Anne Stanton 10/26/09
When the Express ran a cover story of Archie Kiel growing medical marijuana plants in Antrim County, people overwhelmingly responded with letters and phone calls with their own stories of marijuana and the law.
The following story is about the late Trevor Coddington and his odyssey through the Grand Traverse County probate system. It is by no means typical, but does show the consequences that attach not only to the child, but also to the family.
Part II is coming in November.
By Anne Stanton
Dan Coddington opened his door to his home in Traverse Citys central neighborhood, where he was babysitting his two-year-old granddaughter. She gleefully showed off her new coloring book.
Dan was not so happy.
Over on the counter were two cardboard boxes filled with papers that reflected the legal and financial challenges that began when his late son, Trevor, was caught smoking pot six years ago.
Trevor entered the Grand Traverse County probate court system for possession of marijuana at the age of 14. He was in and out of court-ordered drug rehabilitation for 15 months. His treatment and court fines added up to $53,054 and his divorced parents were billed the amount due, nearly $26,000 apiece. The total bill was later reduced by $8,593.
Two years ago, Trevor died in a car accident at the age of 19, but the bills just kept coming.
Recently, Dan and his ex-wife settled a wrongful death lawsuit for a low six-figure award. It sounds like a lot of money, but after splitting it and paying the attorney fee, Dan, an appraiser, said it wont go very far. Ive come close to foreclosure twice in the last two years.
The good news? The court, last week, forgave the bulk of the fees due to the fact that Trevor, at the time of his death, had been making progress toward his goal of earning a diploma (he just needed one more half hour of class time) and was working.
PARENTS MUST PAY
Dan, when notified by the Express, was relieved.
Yet Trevors story illuminates a fact few people know. Under Michigan law, parents must pay the court, counseling, drug testing, and rehabilitation bills of their wayward child, unless their income qualifies them to pay less.
Theyve just decided to stab the parents of kids. It doesnt make sense. I can understand if youre an adult, and you have to pay. But to make parents pay for kids. That doesnt make sense, said Dan, who objected to the long-term rehabilitation for smoking potwhat millions of adults and youths have also done. (Dans ex-wife has never objected to the bill and has sent in payments on time.)
Probate Judge David Stowe, who oversees the 13th Circuit Court Family Division, said that he tries to ensure payments fit what the family can afford based on a very lenient sliding scale. The courts mission is to get a youth back on track, not to cause hardship.
I want to dispel the sense that families are victimized or punished; thats the last thing Id do, Stowe said.
The average monthly payment we receive is $25 a month. Very seldom do we receive more than $75 a month. Very often, we accept payments as low as $5 a month.
Stowe also reduces the amount of money if and when the youth makes progress toward specific goalssuch as completing a class or finding a jobby his or her next court date.
And from the courts point of view, it should be the responsibility of the parentsnot the county taxpayersto pay for a youths rehabilitation, said Cheyrl Church (thats the correct spelling), who is in charge of probate court collections.
The fees range, but families have been hit with fees of over $100,000, said Stowe, emphasizing that the court considers the familys ability to pay. In fact, the Probate court has written off about $850,000 in the last three years for nearly 7,000 youth. People in this county might be upset if they knew how much of the cost is shifted to them each year, Church said.
In fact, the states entire court system has a collection problem.
There are hundreds of millions of dollars in unpaid court costs, fines, assessments, restitution to victims, and cost of care. Thats to date and over a period of years, said Marcia McBrien, spokeswoman for the state Supreme Court.
The state has set up a committee to improve the collection performance.
Its not just about increasing revenues. Respect for the court needs to be held, and fees are part of the punishment. People shouldnt feel free to flaunt their fees, she said.
Trevor was two years old when his parents divorced in 1991. His father, Dan Coddington, took sole physical custody.
Dan moved in with his parents, Pat and Dwight, who ran Coddington Cleaners at the time. When Trevor was 8, Dan was able to buy a house in Traverse City, right next door.
Dan was proud of raising Trevor mostly by himself. He coached his elementary and Pop Warner football teams, and put him in Cub Scouts and Little League. Trevor, a redhead who often wore a baseball cap, was also a whiz at Soduko puzzles. He earned Bs and Cs, with his teachers often saying he wasnt working up to his potential. On the weekends, hed fish in the Boardman River and play paintball.
Both Dan and his ex-wife found new relationships. Dan began dating Shelley when Trevor was in kindergarten and they married in 1997. Two years later, his ex-wife remarried.
When Dan tied the knot with Shelley, Trevor, 8, began to act out, having had his dad to himself for so long. He had constant headaches and argued with his dad. When he was 13, his mother invited him to move into her Traverse City home, and, shortly afterward, they relocated to Kansas. During his two years with his mother, he went from a troubled youth to nearly impossible. According to a court document that Dan provided to the Express, Trevor told probation officer Janet Kronk that he was drinking every night in the spring and summer in Kansas and getting high once a week. He was also experimenting with mushrooms, Oxycotin, and lithium pills.
Dan said he knew he faced a handful when Trevor returned in June of 2003. And he was right. Trevor decided to move in with his grandparents next door a month after he returned home. But the calm home of his grandparents wasnt enough to keep him out of trouble.
In August of 2003, Trevor, 14, went down to the Boardman River to smoke with his friends. A policeman, on patrol, walked up to us. I had everything on metwo glass bowls, a bag of marijuana, and my lighter, and I handed it all over to him, he later told Mike Stein, who was director of the Family Division court at the time.
Trevor told the probation officer that he and his dad were having arguments and physical altercations; they werent able to get along at all, and (Dan) was critical of everything he did, according to the court file.
In September, Trevor got in trouble again. He went to a friends house for a party. We were drinking, and I got tired of everyone being loud and rowdy and bouncing around. I went out in the backyard and laid down and went to sleep or passed out. Next thing I knew (at 3:30 a.m.), someone was kicking my shoulder and there was a flashlight shining in my eyesit was a police officer. He took me out to his car and gave me a BAC test, gave me a minor in possession ticket, and took me to my house.
Although Trevor described himself as energetic, funny, straightforward, his parents saw him as grumpy, can have an attitude, wants everything to revolve around him.
His grandmother, Pat, said that at root, Trevor felt inferior to his peers because he wasnt that good in school, and didnt believe that either of his parents really loved him. He had told her once that his mom would take away his gifts and sell them when he behaved badly.
Theres a strictness and then a strictness. You have to be able to listen to both sides of the story. Their side. I think thats part of it. He felt that his mom didnt love him, that nobody loved him. We would say, your dad most certainly does love you.
With the arrest began trips to the courthouse, meeting with the probation officer and referee.
After Trevor was caught a second time with marijuana, Dan and Trevor voluntarily agreed to enter drug court instead of going the traditional route of probate court in which you go to school, meet with a counselor, and possibly take drug tests.
Drug court, although voluntary (but not in all counties) is far more intensive, but also more effective. Each week, the youth must attend a court review hearing, a probation meeting, a drug group meeting, and take random drug tests. They also must get substance abuse counseling, attend AA meetings, and attend youth activity and parent support group sessionsand go to school. Despite all this attention, Trevor was caught again with marijuana and cigarettes in November and January.
Youth who fail drug court are often taken out of the home and sent to residential treatment, the expense of which can be extremely stressful to parents.
And thats what happened to Trevor. From February of 2004 until May of 2005, Trevor lived mostly away from homeat Recovery High in Charlevoix, the Muskegon River Youth Home in Evart, and Bay Pines in Escanaba.
Although a court official said parents do have a say in determining treatment, Dan said he didnt.
I had no say in his treatment at all; my influence was out the door, Dan said. I had no influence, no matter what I said or tried to do. Everything I said, they decided to do something else. They said, Were sending you to Muskegon River, youre gone. Just took him. They didnt give me any say whatsoever. Same when they take him to Escanaba as when they took him to Recovery High. They never told me there was going to be a fee. That I was going to pay for it. They just sent me the bill.
Trevors first stay at Recovery High wasnt successful. During most of his stay, he was angry and focused on his release date. In a court update, he was described as so defiant that he had to do his schoolwork in a separate office.
According to court documents, a Recovery High employee punched Trevor in the chest, prompting Stowe to stop sending juveniles there for the next three years.
On the positive side, his dad went up to visit him every weekend, and they began getting along. Dan said he told him that it was important he get his act together so he could come home. He significantly improved his behavior after meeting with Janet Kronk, his probation officer, according to a letter.
After his release from Recovery High in May, Trevor was placed in an area group home for troubled kids (Dan said Stowe originally promised he could go home). Pat Coddington said that decision was a terrible one for her fragile grandson who should have been sent back home. He needed to be around untroubled kids, and the boys in the group home were caught stealing alcohol the same week Trevor was there.
Trevor was removed from the home and went to live with Dan. But he flunked more random drug tests and was sent to Muskegon River Youth Home at the end of July while they figured out where he should go.
He was miserable and wrote to his dad: I dont think I can go 90 days from home or from my family and friends. I cant even stand being here not knowing when I get to leave. Its hard. When I know when I get to go home its a lot easyer.
In August, Trevor was placed at Bay Pines in Escanaba for an indefinite period. Dan said that during his visits, Clifford Peach, a group counselor questioned why Trevor was there. Dan said he told him the facility was really intended for violent youths and sex offenders, and Trevor was neither one. Officials at Bay Pines declined comment, but its brochure shows it includes a substance abuse program for teen boys.
But as much as Dan insisted Bay Pines was the wrong place for Trevor, he also says its where he did best. Even through it was a lockdown facility, steel doors, you couldnt go on the outside, he got along, people liked him. He just goes through the motions and gets it done.
Pat Coddington said that Stein intensely disliked Dan, who was often angry at the court, and wonders if thats why Trevor was sent away for so long.
Mike Stein was supposed to be objective and he wasnt, she said. They would clash and Trevor was in the middle and thats not right.
Stein did not return a phone call for comment.
Stowe, who depends on staff research and recommendations, said he gained far closer oversight of his caseload after Stein left in March of 2007. He has not hired a director since then.*
DRUG COURT CONTROVERSY
Dan believes the conflict between Stein and Stowe distracted them from the juveniles. If he had to do it over again, Dan said he would have put Trevor into the traditional probate court, which is less intense and faster to get through.
Stowe countered that drug court, which is voluntary in Grand Traverse County (but not all counties) is far more effective for long-term sobriety and cites statistics that reflect the courts growing success.
Stowe said when he was sworn in nine years ago, there were close to 600 kids on probation at any given time. He and his staff have reduced that number to 150. The drug court program holds juveniles accountable for their mistakes, with very close oversight and counseling. Some kids take drug tests every day.
There are a lot of amazing things that can be said about the court now. I just swore in 25 volunteers, and our drug court for juveniles is one of the largest in the state; our recidivism is at an all-time low. We approach every one of them with a strength-based approach.
Stowe said the court now puts juveniles into residential treatment for short periods, and only for serious offenses. And youth are put directly back in the home (unless its unsafe). They will ultimately return to the community and must acquire the tools to succeed.
If a teen gets caught with drugs or alcohol, enters drug court, takes part in the activities they offer (bowling, golf, Frisbee golf), makes good grades, and passes all the drug tests, the parents bill is only about $1,500something they could reasonably expect their child to earn. The whole issue could wrap up in about seven months (although usually its a year), lesson learned. If all went perfectly smooth in the traditional family court division, the youth would finish in about four months, said Greg Brainard, the courts therapeutic programs coordinator.
But if the teen fails the drug tests or misses appointments, treatment and oversight escalate. In theory, a youth can stay in drug court until the age of 21, although thats rare, Brainard said.
If a parent is too poor to afford the court fees, they must attend a show cause hearingwhen the judge determines whether to reduce the fee. On these days, the court is lucky to get $450 out of $100,000 that was billed to parents, Stowe said.
The parent does have the optionafter their teen reaches the age of 18to shift the burden to their child and many do.
Trevor was released from Bay Pines on June 2, 2005. The next month, Judge Stowe granted Dans request to reduce the amount he had to pay from $23,957 to $15,365. (This was after Dans arrest for failing to make timely payments).
Meanwhile, it was clear that Trevor wasnt rehabilitated.
In August, Trevor was riding in a car at 1:30 in the morning, that was driven by his friend. A deputy stopped it for a broken headlight, and found a small amount of marijuana in the cars console. Trevor said he had put it there. The officer asked Trevor if hed be willing to work undercover for the Traverse Narcotics Team, but Trevor said nohe didnt want to create problems for others.
The next year, in February, he was a passenger in a car that was stopped by police. The driver was drunk, and so was Trevor. He was later found guilty as a minor in possession of alcohol. In March, Trevor was caught at West Senior High with a tin of marijuana in his back pocket and a pack of cigarettes. He was expelled and pled guilty for using marijuana in April and fined $894.
Yet during this time, Trevor remained connected to his family. He had reconciled with his dad, and was living on and off with him and/or his grandparents. His grandparents often gave him a ride to his job at Hooters where he worked as a prep cook.
In October of 2006, Trevor and Dan appeared together in front of Stowe to again ask for a reduction of the bill.
Dan told the judge that his payments were very difficult to make. His appraisal business had dropped significantlyin part, because of his every other week trips to see Trevor in Escanaba. He also believed that the court should pay the bill since it was the courts decision to send him to such lengthy rehab for no greater offense than possession.
Stowe recalled that he was optimistic at the hearing since Trevor had completed rehab and had paid the fees for his drug testing as a minor nearly in full. He told Trevor that he would schedule a new hearing on payments as soon as Trevor could tell the collections department that he had received his diploma.
In December, Trevor was stopped twice and was cited for operating without a drivers license (he was banned from getting a license). The second time he lied about his name and birth date. It was clear from the second police report that Trevor wasnt hanging with the best of people. Police found marijuana under the front seat and drug paraphernalia in the car, including a scale and 110 baggies typically used to package marijuana.
In a little over a years time, Trevor was charged with possession four times and went in and out of jail. Pat recalled that he always seemed to be in jail on his birthday and Christmas.
MORE HARM THAN HELP?
So heres the question: Why after so much time and money spent on rehab, did Trevor continue to use? Was Dan correct? Was Trevor hurt more than helped when he was taken from his grandparents home for 15 months to live shoulder to shoulder with far more serious offenders and other drug users? Did Dans attitude cause Trevor to fixate only on getting out and not getting better? Or is residential rehab simply not the answer for some youths?
No one will ever know if Trevor ever would have worked things out.
On May 14, 2007, a little after 5 p.m., Trevor was in a car with four other young men, who were going to look at a house to rent on Old Mission Peninsula. Trevor was sitting in the back seat of a Volkswagen, which stopped to turn left onto Wilson Road.
A young woman was also on Center Road in her dads burgundy Jeep with a friend. She turned to glance at some pop bottles that were blowing in the wind. When she looked ahead again, she saw the green VW at a dead stop, and slammed on her brakes. It was too late. When Trevor was found, he had already fallen into a coma with a blood clot in his head. Theres a note in the police record that Dan later went to where the car was towed to collect Trevors shoe. He wanted him to have a pair of matching shoes in the hospital room.
Trevors mom flew in from Minneapolis to be by his side, and both parents kept constant vigil. Seven days laterafter being told Trevor was brain dead his parents decided to turn off his life support.
After the crash, the deputies gave a blood test to the VW driver, who was not at fault in the accident, but was driving on a suspended license. He told a deputy he had smoked marijuana that day. He was fined $188 for the blood test and the sheriffs time. Another occupant ran from the scene before police arrived (someone thought he might have had ecstasy pills in his pocket.)
The young woman was charged with negligent homicide, and Dan went to the hearing to ask the judge not to put her in prison (the maximum sentence was two years). But on May 14, the second anniversary of Trevors car accident, the woman was arrested at midnight for driving under the influence of alcohol. She blew a .17 (the legal limit is .08.) Dan and his wife both wrote letters to the judge, asking him to come down with the full force of the law. She was sentenced to 90 days in jail.
Pat and Dwight Coddington miss their grandson, and they keep a folder of the many sympathy cards they received. More than 200 people packed the church for his funeral.
Since his death, Dan has grieved and fumed over the court bills. He has sometimes paid his $75 court bill and sometimes he hasnt. He was arrested again last summer for late payment and jailed for a few hours.
Dans mother, Pat, worries about him, but knows he will heal.
Trevor was his only son. Right or wrong, this is how he feels. It will all lessen with time.
*Stein and Judge Stowe have a history of conflict. For details, go to www.record-eagle.com/archivesearch/local_story_090094013.html. Judge Stowe disputes the accuracy and fairnes of the article, but did not cite specifics, saying the legal settlement with Mike Stein banned him from making public comment.