Rapid River couple loses appeal in endangered children case

ESCANABA — The former Rapid River couple who failed to properly care for their two daughters and lost their parental rights last year has lost their appeal with the Michigan Court of Appeals. The appeals court ruled in favor of the local court’s decision Tuesday.

One year ago on St. Patrick’s Day, Michael Lavoie and Tammy Fryer’s 3-year-old daughter was found by a neighbor whose dog “Peanut” had alerted its owner to the girl outside. The child was found naked lying curled up in a ball in the snow during below-freezing temperatures that morning.

Police were notified and went door to door in search of the girl’s family, who had no idea she was missing from their home. When the girl was examined at the hospital, medical personnel said she had bruises and superficial scratches on her body and she was dirty, non-verbal, severely neglected, and resembled a “feral child.”

Following initial investigations by police and the Department of Health and Human Services, the 3-year-old child and her 5-year-old sister were removed from their Rapid River home, which was determined to be unsafe, unsanitary and unfit for the girls. Rodents, feces, dirty diapers, cigarette butts, and household garbage littered the upstairs residence.

The children were placed under the care of Child Protective Services and later accepted into a foster home where they continue to reside while awaiting adoption.

Though a criminal investigation resulted in no charges being filed by the prosecutor’s office, Delta County Prosecutor Philip Strom represented DHHS and asked Delta County Probate Court — circuit court’s family division — to authorize the removal of the children from their residence based on photographs taken of the home’s condition and the reports filed by DHHS and the sheriff’s department.

The children’s court-appointed attorney, Jayne Mackowiak, petitioned the court to terminate Lavoie and Fryer’s parental rights due to their unsafe and unsanitary home, as well as physical neglect and improper supervision of the two girls who were both developmentally delayed.

DHHS officials, Strom, Lavoie’s attorney Katie Clark, and Fryer’s attorney John M.A. Bergman requested the court to work out a voluntary plan with DHHS to reunite the family, in the best interest of the children.

The court immediately took jurisdiction over the children with the consent of both parents. Following a civil trial which took place on June 7-9 and July 17-21, Lavoie and Fryer lost custody of the girls when their parental rights were terminated by Probate Court Judge Robert Goebel Jr. in a ruling issued on Aug. 10.

Shortly after, Lavoie and Fryer’s attorneys filed appeals on Aug. 14, requesting nullification of the local court’s ruling from the Michigan Court of Appeals. Strom filed an appeal on Aug. 22 with the Michigan Court of Appeals on behalf of DHHS, which sought to reunify the family.

After more than six months, the appeal went before three appellate judges last week on March 6. One week later, the court’s opinion was released Tuesday, affirming Judge Goebel’s order to terminate Lavoie and Fryer’s parental rights.

The appeals court stated the parents “had a long history of living in dangerous and unsanitary conditions, neglecting the children’s needs, and failing to take full advantage of advice and services in the matter. In light of their history, the trial court properly held (Lavoie and Fryer) responsible for their younger daughter wandering from their home in wintery weather.”

According to the background information in the higher court’s opinion, DHHS argued probate court acted too quickly and did not allow the parents enough time to benefit from the agency’s services to help them overcome barriers and reunite the family.

The appeals court decision stated the family was offered DHHS services prior to the March 17 incident, but continued to live in “squalid conditions” and continued to neglect financial obligations while not taking advantage of the agency’s assistance.

“A sudden turnaround was not reasonably likely,” stated Tuesday’s opinion, which also sited the home visit made by the judge, the defense and the prosecution during the termination hearing.

“The trial court visited the home and found that it was still unfit for children even after (the parents) had three months to clean it. The narrow stairway leading upstairs still had no secured railing. The children’s old dirty mattresses were still in the backyard and (the parents’) bed and bedroom were both filthy. The refrigerator was dirty and contained beer, contrary to the case plan’s directive that (the parents) not have alcohol.

The trial court observed empty cigarette packs that conflicted with (the parents’) testimony that they smoked very little. The trial court found that the only clean part of the home was a 65-inch television surrounded by three knee-high stacks of video games worth as much as $60 each.”