that the field worker said the girls were bonded to their foster
parents, and that Liliandra had been abused and was fragile.
Mascar, who spoke on behalf of the social worker, said that Wilkinson
was by no means a biased case worker, as the judge alleged.
She said that Wilkinson was selected to make the assessment because
of her 30 years experience in the field of adoption.
Linda was concerned about attachment in this case. So she took
the opportunity while meeting with the family to try to educate them
on that. Mascar added Its unfortunate that they thought
this was harassment. But I think she was doing what she needed to do
to make sure that if the children were placed there, theyd be
able to understand their needs, and meet them appropriately.
Rehagen from Lutheran Social Services confirmed that Wilkinson had been
assigned to complicated adoption cases in the past because she had a
good reputation. I have not heard anything in any other case that
would lead me to believe that Mrs. Cromwell was badgered, Rehagen
Judge Pezzetti also quotes the testimony of an FIA worker, who allegedly
received an e-mail from Rehagen in October 2002 expressing Rehagens
concerns about the way the case was being handled by Lutheran Social
Services. As a result of discussions regarding the e-mail, Luthern Social
Services returned the case to the FIA. Pezzetti mentions that this e-mail
had considerable weight in the courts decision to
favor the Cromwells.
But Rehagen denies having ever sent such a message. She said that she
was taken by surprise to see that she was quoted in an adoption court
hearing without anybody calling her to verify this information.
Rehagen confirmed that she did recommend turning the case over to the
FIA, but for very different reasons. She said that the Cromwells had
contacted several people at the Ingham County FIA. Consequently
there was a lot of miscommunication that was complicating the case,
Rehagen said. She recommended that her staff be taken out of the
loop to end the confusion.
Social workers at both agencies have expressed a concern that Oakland
Countys decision to award custody to the Cromwells may have caused
additional and lasting trauma to the children.
Liliandra was traumatized before she came into foster care. We
are very concerned about her emotional state as a result of all this
back and forth. Shes gotten to be a very confused child as this
point, Mascar said.
Mascar pointed out that it was unfortunate that Judge Pezzetti had no
knowledge of the level of the girls condition, because a child-assessment
study conducted by her agency for the Clinton County court was not shared
during the Oakland hearing.
The Smiths are challenging Judge Pezzettis decision in the Michigan
Court of Appeals. Mascar believes the Court of Appeals needs to act
quickly. She said that if the children were returned to the Smiths
home soon, it would be like returning to their families.
Theyre responding to the move as if its a visit, and
waiting to see when theyre going to go back home to things that
are familiar to them. But the longer it takes, the more damage its
going to cause to the children.
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