Monday, April 28, 2008

Can institutions learn from their mistakes?

What happened to this 7-year-old boy after he consumed Mike's Hard Lemonade probably harmed him more than the alcohol itself.

Here's the scoop. Leo Ratte and his father Christopher, a professor of classical archaeology at the University of Michigan, were at a Tiger's baseball game three weeks ago when his dad stopped to buy him lemonade as they headed to their seats. Unbeknownst to the father, the lemonade he bought contained alcohol (the sign at the concession stand even called it Mike's Lemonade, no mention of the word "Hard"). Long story short, at the top of the ninth inning a security guard noticed the bottle in Leo's hand and asked the father if he knew it contained alcohol. The father replied, "You've got to be kidding me," but Detroit Police and Child Protective Services didn't find anything to laugh about. The child ended up being placed in a foster home for two days.

I'm the first one to err on the side of caution, especially when vulnerable children are involved, but this was a case of over-zealousness from square one. First, a physician at Comerica Park decided to send Leo to the hospital by ambulance after examining him because the boy complained of feeling a little nauseated. This was in spite of the fact the boy showed no signs of inebriation and had only consumed 12 ounces of the hard lemonade, which contains 5% alcohol. Leo's blood was drawn by the ER doctor 90 minutes after the security guard found the child with the drink and the test came back negative.

Most children aren't too fond of doctors and needles, let alone hospitals. Those factors, along with the ambulance ride and police presence, probably scared the poor child half to death. If that didn't scare him, the decision to have Child Protective Services step in did. Leo ended up crying himself to sleep in front of a television inside the CPS building that night.

It took two days before Leo was allowed to return home to his mother, but his father was forced to move to a hotel while an investigation continued. It was another three days before the juvenile referee dismissed the complaint and permitted Ratte to move home.

I realize we live in a society where everyone feels the need to cover their backside against criticism and lawsuits, but the adults in this situation should have paused to listen to what was being said by other people in authority. The police officer who interviewed the father and son at the hospital was convinced the drink was an accident. The ER doctor wrote in his report that the child was "Completely normal appearing...he is cleared to go home." And one of the child protective workers told Rattke, "This is so unnecessary," before driving away with his son. Key people showed common sense, yet CPS ignored them.

As you might imagine, the Rattke's have filed a formal complaint with the CPS ombudsman's office, and Mr. Rattke even apologized to his son for the "silly mistake that got him into this mess." He also told his son that "what happened afterward was an even bigger error, and I would like to be able to say to him that institutions, like people, can learn from their mistakes."

For the sake of children everywhere, I sure hope so.


Lew Scannon said...

It was pretty abusive of the dad to take his son to a Tiger's game............

Thomas Gagne said...

"It was pretty abusive .. to take his son to a Tiger's game.."

That's damn funny.

I'm unconvinced institutions learn from their mistakes because they're unwilling to make them.

Following procedures or guidelines is never a mistake. I doubt anyone will be disciplined, much less fired, for following procedure.

There are plenty of occasions when CPS didn't remove children that should have, and others that were removed when they shouldn't have.

In any case it's important to remember that in cases of inaction, harm to the child isn't the fault of CPS, it's the fault of the child's guardians--parents or otherwise. It is surely unfortunate, but prosecuting good Samaritans--employed by the state or not, doesn't mitigate or excuse, nor should it distract us from, the original neglect of the parents.

Kathy said...

Lew, excellent point. He should have taken him to a Red Wings game instead. ;-)

Thomas, I'm sure people won't be fired or disciplined either (and I'm not in favor of such actions), but some training is definitely called for to discuss what went wrong and prevent this from happening to another child in the future.

As I recall, a supervisor made the decision to place him in protective custody. I have questions about the procedure. Was the decision made by one person or a team of people? If it was a team decision, did the majority concur? If it wasn't a team effort, I think that needs to be reevaluated and possibly implemented in the future.

In regards to the father, I agree that the security guard did the right thing by questioning him and taking it a step higher, but I still think they blew it out of proportion and scared that child needlessly from that point on. He was separated from both parents for a day and half before being allowed to speak to them. It would have been better to release the child to his mother's care right away that same day and then continue to investigate the father if they still had questions.

abi said...

What a horror story.

Then again, maybe they ought to put alcohol in all the drinks at Tiger Stadium, to dull the pain.

Kathy said...

Spoken like a true Boston fan, Abi! Actually, the Tigers are showing signs of life again. Their fans are hoping for a full recovery.