Mother of found child takes the stand
ESCANABA — The mother of the 3-year-old girl, found naked outside in Rapid River last spring, left the witness stand in tears Tuesday following intense questioning by the judge presiding over the parental rights trial in Delta County Probate Court.
For two hours Tuesday, Tammy Fryer, 30, answered questions from four attorneys and Judge Robert Goebel Jr., who grilled the mother for 45 minutes before recessing court for the afternoon. The proceedings were scheduled to resume at 1 p.m. today.
Goebel will be deciding if there are legal grounds for the parental rights to be taken away from Fryer and her boyfriend, Michael Lavoie, 31.
The court currently has jurisdiction over the couple’s two daughters, now ages 4 and 5, who were removed from their Rapid River home on March 17, 2017 after the youngest girl wandered naked outside during below-freezing temperatures.
A neighbor’s dog alerted its owner to the child who was found outside curled up in snow in a field. After notifying police, sheriff’s deputies went door to door until they found where the girl lived. Lavoie and Fryer said they had no idea their daughter was missing but thought she was sleeping inside.
The incident led to the investigation of the family’s living conditions. Reports filed by the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and the Delta County Sheriff’s Department, described the residence unfit for the children to live in due to unsafe and unsanitary conditions.
The home was cluttered with food, garbage, diapers, cigarette butts, clothing, and other household items, as well as human and animal feces. Rodents were suspected to be in the house. The upstairs residence, where the family lived, was also under construction posing additional safety concerns.
According to the DHHS petition seeking to remove the girls from their residence, the home presented “a significant risk of harm to the children due to their ages and development” and the family had “a history of abuse and neglect, specifically regarding physical neglect and improper supervision.”
The petition also stated the home had been observed in a cluttered and filthy condition on other occasions and the parents had been unresponsive to previous interventions by DHHS.
During questioning by her attorney, John M.A. Bergman, Fryer said the family’s residence in Rapid River was horrible.
“It was like living in a landfill,” she stated.
Judge Goebel questioned the mother about the March 17 incident, asking her how her daughter could have walked through clutter in the house, gone down a stairway without handrails, and exited through doors that were difficult to open while both parents and the other daughter were in their upstairs residence.
“It seems like a magician’s impossible escape,” the judge commented.
Additional questions from the judge focused on the children’s decaying teeth, how often the kids were taken outside to play, and why the parents missed appointments with agencies after their children were removed from their home.
Goebel spent much time on the family’s finances, questioning Fryer if they can afford to rent their new apartment for $450 a month and live on her one income salary working at a local store. Lavoie is having difficulty finding a job because of a past felony conviction.
The judge also asked Fryer to explain where an $8,000 tax refund, received in February, was spent as well as what happened to money the couple should have saved while just the two parents have been living in the home while the two children have been in a foster home for four months.
Fryer accounted for a small portion of the money to car expenses, food, gas, “Mike and his Monsters” (drinks), clothes for Lavoie, video games for Lavoie, cigarettes for the two of them, and a dumpster rented after the children were removed from the home.
Goebel reminded her of court testimony about the couple not being able to afford gas to drive to some of their daughters’ appointments in Marquette. He asked her why she didn’t buy the kids new mattresses to replace their dirty ones and why she didn’t hire someone to clean the house.
Fryer replied, “I was scared that I would lose my kids.”
Goebel told her, “I’ve asked a lot of probing questions here to get a handle on things.”
The judge then asked the mother a final question of why he should allow her to have her kids back.
Fryer admitted to having made mistakes and said she has learned from these mistakes. She has also thought every day about what happened to her younger daughter this spring and what could have happened.
“I want a chance to be the parent I can be,” said Fryer, adding that she wants the family to have its own place where she doesn’t have to worry about other people and can focus on their children.
Earlier Tuesday, the court heard testimony from Jim McNeil, a private investigator hired by the children’s attorney, Jayne Mackowiak. McNeil focused his investigation on interviewing neighbors, most who did not know children lived at the Lavoie/Fryer home in Rapid River for two years. The interviews also led him to two other residences Lavoie and Fryer had lived in and left in poor condition.
When County Prosecutor Philip Strom questioned McNeil why he didn’t interview the family, medical personnel, police, and DHHS employees, Goebel noted that it would have not been ethical for McNeil to interview the family without permission because of the on-going criminal investigation being conducted by the prosecutor’s office.
Goebel invited Strom to have personnel who talked to the neighbors and police who did the criminal investigation to testify in court.
A repair man who went to one of the family’s former residences, testified Tuesday that he notified Child Protective Services when he witnessed filthy living conditions in the home and saw one of the children playing in the upstairs toilet while two adults were on a couch downstairs.
Among other witnesses who took the stand Tuesday were therapists with U.P. Rehab in Marquette who have been working with the two girls, who are both developmentally delayed.
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Jenny Lancour, (906) 786-2021, ext. 143, firstname.lastname@example.org