Commentary: Making foster care better for kids

Apr 25, 2012

Recently, I served as the master of ceremonies at the Council on American Islamic Relations annual banquet in Dearborn.

There, I met a family that had suffered an injustice at the hands of our state so terrible it was hard to believe it wasn’t a movie. Ahmed and Rehab Amer were Arab-Americans living a quiet life in suburban Detroit. But in nineteen eighty-five, their two-year-old son died after falling in the bathtub. The state immediately took their other kids away and charged Rehab, their mom, with negligence.

Her brother asked to be allowed to care for the children, but the state refused. The children were given to a Christian family fifty miles away, and their names and religion changed.

Their mom was put on trial and acquitted. But the state not only refused to return their children, when Rehab Amer gave birth to a new daughter, she was also immediately taken away.

This nightmare continued for eighteen years until a physician urged them to exhume the body of the dead infant. New tests showed that the baby had a rare brittle bone disease, and the parents were finally exonerated. But for the family, it was too late.

The Amer children had grown up as strangers who believed their mother had killed their little brother. Too much time had passed for them to be a family again. But the Amers refused to give up.

They successfully lobbied for a law, now known as the Amer Act, that was finally signed into law sixteen months ago, giving relatives special consideration when children are placed into foster care by the state Department of Human Services.

So it seemed that this was at least one tragic story with something of a happy ending. I also believed  things were likely getting better for Michigan’s 14,000 foster children for another reason. Last year, Maura Corrigan voluntarily left the Michigan Supreme Court to head the state Department of Human Services. Justice Corrigan has long cared deeply about foster children.

But in recent weeks, two well-respected attorneys have told me that the state’s foster care system is too often a legal nightmare. Evelyn Calogero is a professor at Cooley Law School on Lansing who often is involved in foster care cases.

Over breakfast last week, she told me that the state’s foster care system needs to be investigated, exposed and overhauled. Because of lawyer-client privilege, as well as the fact that children are minors, she couldn’t discuss specific cases.

But she did say that provisions of the Amer Act weren’t always being observed. When a court terminates parental rights to a child, the state, in the form of the Michigan Children’s Institute, becomes responsible for decisions concerning that child. And she said she had often found those decisions arbitrary and capricious.

That seems to be especially the case in adoption decisions, and Calogero said she’d learned from painful experience that “this process is especially unfair to out-of-state relatives who want to adopt a child in state care.” She believes officials try not to have that happen because there is too much paperwork involved.

What is clear is that foster kids are too often forgotten people, who have lost everything through no fault of their own. I think our humanity and Michigan’s future depends on treating them right.