Bill in Michigan Would Raise Burden for Taking Children From Their Homes

In 2008, Michigan's Child Welfare system drew national attention when police removed 7-year-old Leo Ratte from his father's custody while the two were attending a Detroit Tigers game. Leo's father, a classics professor at Michigan University, had mistakenly given the boy a Mike's Hard Lemonade, not realizing that the drink had alcohol in it. Leo's mother was unable to get her son back from authorities for three days even though a hospital checked the boy and found nothing wrong with him and no charges of abuse had been filed against her. In response to the situation, Michigan lawmakers proposed "Leo's Law" to amend the standard for taking children from their homes in 2009. The bill died in committee that year, but Sen. Rick Jones introduced the bill again in the 2011 session and the Judiciary Committee is considering the bill.

Update: Public Act 163 of 2012 (also known as "Leo's Law") was signed into law by Governor Rick Snyder in June of 2012. This effectively implemented the majority of the changes outlined in the original article text below.

Current Law

Critics of Michigan's child protection laws allege that the system allows for both too much and too little action on the state's part when it comes to children. Currently, the law allows police to remove a child from his or her parents' care without a court order in certain circumstances-leading to situations such as the one that happened to the Ratte family.

However, if an officer takes a child, the police must make an attempt to contact the child's parents or guardians and in some cases release the child on the parent's promise to return for a hearing, even if the officer removed the child because the situation was endangering the child's safety.

Proposed Changes

The proposed bill would have four parts:

- Standards for police removal of children from parents' custody

- Processes for judicial review of emergency foster care placement of children

- Standards for ex parte (no arguments from the adverse party) court orders for child removal

- Standards for placing a child in foster care before a preliminary pretrial hearing

The bill would change the current law so that authorities would only be able to remove a child from his or her parents' custody if there is a court order finding that the child is in danger. The bill would also set up a procedure for a judicial officer to order placement of a child in emergency foster care pending a hearing if the judge makes written findings that it is not safe for the child to return to his or her parents.

Supporters of the bill believe that changing the law will help reduce the number of needless removals of children from their parents while at the same time giving the court the flexibility and procedures to protect children who are unsafe with their parents.