Maryanne Godboldo has a relentless determination
2012 NABJ Salute To Excellence Award winner for best specialty reporting, in the magazines under 1 million circulation division.
It is the stuff of nightmares.
Late one afternoon in the modest brick colonial where Maryanne Godboldo lives with her elderly mother and young daughter, she suddenly hears a knock at the front door. When she answers, there, before her, is a police officer who promptly announces that he has come, on behalf of the state, for her daughter.
After months of battling with Godboldo over her refusal to continue allowing the girl to take a controversial psychiatric drug, the state has deemed her unfit to continue caring for her daughter.
Stunned, she finds the presence of mind to demand to see a warrant. When the policeman fails to produce one, she relays that she has no intention of handing over her one and only child. Godboldo informs him from the refuge behind the security gate she has left locked that she is going to call her lawyer. Then she quickly shuts and secures her front door.
Before long, two additional policemen join the rebuffed officer to begin ramming their way into a home now under siege. What ultimately ensues is a 12-hour confrontation between a woman desperate to keep strangers from taking her daughter away, and a police tactical unit armed with automatic weapons, armored vehicles and helicopters helicopters that has been called in to surround Godboldo’s home for backup.
As far removed from the average mom’s reality as this scenario is, that day, March 24, was the beginning of a real-life tailspin into a struggle against police, Child Protective Services (CPS) and the courts. According to Godboldo, it was the day she and her daughter became the latest pawns in a system that profits from dismantling families under the guise of providing human services. It was also the day that cast Godboldo as an unwitting public symbol of the right of parents to have the final say about what’s best for their children.
“What they’re doing is actually destroying families, [especially] the Black family,” says Godboldo. “We know welfare has done that for years. They’ve always said a woman couldn’t have a husband in the home if the family wanted to receive assistance. They’ve always gone after the parents. Now they’re going after the children, separating the parents from the children.”
Godboldo has fought to get her daughter back. But her status as Ariana’s legal guardian hangs in limbo until Dec. 12, when Wayne County Family Judge Lynn Pierce will require seeing a treatment and education plan before deciding whether to terminate the state’s jurisdiction over the girl. Whatever she decides, the emotional trauma and legal drama will continue.
“This is a model citizen in the community,” says Allison Folmar, a criminal defense lawyer for Godboldo. “She has lived in the same house for 40 years. She has helped neighbors to save their houses from foreclosure. She was at home making dinner for her family when all of a sudden the police show up to take her daughter away. She was being proactive and going to different public Wayne County agencies trying to get help for her child. Can you imagine someone coming to your house to take your child, and you’re the one being proactive in trying to figure out what’s going on with your child? That’s kidnapping as far as I’m concerned, governmental kidnapping.”
Still, Folmar says, Godboldo wants to focus on the good that has come out of her struggles. Like the fact that Wayne County circuit court has stopped allowing orders to remove children from their homes to simply be rubber stamped by probation officers. And the police department has clamped down on overstepping its authority to enforce such orders. Now Folmar and the other criminal defense attorneys representing Godboldo, Byron Pitts and Roger Farinha, are pushing for the Department of Human Services to wield greater scrutiny of its CPS caseworkers in removing children from their homes.
That fateful spring day that CPS enlisted the police to take Ariana from Godboldo, the Detroit mother wound up in a county lockup. Meanwhile, her daughter was carted off to a state psychiatric hospital for children to be medicated, for weeks, with a batch of drugs that included the very psychotropic one Godboldo most dreads.
Godboldo got out of jail five days later on a $200,000 personal bond, facing the fight of her life. She had become the target of an array of felony charges for assault, resisting and obstructing an officer in the course of duty, and allegedly firing a weapon that could have kept her behind bars for years.
A community movement began during the summer at Detroit’s Hartford Memorial Baptist Church-she and her daughter are longtime, active members-to generate moral and financial support for the 57-year-old single mother. Her sister, a Hartford minister, Penny Godboldo, helped launch the Justice 4 Maryanne Godboldo Action Committee with help from the church’s Social Justice Ministry. The committee set up the Justice4Maryanne.com website and met at Hartford Memorial nearly every Monday evening from June through October to organize rallies, press conferences, telephone campaigns and other efforts.
As things stand now, Godboldo has made significant legal strides since police converged on her home back on March 24. CPS caseworker Mia Wenk had called Detroit police to help enforce an order to take Godboldo’s daughter that she had obtained from Wayne County family court earlier in the day. In August, Judge Ronald Giles, citing numerous errors and inconsistencies, ruled that the order unconstitutional. It was revealed in 36th District Court that Wenk’s order had been rubber stamped with the signature of another judge who never even saw it. Also determining there was insufficient evidence to prove that Godboldo fired a gun at police as they tried to force their way into her home, Giles dropped all criminal charges against her.
As shocking as Godboldo’s experiences have been, what her child has had to endure is nearly unfathomable. Ariana was forced to spend five weeks in CPS custody at the state-run children’s psychiatric hospital, Hawthorn Center, in Northville when police took her from her home in March. There, she was stripped of her prosthetic leg and relegated to a wheelchair. She was given another round of the same immunizations that her mother says made her ill two years earlier. And she was put back on Risperdal, a mood-altering drug used to treat schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders.
“My daughter was literally fighting for her life,” the girl’s mother says.
The discovery that Ariana had contracted a sexually transmitted disease while at Hawthorn led to an emergency court order in April to get her removed from the institution and placed in the temporary custody of her aunt, Penny Godboldo. (When contacted for a comment about the girl’s experience there, Hawthorn Center declined to provide one, instead referring this writer to the Michigan Department of Community Health.)
Angela Minicuci, a spokesperson for the department, emailed this statement: “We cannot comment on specific cases or acknowledge if a patient has been in our care because of patient privacy laws. However, we take any allegations very seriously and all allegations are thoroughly investigated.”
Godboldo insists that even though Ariana’s right leg was amputated below the right knee when she was just three days old, the girl had never experienced any mental problems until she was given immunizations in 2009. “My daughter has had a very full life,” says Godboldo. “I have spent all of her lifetime helping her to become independent.”
First fitted with a first prosthetic leg by the time she was a toddler standing up and about to learn to walk, Ariana’s disability didn’t stop her from participating in many activities other kids enjoy, like piano lessons, horseback riding, singing in the church choir and the annual Christmas cantata. She even followed in the footsteps of her former professional dancer mother and was part of Hartford’s dance ministry. There, to provide financial, in-kind and emotional support all along has been her father, a self-employed vendor and jazz musician named Mubarak Hakim. Though he and Godboldo never married, they now vehemently fight side by side to have Ariana reunited with her mother.
“She’s the mother of my daughter,” says Hakim, who visited Ariana daily while she was at Hawthorn. “Whatever our daughter needs, she’s right on top of it, always has been. If something where to happen to her, what would happen to my daughter? I’m going to continuously be there to support her and to support our daughter because that’s the way it’s supposed to be. The police and the Child Protective Services and even Hawthorn had no business getting into our lives.”
Godboldo’s descent into the snare of complicity she charges exists between government institutions, private agencies and pharmaceutical interests all feeding off each other began when Ariana decided two years ago that she wanted to return to school. She had gone to private schools from first through third grade, where, according to her mother, “She was one of the best spellers and readers in her class.” Godboldo homeschooled her daughter from third through fifth grade.
When Ariana approached her mother about school, Godboldo agreed and took her to a pediatrician to get the immunizations she needed to start sixth grade at a local Montessori. After that, Ariana became withdrawn and fearful and struggled with her schoolwork. Her skin also broke out and she gained 30 pounds.
“I went back to the pediatrician three times,” says Godboldo. “[The doctor] just gave a complete physical examination and said she was in good health and good spirits. My daughter gets the immunizations, and we’re back in your office some weeks later.”
Upon referral, Godboldo took her daughter to New Oakland Child-Adolescent and Family Center in Livonia. It was at New Oakland where Risperdal was prescribed. “I actually tried the medication. She became worse,” Godboldo shares. “She was confused and became extremely agitated and could not function.”
Godboldo then took her daughter to a nonprofit family services agency called The Children’s Center, where she says she was advised to have Ariana put in an institution. Fed up with having her daughter deemed mental ill, Godboldo says, by August 2010 she began taking Ariana to respected medical doctor and allopath, Dr. Margaret Betts.
“We took six months to wean my daughter off the medication,” she says. “As soon as I weaned her off, I told that doctor [at the Children’s Center].” Staff at New Oakland that alerted CPS, setting the Godboldo family’s nightmare in motion.
Godboldo’s plight has generated widespread support, not only from people critical of behavior modifying drugs being prescribed for kids. Thousands of families nationwide have lost their children to state action, in some cases without apparent adequate cause. This is motivated, many charge, by the federal funds received for each child placed in foster care.
Although poor Black families are especially vulnerable to losing their children to foster care, poor families of all races and, sometimes, even families of financial means, have found themselves susceptible. Take Julian and Thal Wendrow.
Police showed up at the home of the White, West Bloomfield couple four years ago. The husband was accused of repeatedly raping his autistic teenage daughter and his wife was accused of being aware of the abuse and doing nothing about it. Both were arrested, according to their attorney, Deborah Gordon
Their mute daughter had used a widely disputed technique called facilitated communication to reportedly type messages with the help of a school aid that incriminated her parents. When her parents went to jail, the girl was placed in a Detroit foster care home and her younger brother in a Pontiac group home. It took four months before a federal judge dropped all charges against both parents.
Now the Wendrows are suing Oakland County, the school system where their children are enrolled and the Michigan Department of Human Services, in federal court. They’ve already won a $1.8-million settlement in a suit against their local police department.
“We all live in our own little bubble and think this stuff can never happen to us, but it can happen,” cautions Gordon. “We all want to protect children, [but] the amount of power that the government has in the name of protecting children is absurd.
“This is my first venture into the world of Child Protective Services,” adds Gordon, who specializes in fighting civil rights and employment abuses such as discrimination and wrongful discharge at her Bloomfield Hills firm. “It’s tremendously scary when you really peel back the onion and see what they think they can do, and what they can do. The Child Protective Services piece of the government does stuff that no one else would be able to get away with legally. They just have to think you’ve done something wrong, and they can come into your home and take your children away without a court hearing.”
For Godboldo, daring to pursue an alternative course of medical treatment for her ailing daughter was enough to provoke CPS to take her child.
“Unfortunately, it’s about getting paid,” she assesses of a system that is supposed to be a safety net. “This is a money-hungry country, and we have gangster law here in Detroit. They are taking people’s homes, taking people off welfare and actually turning off their lights and water and saying, ‘I don’t know where you’re going to go, but you’ve got to get the hell out of here’.”
She adds, “When parents don’t have a roof to put over their children’s heads and running water and food to feed their child, there’s CPS waiting outside their front door to take their children away.”
Two months ago, Godboldo was finally granted the right to take her child back to the west side Detroit home they have shared since the girl was born. But she still faces significant challenges. County prosecutor Kym Worthy has appealed to get the criminal charges against Godboldo that were dropped back in the summer reinstated.
Says Maria Miller, spokesperson for the Wayne County prosecutor's office, “Currently we are appealing the ruling of the 36th District judge and that appeal is pending. It’s my understanding that the defense has until after Thanksgiving to file their brief. We have no comment because we have the appeal pending at this time.”
The Wayne County Family Court judge who will preside over Godboldo’s Dec. 12 hearing regarding the possible termination of state jurisdiction over Ariana, Lynn Pierce, is the same one who had Godboldo’s court order to have her daughter taken off drugs at Hawthorn rescinded. (A staffer in Pierce’s office says the judge is not giving comments on this case.)
“This was simply about a choice not to medicate my child,” Godboldo insists. “Why would you condemn me and cause my child all of this trauma when I was simply making a choice in the best interest of my child? I have a right to choose what I feel is best for my child, and that’s the bottom line.”
ANGELA G. KING IS A FREELANCE WRITER IN THE DETROIT AREA.