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Michigan Judge Sends Kids to Detention because they Refuse to Visit their Father

A Family Division judge in Oakland County, Michigan’s Sixth Circuit Court has just gained national infamy by locking up three siblings, ranging in age from 9 to 15, because they refused to visit their father.

The facts of the case, as they are being reported in the media, indicate that the family lives in Oakland County’s richest community, but after prolonged battling following a testy divorce, the children are refusing to go on visits with their father. The judge ordered the mother to make the kids go on these visits, and threatened the mother with sanctions if she didn’t make them go on parenting time visits. Then, when the kids were still resisting this, the judge ordered them to visit the juvenile detention center, attend criminal court hearings, and otherwise threatened them. When they still refused, she detained them on the basis of refusing to obey her court order. That was, she said, contempt of court.

Those are the background facts. But it gets worse.

In court hearings, this judge told the children they were like Charles Manson, the cult leader serving a life sentence in prison. When the oldest sibling, 15 years old, said he did nothing wrong, the judge responded with “You’re supposed to have a high IQ, which I’m doubting right now because of the way you act,” the judge said. “You’re very defiant. You have no manners … There is no reason why you do not have a relationship with your father.

The boy tried to explain that his father had hit his mother and that was the reason he and his sisters did not want to spend time with him. But that didn’t seem to matter to the judge. She was more concerned, apparently, with having her orders followed. Ultimately, she ordered the three children into a county detention facility until they started visiting their father or until they turned 18.

Since I worked in this Family Division of the Circuit Court for more than 30 years of my career, I know something about this judge and this court.

What do I know?

I know that in 2013, after 12 years of a program for high-conflict divorce couples, the county withdrew funding for this program, which had worked with several hundred high-conflict divorce couples. I happen to have run this program with another court psychologist, Mary Seyuin. By various measures, this was a successful program, but it was cut in an effort to reduce the court’s budget.

I know that because of those budgetary problems in the last five years or so, various court programs were slashed. One of the programs that ultimately was cut was the Circuit Court Psychological Clinic — a clinic that provided assessment and treatment services to children and families in the Family Division for more than 50 years. In the end, all of the senior psychologists and experienced clinicians were encouraged to retire or forced out. None remain. Because of that, I think I know that this judge did not consult any experienced psychologists in the Court’s bare-bones clinic.

I know that my colleagues and I wrote a book a few years ago about high-conflict divorce. It had a chapter on parental alienation and that chapter spelled out some of the alternatives when children are refusing to visit with their parents. None of those approaches mentioned threatening children or locking them up. I don’t know this, but I suspect, that this judge is either not aware of this book and probably has not read it.

I know that the Sixth Circuit Court, up to about 2006 or so was very good about offering training and professional development classes and workshops for the staff. Many of those professional development workshops were mandatory, and often they dealt with different aspects of the growth and development of children. Guess who never attended? That’s right! Rarely, if ever, did judges attend. That always struck me as odd since they were the decision-makers in the juvenile court. I don’t know, but maybe most of them believed they didn’t need to know about child development – only about the law.

After thinking about this judge’s decision to rip these kids out of their mother’s home and put them in a county residential facility, there are a few things that stand out to me about her choice:

  • There is no evidence that threatening and bullying kids is effective.
  • There is no research that says that scared straight programs work. Sending kids on a jail tour or a juvenile detention tour, or having them attend criminal court hearings does not work – there is no research that supports this. In fact, since the Sixth Circuit Court has used jail tours for juveniles for about 20 years, I did research on scared straight and modified scared straight programs and presented my findings to the court. My results were also published in professional journals. The results of this were clear to me. No one on the administrative or judicial level of the Sixth Circuit Court was interested in the research or paid any heed to it. Even today, their compulsory jail tours for juveniles those programs continue, despite the fact that my colleagues and I strongly recommended they be discontinued. In addition, when the sheriff’s deputies who conducted the jail tours were found to be abusive, harsh and overly zealous when giving juveniles a “taste “ of how bad jails (and, presumably, corrections officers are), the Court still ordered kids to go through the program.
  • Locking kids up in detention has detrimental effects on kids. Kids who come into the juvenile justice system are more likely to be involved in delinquency in the future. But, over and above that, minors who get incarcerated are much more likely to be involved in future delinquency. Almost everyone knows this – except, obviously, some juvenile court and family division judges.
  • Degradation ceremonies in juvenile courts are a poor substitute for effective decision making. When judges call out kids in hearings, referring to them as being like Charles Manson or referring to them as not very bright, this is a degradation ceremony. This is the worst kind of labeling and is sure to affect the self-esteem and the future psychological adjustment of children.
  • High-conflict divorce programs have a chance of changing some of the worst couples who are in engaged in prolonged and bitter conflict. Such programs, when properly run, increase civil, effective communication between divorced or estranged parents, improve the consistency of handling of children between parents, teach parents about the great harm done by parent alienation, and help parents recognize the damage their conflict does to their children (which include increased acting-out behaviors, anxiety, depression, physical maladies, and placing kids in loyalty binds). When those programs are cut because of budget concerns, then judges are left to their own devices. Some are obviously not adequate to the task.

The judge had many alternatives at her command if she had explored the possibilities with professionals who actually work closely with children and families, especially those who know the most about high-conflict divorce and parent alienation. Failing to do this is shameful arrogance – and an abuse of power.

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