By Anne Stanton
Back in 2007, with no husband and no place to live, Shirley Vinson knew
she couldnt provide a stable home to her 14-month-old daughter and
newborn son. But now shes in a better place and wants to keep her third
baby, Timothy, born in September.
The formerly homeless 22-year-old woman had originally planned last spring
to give up her baby for adoption. But after finding an affordable,
subsidized apartment in Kingsley, she changed her mind.
But it wasnt that simple. Because Vinson had voluntarily given up rights
to her previous two children, the Grand Traverse County prosecutor,
working with the Michigan Department of Human Services, filed court papers
to make Timothy a ward of the state to be placed in foster care.
Under state law, the DHS has the responsibility to investigate a family
when theres been a voluntary or involuntary removal related to abuse or
neglect; the baby often becomes a ward of the state immediately after
Yet Vinson didnt know that. Indeed, when she was pregnant last summer, a
DHS worker came out to visit her, and Vinson followed up with a call to
the DHS director. Vinson told her she was taking parenting classes,
getting counseling, working toward a GED, and was living in a safe and
affordable apartment. She said, she was told she could plan to take her
baby home if she kept on track.
So Vinson bought a second-hand crib, diapers, and baby clothes. She also
decided to get a tubal ligation immediately after the babys birth, since
she wanted Timothy to be her last child.
But on September 23, one day after Vinsons baby was delivered by
C-section, a DHS worker entered her hospital room and told her that if she
did not immediately sign papers for adoption, the DHS would move to make
the baby a state ward. Vinsons life of bad choices was this long, she
said, and opened her arms wide, and shed only gotten it right for this
long, and narrowed her fingers to a few inches. Vinson has been in court
ever since trying to get her baby back with the help of Lewis, a friend
and advocate (but not a boyfriend.)
In February, Family Court Judge David Stowe will hold a termination of
parental rights hearing; he will have to decide two things. First,
whether theres an anticipatory risk of harm in Vinsons home and,
secondly, if termination is in the best interest of Timothy. The DHS and
Stowe couldnt make comments to the media due to confidentiality.
The Northern Express is not advocating for Vinson in this article, but is
using her situation to illustrate the difficult decisions inherent in a
parental termination case.
Vinson believes with support she could provide her son with a good home.
But the days when the state had a robust program to work closely with
families are over. Michigan, once considered the leader in reducing foster
care numbers by working with troubled families, now has thousands of state
wards, and has recently cut a successful Northern Michigan program that
helped kids stay with families and out of foster care.
Yet everyone from the top DHS director down believesand extensive studies
showthat working with troubled families to keep older kids out of foster
care generally has the best outcome for everyone and costs less, too. But
they also agree that if a child must be removed from a home, the earlier
In this case, as in all termination cases, Judge Stowe must consider
the element of best interest. Judge Stowe said a familys wealth does
not play into his decisions.
Yet best interest is intrinsically freighted with the issue of material
wealth and what usually comes with it: educated parents, stability, and a
clear path out of poverty. Children placed into adoptive homes as infants
also avoid the risk of entering a merry-go-round of foster homes and the
emotional baggage that goes with it.
So isnt it always in the best interest to provide a newborn infant with
such a home and avoid that?
Richard Wexler of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform
(NCCPR) said he often hears that argument, but certain studies say
otherwise (available at www.nccpr.org).
There is no guarantee with an infant that an adoptive home will be found
right away, and that child will be spared the agony of foster care. But
lets suppose, hypothetically, that were true. Suppose material advantage
outweighs everything. Why then wait for an abuse or neglect report? Do we
just turn our maternity wards into a giant game of supermarket sweep and
let the rich people come on in? he said.
We owe our children a just society... Unfortunately, too many places
have turned Americas child welfare system into the ultimate middle class
entitlement. Step right up and take a poor persons child for your very
When a parent is faced with the threat of removal, their best move is to
demand a parent/agency agreement in which they agree to meet certain
conditions set out by the DHS in order to retain parental rights (Vinson
didnt receive one). And they should be prepared to legally challenge the
prosecutor for proof of anticipatory risk when jurisdiction papers are
filed to transfer the child to the state. Having given up your child
previously does not constitute sufficient grounds to make the child a
state ward, said University of Michigan Assistant Professor Vivek S.
Lewis, a laid-off construction worker from Traverse City, took Vinson
under his wing after meeting her in Florida last spring. Two months
pregnant, she was staying with friends in a motel room. He suggested that
she come up to Traverse City and put her child up for adoption with
Catholic Human Services, with whom hed had a good experience with an open
After arriving in Traverse City in April, Vinson visited the agency and
handed over her complete file, wanting to be honest. (In retrospect, she
said, its been used against her).
Meanwhile, Lewis helped Vinson try to find a place to livefirst the
Womens Resource Center, where Vinson found many women were rough and
rude, having abused drugs and alcohol. She got into a fight with one, was
asked to leave, and went to the Goodwill Inn, where all went well. In
June, she found a subsidized apartment in Kingsley, which allowed herfor
the first timeto support herself with her disability check.
Over the months, Vinson confided in Lewis, telling him of the years of
abuse she endured at the hands of her father, who raised her in Florida.
Her drug-addicted mother, clean since 2000, was in and out of her life.
Lewis was horrified when he saw the scars on her deformed arms and hands
(the result of a birth defect) from the times her parents scorched her
with a curling iron and cigarettes in order to get pain medication for
themselves. Her father sexually abused her and also rented her out for sex
with other men.
FULL OF RAGE
At the age of 15, Vinson went into foster care and was -- at that point --
so full of rage, no one could handle her. She ran away from
institutionalized care at the age of 17, and hooked up with Micah, a
security guard. Things went well, until a year later when she got pregnant
with her baby, Crystal. Micah was disappointed she was going to have a
girl and the abuse began. When Crystal was three months old, Micah hit her
in the eye, despite Vinsons attempts to shield her. Vinson pushed her
daughter to the hospital in a stroller and filed a police report. From
then on, Micah wouldnt leave her alone for a moment. Six months later,
Her seven-month odyssey included a journey to her grandparents, an uncle
and friends; but there were often problems and shed leave. The whole
time, Mica (her daughters father) was trying to find me. He said he was
going to kill me, burn my apartment down; hes been a terrorist my whole
She ended up in Utah, where she became pregnant again and had terrible
fights with her boyfriend. Just before her son was born, Micah contacted
CPS and said Vinson had kidnapped Crystal. At that point, Vinson
voluntarily gave up Crystal and, four months later, her newborn son. She
wanted what was best for them and was fearful that Micah would get
Crystal. She returned to Oklahoma City to stay with family. In January of
2009, she was raped and immediately reported the assault to the Oklahoma
City police. She moved to Florida a short time later, and thats when she
After Vinson decided to keep her baby in June, the CHS worker made a call
to Child Protective Services (CPS) as required by law and presumably
handed over Vinsons complete file.
Lewis took up her cause to keep Timothy, believing that Vinson deserved a
second chance. She needs help, no question. She must first learn how to
control her temper. For example, she became angry and abusive with her
doctor, frustrated that he was unresponsive to her problems. So much so,
her doctor fired her. But as it turns out, her amniotic fluid really was
leaking, necessitating an emergency C-section. Timothy was born in
distress with fluid in his lungs and temporary heart problems.
After Timothy was born, Vinson agreed to an open adoption to buy time with
her baby who was hospitalized in Grand Rapids. After she reversed the
decision, he was released from intensive care to a Roscommon couple she
had chosen last spring as the adoptive parents. They are now serving as
his foster parents. If I have to give him up, I want them to raise him.
They are wonderful people, Vinson said.
Lewis believes DHS should instead provide support to mothers like Vinson,
who now lives alone in a quiet apartment. It wasnt her fault, he said,
that she was born in a home of drug addicts; she herself doesnt drink or
take drugs. Secondly, the state is spending money for foster care and
adoptionwhy not spend the same amount of money to support the birth mom?
Finally, and most significantly, Shirley, whos getting counseling, was
never given a chance to prove herself.
SHE NEEDS HELP
Are they saying people cant change no matter what? I dont believe it.
You cant make me believe it. Shirley needs a lot of help; she does. CPS
in Oklahoma and Florida dropped the ball in not removing her from the
frickinidiots who were her parents. But shes getting walked on, and she
deserves a chance.
Vinson said it feels like CPS is blaming her for being abused as a child.
And it seems like theyre downing me because Im not meeting their
standards. I cant be a rich person and automatically have everything
they have. Im not capable of snapping my fingers and having everything.
It takes time for people to get things. But people change.
During the hearing, Vinson will try to disprove allegations from the first
removal with factual evidence, videotapes and photos. She had also wanted
to present videotaped visits at Child and Family Services with Timothy,
but was refused video copiesanother frustration, along with DHS workers
whom she perceives as rude and insensitive.
NO PARENTING MODEL
In the final equation, the childrens best interest must be a priority,
said Mary Marois, the former DHS director of Grand Traverse and Leelanau
When told of the case, Marois said there is more to parenting than having
a safe apartment. Vinson has no spouse. Limited wages. No drivers
license. A lower IQ. She has no family to support her and teach her how to
parent. She subjected her toddler to scenes of violence and bouts of
And learning how to be a good parent isnt simple. It requires that a
child watch for 18 years how a parent writes bills, handles conflicts,
cooks dinners, schedules activities, and soothes tempers. There are
hurdles to raising a child, and, unfortunately, kids who have terrible
parents lack good role models.
Its the truth, but not everybodys the same, Vinson said. I grew up
with drug addicts, but Im going to be better, no matter how much Ive
been through. Ill give them a better start than I had. If I could get
Timothy back, the state can be in my life. Come by here every day and see
Marois said that area DHS workers have been intensively trained not to
mistake poverty for neglect, as sometimes occurs in other counties.
The attitude of Grand Traverse/Leelanau is if the problem is money, then
theres no problem. If youre thinking of removing kids because they dont
have shelter, then we find a place for the family to live. If its proper
clothes, then lets get them clothes. So you would never remove kids
because of a dirty house, unless its a dangerous house with garbage and
feces all over it. That would never happen in this community. said