Expert weighs in on parental rights case

Child found naked in snowy field last spring

Tammy Fryer is consoled by her boyfriend, Michael Lavoie, following Fryer’s questioning at the couple’s parental rights trial in Delta County Probate Court on Tuesday. The court currently has jurisdiction over the couple’s two daughters, ages 4 and 5, after one child was found naked outside in snow in Rapid River on March 17, 2017. The incident led to the investigation of the family’s unsafe and unsanitary home. (Escanaba Daily Press photo by Jenny Lancour)

ESCANABA — An expert in child development and child trauma testified in court Wednesday whether a couple accused of physical neglect and improper supervision should be reunited with their two children, who were living in a filthy home in Rapid River.

The expert assessed the parents — Tammy Fryer, 30, and Michael Lavoie, 31 — and their two daughters, ages 4 and 5, in May, two months after the girls were placed under the care of the Delta County Probate Court.

The children were removed from their home after the youngest girl wandered away and was found naked lying in snow in a field on March 17 and an investigation found their home to be unsafe and unsanitary.

Reports filed by the Department of Health and Human Services and the Delta County Sheriff’s Department stated the family s residence was unfit for the children to live in because of trash, dirty diapers, food, cigarette butts, clothing, other household items, and human and animal feces throughout the home.

The children, both developmentally delayed, have been placed in a foster home in Marquette. The parents have since moved to an apartment in Escanaba and are voluntarily undergoing counseling and attending parenting classes, all arranged through DHHS.

Dr. James Henry, an expert in child development and child trauma, testifies in Delta County Probate Court on Wednesday during the parental rights trial of a couple whose two daughters were placed in foster care after one wandered away from home this spring and was found naked and lying in the snow. (Escanaba Daily Press photo by Jenny Lancour)

A petition filed by DHHS removed the children from their Rapid River home because of the parents’ lack of supervision and the residence’s “significant risk of harm” to the children.

A civil trial on the parental rights of Lavoie and Fryer took place for three days in June when the father was among those who took the witness stand. The court proceedings continued this week with additional witnesses testifying, including DHHS workers, neighbors, a private investigator, and the mother.

Wednesday’s witnesses included Tammy Marenger, a Child Protective Services supervisor who assigned two people to investigate the March 17 incident and interview doctors, neighbors, a sheriff’s deputy, and a teacher of the older daughter.

Marenger confirmed the Lavoie/Fryer Rapid River household had chronic neglect and safety concerns.

“I have very serious concerns about these parents,” commented Marenger. “We attempt to do family reunification if we can… but physical neglect and improper supervision are very serious issues.”

Later in her testimony, Marenger said she thinks DHHS has enough information to make a recommendation to reunite the family after services are provided to teach the parents about structure, routine, and parenting.

Dr. James Henry, an expert in child development and child trauma and co-founder and director of the Western Michigan University Children’s Trauma Assessment Center, agrees the family should be reunited. But he also said this should not occur until Lavoie and Fryer have made the changes to improve themselves and the way they parent, as well as provide a fit home for their children.

Henry testified how he observed and assessed each of the four family members in May after learning about both parents’ upbringings and their own personal traumas that account for much of how they parent their own children.

“There is potential for change,” he told the court, explaining the positive bond each child has with the parents is the foundation for every relationship and must be nurtured. He said separating the family would sever their relationships and put the already-developmentally delayed children at more risk.

The older child has been diagnosed with autism. Henry suggested the younger daughter also be assessed for autism.

Henry said the parents have the intelligence to know they have been neglectful. They are also committed to their daughters and could improve themselves so they can be better parents for their children.

What the parents need, over a period of eight to 12 months, is coaching to show them how to build structure, create boundaries, and discipline their children while maintaining positive relationships with them, said Henry.

In addition, Lavoie and Fryer need to receive clinical treatment for depression to understand their own histories, he recommended.

Henry also stated during his testimony that if there was no assurance the children would be safe with their parents, he would recommend termination of their parental rights.