Child Removal Laws Are Unconstitutional, Hurt Michigan Families, ACLU Charges in Federal Lawsuit

March 24, 2011

DETROIT – In an effort to protect the rights of children, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed a federal lawsuit today asking a judge to strike down a state law that allows law enforcement officials to remove children from their parents’ custody without proving that the child is in immediate danger.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of an Ann Arbor family whose 7-year-old son was placed in foster care after his father, a University of Michigan professor, mistakenly gave him a Mike’s Hard Lemonade at a Detroit Tigers game in 2008.

“Taking a child from loving parents is a harrowing, life-changing experience for both the child and the parents,” said Michael J. Steinberg, ACLU of Michigan legal director. “However, Michigan law currently allows the government to take a child without having to prove that it’s necessary to prevent immediate danger. The law is unconstitutional, out of step with the rest of the county and must be fixed to prevent harm to other families.”

On April 4 2008, Leo Ratté, then 7 years old, attended a Detroit Tigers game with his father, Christopher Ratté, a professor of classical archaeology at the University of Michigan. Before taking their seats, Christopher purchased what he thought was lemonade from a stand advertising “Mike’s Lemonade,” and not knowing that it contained alcohol, gave it to his son.

During the 9th inning, a security guard approached Christopher asking him whether he knew his son was drinking an alcoholic beverage. Christopher explained that he did not know that the lemonade contained alcohol, but the matter was turned over to the police.

While Christopher was being questioned by police, Comerica Park medical staff examined Leo and gave him a clean bill of health. Nonetheless, Leo was sent to Children's Hospital in Detroit, where he was examined, found to have no alcohol in his blood, and cleared to go home. Instead of going home he was taken into custody by Wayne County Children's Protective Services (CPS), a division of the state Department of Human Services.

CPS refused to release Leo into the custody of his mother, Claire Zimmerman, who was not at the game, or to his aunts – one of whom is a social worker and licensed foster parent. The first night, Leo slept on a couch in the CPS building with his parents waiting outside on the sidewalk. The next day, he was sent to a foster home.

On April 7, 2008, with the assistance of the University of Michigan Child Advocacy Clinic, Leo was finally released into his mother’s custody, but only after Christopher agreed to move out of the house and only have supervised contact with Leo.  Soon after, the case was dismissed and Christopher was allowed back into his home.

“This experience was traumatic for all of us,” said Claire, a professor of art history and architecture at U of M. “If the University of Michigan had not helped us, it could have taken weeks to get Leo back. It’s tremendously important for us to challenge this law so that no other family has to deal with the lasting effects of having a child unjustly removed. We tried for three years to convince the legislature to fix the law, but when the bill did not get a hearing, we had no choice but to file this case.”

According to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, the state’s standard for the emergency removal of children is unconstitutional as it does not require state officials to prove that the child is in immediate danger.

In addition, the lawsuit claims that Leo and Claire’s constitutional rights were violated when Leo was taken from her custody even though she was not present at the ballpark and had nothing to do with the Mike’s Hard Lemonade mistake. The lawsuit asks the court to strike down the Michigan law as illegal under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Children’s advocates have worked on a legislative fix to the Michigan emergency removal law for years. Last legislative session, SB 1533, or “Leo’s Law,” was introduced in the Senate; however, the bill died without a hearing or vote.

In addition to Steinberg, Leo, Claire and Christopher are represented by ACLU Cooperating Attorneys Abraham Singer and Adam Wolfe of the law firm Pepper Hamilton LLP and Amy Sankaran.

Read our complaint here