Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Disabled boy at the center of grandparents custody battle with Kentucky

From The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky.:

Steve and Robin Ritter (pictured) say they never wanted to relinquish custody of his severely disabled grandson, whom they had cared for in their Shelby County home since he was a toddler.

But late last year, at the urging of state child-welfare officials, they agreed to what they thought was a temporary arrangement in which Dustin, 11, would be placed in a special foster home for “medically fragile” children, according to the Ritters and records of the case they provided.

They say they expected that after a period of care from foster parents specially trained to handle such children, Dustin would come back home.

Instead, the now outraged couple says, the Cabinet for Health and Family Services reneged on that agreement and placed Dustin in three consecutive foster homes that didn't work out.

That was followed by a week at Kosair Children's Hospital before the cabinet moved Dustin to Our Lady of Peace psychiatric hospital, where he has remained for the past three months.

“It's been horrible,” said Robin Ritter, 46, who is Dustin's step-grandmother. “They cannot provide an appropriate home for him, and they refuse to let him come home to us.”

The Ritters obtained custody of Dustin in 2003 after his parents were deemed unable to care for the boy, who has severe mental retardation, cerebral palsy, seizures and other health problems.

Steve Ritter, 52, who works at a farm equipment business, said their battle with the cabinet has been frustrating.

“Social services think they are God and can play with people's lives and children's lives,” he said. “They've just made our lives a living hell.”
Cabinet officials declined to comment, saying the confidentiality of child-welfare cases prevents them from even acknowledging that a case exists.

But stacks of court records and other documents that Robin Ritter has accumulated detail a long, complicated history of state involvement in the case, dating to when a judge first awarded them custody of Dustin.

Now cabinet officials oppose returning him to the Ritters, with social workers citing suspected abuse and neglect, allegations that the Ritters say aren't true.

Meanwhile, an outside advocacy organization has become involved in support of the Ritters because of what its director says are troubling questions about state officials' handling of the case.

“This kid has been on a roller coaster for the past six months,” said April DuVal, executive director of the Council on Developmental Disabilities in Louisville, who argues that Dustin would be better off with the Ritters. “I cannot, for the life of me, figure it out.

A motion filed by the Ritters' lawyer, Fielding E. Ballard III, requesting that the boy allowed to return to the Ritters' home, has been pending since April 21, three weeks after he was placed at Our Lady of Peace.

Shelby Family Court Judge John David Myles has scheduled a July 28 hearing in the case.

DuVal, who accompanied the Ritters on a recent visit with Dustin, said the child appears to love the couple and ran to them with hugs and kisses when they arrived.

When the visit ended, he clung to them in tears, repeating “home, home,” DuVal said.

The case has taken some unusual twists, including the revelation that a court-appointed advocate for Dustin was posting confidential information about the case on Facebook and allegations by Robin Ritter that a social worker threatened her.

Beverly Hilger, manager of the Court Appointed Special Advocates program in Shelby County, acknowledged the Facebook postings last year but declined to discuss them, saying they were an internal issue.

“The volunteer was removed from the case and reprimanded,” Hilger said. “It has been handled properly.”

CASA, a private nonprofit organization, provides trained volunteers who are appointed by a judge as neutral parties to safeguard the interests of children and make periodic reports to the court. State law requires that CASA volunteers take an oath of confidentiality.

Robin Ritter also has alleged that a state social worker involved in Dustin's case threatened her by saying, “I could ruin you,” according to a copy of a report on an outside review of Dustin's status in foster care. Such periodic reviews are required by state law and are conducted by the Administrative Office of the Courts.

The report recommends that the cabinet investigate the alleged threat and suggests mediation might help resolve differences between cabinet officials and the Ritters.

DuVal, who has reviewed Dustin's files and medical records and interviewed social workers, therapists and others involved in his care, said state officials have provided no explanation as to why Dustin can't go back to the Ritters.

“It is like hitting your head against a stone wall,” DuVal said.
Dee Maynard, a council volunteer and former top cabinet official, believes Dustin's well-being is no longer the central issue and that he's become “a pawn of the system.”

“It's all focused on the battles of the organizations and not what's best for this little boy,' said Maynard, a former cabinet personnel director who lives in Shelby County and has offered to serve as an advocate for Dustin.

Kelli Marvin, director of Forensic Mental Health Services for the University of Louisville Pediatrics Department, was retained last year by the court as an outside expert to evaluate Robin Ritter, Dustin's main caregiver.

Marvin, in her Dec. 13 report, deemed Robin Ritter to be a capable parent and said a review of medical records found bonds between her and Dustin to be “normative and strong.”

Marvin's report said a pediatrician who evaluated Dustin in 2010 described Robin Ritter as a “wonderful, nurturing individual toward Dustin” and that “Dustin seems to respond in kind to her affection and this seems like such a positive relationship overall.”

DuVal said she has written letters to the judge twice, offering proposals to assist with services and oversight for the boy if he returns to the Ritter home. She noted that the child's therapist of four years has strongly recommended he be reunited with the Ritters.

“In all the years I have worked in the field of disabilities, I have never encountered a situation quite like this,” DuVal wrote in her most recent letter June 10.

It's especially troubling, she said, that a child with mental retardation and multiple disabilities is essentially living at a psychiatric hospital — designed for short-term treatment to stabilize children with mental illness — while the court fight drags on.

Allegations investigatedRobin Ritter said Dustin first came to their home in 2001, when his mother, then living in Frankfort, brought the 14-month-old for a visit. Dustin's father — Steve Ritter's son — has been incarcerated most of Dustin's life, according to state corrections records. Dustin's parents were never married, Robin Ritter said.

By mid-2001, state social service officials in Frankfort had become involved in the case and soon recommended that Dustin be placed with the Ritters, according to records of the case that Robin Ritter provided. A Frankfort judge gave the Ritters custody of Dustin two years later.

But in 2006, cabinet social workers in Shelby County began investigating periodic allegations of abuse or neglect — most stemming from bruises or scrapes on Dustin, who wears leg braces and is prone to stumbling or falling, according to medical records.

The Ritters said some of the abuse allegations came from another relative who had sought custody of the Dustin, according to Marvin's report.

The report says that in 2008, social workers substantiated abuse of Dustin — who had sustained bruises — by an “unknown perpetrator” and that in 2010, they twice substantiated abuse or neglect by Robin Ritter in connection with bruises and scrapes he suffered. But none of those allegations has been substantiated by a court finding, according to records in the case. And a physician who reviewed the case found “no indications of medical abuse or neglect,” Marvin's report said.

Robin Ritter said she didn't cause any of the injuries. She said some occurred while Dustin was at school, while others occurred at home — when he was playing outside or climbing on toys — or visiting relatives.
But in late 2010, she said, she and her husband agreed to accept the cabinet's offer to place him in a special foster home for children with medical problems, even though it meant giving up custody.

Robin Ritter said she believed if Dustin continued to get scrapes and bruises in foster care it would prove to state social workers that the injuries resulted from accidents, not abuse. Also, social workers assured her that Dustin would be placed in a home with foster parents specially trained to handle his medical needs, she said.

But now Robin Ritter said she and her husband just want Dustin to come home, where he has his own bedroom, toys, clothes and a pet donkey named Perky.

“We're the only home and family this child has ever known,” she said.