Judge strips couple’s parental rights

Neglected children now wards of court

Ilsa Matthes | Daily Press Michael Lavoie and Tammy Fryer sit quietly in the Delta County Probate Courtroom as their parental rights are taken away Thursday. The couple has two daughters, one of whom was discovered naked in a snowy field near a swollen river last spring.

ESCANABA — The parental rights of a couple whose three-year-old child was found naked outside in a snowy field in Rapid River last spring were terminated in Delta County Probate Court Thursday afternoon.

Delta County Probate Judge Robert Goebel Jr. declared in an opinion read in court that Michael Lavoie, 31, and Tammy Fryer, 30, were unfit to take care of their two children and had knowingly abused the two girls, who are now four and five years old.

“The opinion is quite lengthy, and had I attempted to do a summary of it, but it did not seem like it did justice to it, so I’m going to have to read my opinion in my totality,” said Goebel, before beginning the opinion, which took more than an hour to read.

As Goebel read, Lavoie and Fryer sat quietly, sometimes holding their heads and at other times, wringing or fidgeting with their hands.

In his opinion, Goebel outlined a number of inconsistencies in testimonies from the parents about their residences, financial situation, and the treatment of their two daughters.

“They have repeatedly lied to the case worker, as well as to the court. More alarmingly, they have committed perjury while testifying under oath. The court does not believe the parents would follow court orders to keep them safe,” he said.

Goebel also highlighted a number of instances where potential child abuse was not investigated. In one case, a thumbprint-like bruise was found on the older daughter’s arm, and in another, the same child’s arm received a compound fracture. The parents did not attend follow-up care ordered by the doctors following surgery on the arm, and there is some concern that the child may have impaired use of that arm in the future.

Both of the girls had also undergone major dental surgeries under general anesthesia for tooth decay. However, Lavoie and Fryer continued to feed the girls sugary junk food and did not brush their teeth, which caused one of the girls to require a second oral surgery.

One of the main concerns of the court was the condition of the home.

“It is next to impossible for the court to describe the filth and danger created by the parents. There was fecal matter smeared on the walls of the home by the children,” said Goebel.

The conditions of the home were directly tied to what Goebel believes is the most serious and unresolved aspect of the case: how a three-year-old could escape the home unnoticed and walk 100 yards in freezing temperatures to between 35 and 100 yards of the swollen Tacoosh river.

To get outside the home, the girl would have had to have opened a door installed by her parents at the top of a steep set of stairs — a door she was incapable of opening on her own. Then, she would have had to traverse a stairwell that had no handrail and was cluttered with debris and garbage. At the bottom of the stairs, the girl would have had access to the front and back doors, but the back door was warped to the point she could not have opened it. The front door was closed and locked.

Even if the girl had made the journey, she would have had to leave her room without being noticed by her mother, who was in the home nearby. Goebel felt this was highly unlikely, as the floor of the girl’s room was littered with so much trash that the floor itself could not be walked on. If she made the trek, the noise should have alerted her mother.

Given those facts and no plausible alternative from the parents or anyone else involved in the case, Goebel said in his opinion that the parents must have placed their naked daughter outside in the freezing temperatures themselves.

“If only one parent did so, the second parent at a minimum knew of this fact and did nothing to prevent it, and has consistently lied to protect the other parent,” said Goebel.

In what Goebel describes as an “Act of God,” the girl was discovered by a neighbor, Kyle Frisk, when his dog — a rescued beagle named Peanut — began running and barking in the upstairs of his home, as if it needed to be let outside. When Frisk hooked Peanut to a line in the yard, Peanut immediately ran to the edge of the lead, looking out into the field where the girl was lying. When Frisk looked into the field himself, he saw a pinkish-gray shape in the grass, which turned out to be the girl.

“Peanut, the dog, stood between (the girl) and death, not her parents,” said Goebel.

It is believed that Peanut could see the girl through an upstairs window as she made her way from her house to her resting place in the field.

Frisk picked up the girl and took her to his mother’s house across the road from his own, where they tried to warm her and contacted law enforcement.

Even after their warming efforts, the girl was still hypothermic when she was medically evaluated. She also had a puncture in her foot, a deep scratch in her back as well as many other lighter scratches, and more bruises than could be counted by the evaluating nurse. Some of her hair, which was greasy and dirty, had to be cut off.

Goebel did not hide his displeasure with the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and the Delta County Prosecutor’s Office, both of which have been advocating for the children to be reunited with their parents. Delta County Prosecutor Phil Strom has testified to having done a thorough criminal investigation and found no criminal wrongdoing by the parents.

“Each parent is clearly guilty of child abuse in the first degree, because each parent knowingly caused the serious physical injury to each child,” said Goebel, citing the lack of action to prevent further dental surgeries despite knowing the outcome and the hypothermia of the youngest daughter. First degree child abuse is a life felony.

The Daily Press reached out to Strom following Goebel reading his opinion to determine if the case will be revisited at the criminal level. No response was received by press time.

In his opinion, Goebel specifically noted the opinion of Tammy Marenger, the DHHS supervisor assigned to the case.

“When asked by the court as to why they are recommending unification given the chronic, long-term, serious neglect and abuses, one answer was, ‘At least they are not total deadbeats.’ The court is unable to find any evidence to support this,” said Goebel.

Typically, children whose parents have lost their parental right are made state wards and turned over to DHHS for adoption placement. Goebel has instead opted to make the children permanent wards of the court. The court will oversee any adoption placement of the children and, at its discretion, may opt to use an independent adoption agency.

“I will not give that discretion to the Department of Health and Human Services,” said Goebel.

Money has been a major issue for Fryer and Lavoie. Despite receiving an Earned Income Tax Credits of $8,000 shortly before the girls were taken and Fryer working outside the home, the couple has claimed financial hardship. Lavoie, who is a felon, has claimed he cannot get a job. During the course of the case, the family spent money on things like video games, televisions, cigarettes, and energy drinks. Lavoie also paid $650 in back-child support for his oldest child, whom he has not seen in six years, after he was jailed for non-payment of support the day the girls were taken from the home.

When Goebel handed down his ruling on how much the couple should pay for foster care for the girls, he took the couple’s past spending habits into consideration.

“At the moment, I’m simply ordering that they pay what they’ve been paying for cigarettes and Monster drinks once a week to the court to help pay for the cost of their children. That’s $168 a week,” said Goebel.

Fryer and Lavoie have the right to appeal Goebel’s decision.