News: Taking Your Kids

When the county plays nanny, families can get hurt

May 30, 2002 at 2:06 pm
Jymi Bolden

Haviva and Michael Horvitz say their children were taken from them despite being in the care of a trained babysitter: their 11-year-old son.

Until 18 months ago, Haviva and Michael Horvitz of Amberley Village weren't uptight parents. They allowed their 11-year-old son Jason to push his 3-year-old sister around the neighborhood in a stroller. But this brought them a visit by police officers.

After Jason took training in babysitting, his parents let him watch his sister and brother. But that got them arrested and forcibly separated from their children.

Now the Horvitzes are fighting back. They filed a federal lawsuit May 16 against two employees of Hamilton County Children's Services. The couple says the county violated their constitutional right to due process in late 2000 by keeping their children from them for more than three weeks.

"They took our kids away for 23 days and we never saw a juvenile judge," says Michael Horvitz.

At issue is a technical interpretation of procedures by which the county takes away someone's children while investigating alleged abuse.

If the parents agree to have the kids temporarily placed with Grandma and Grandpa, for example, they could lose the right to have a speedy hearing to get them back.

But also at issue is a question all parents eventually face: When is a child old enough to stay home without adult supervision?

Ambulance for a Band-Aid

On Dec. 16, 2000, the Horvitzes went to dinner at a nearby Frisch's restaurant, leaving Jason to baby-sit his 8-year-old brother Eliezer and sister Shira, 4.

Jason had experience watching his siblings. He'd sometimes watch them between the end of school and the end of the parents' workday — an hour here, 90 minutes there. He had taken a two-day babysitting class, learning whom to call in emergencies, how to administer cardiopulmonary resuscitation and other skills.

Midway through the evening, Shira cut her finger on a knife while cutting an orange. The cut was big enough to leave drops of blood on the kitchen floor, the Horvitzes say.

Jason couldn't find a Band-Aid for Shira, so he asked a neighbor for one. The neighbor called the Amberley Village Police, who saw the blood and called 241-KIDS, the hotline for abused children in Hamilton County.

An ambulance took Shira to Children's Hospital. A Children's Services caseworker called the children's grandparents, who came from Louisville to take custody of the kids.

"Why the neighbor just didn't give my son a Band-Aid, I don't know," Michael Horvitz says.

The neighbor moved away months ago, he says.

The Horvitzes usually carried a cell phone, but they didn't that night. After dinner the couple went out; they decline to specify what they did. When they came home about four hours after leaving, they found a note from the Amberley Village Police on their door. The note said their children were all right and they should call the police.

"We didn't know what that meant," Michael Horvitz says. "But we knew it wasn't good."

After following a request to visit the station, the couple were arrested and charged with child endangerment, a first-degree misdemeanor. An officer handcuffed them and took them to the Hamilton County Justice Center, where they spent the night.

The criminal case didn't reach Hamilton County Municipal Judge William Mallory Jr. until a hearing Jan. 8, 2001. Mallory heard the Horvitzes' story, called Children's Services and asked for their children to be returned. Two months later, Mallory acquitted the Horvitzes of child endangerment.

During the 23 days the family was separated, the Horvitzes were allowed to visit their children in Louisville. They couldn't, however, celebrate Chanukah or Michael's birthday in their home in Amberley Village. Michael Horvitz says the visits became tougher near the end because the kids kept asking why they couldn't go home.

Warning other parents

These days the Horvitzes have a hard time relaxing when they're away from their three children. They feel tense in the moments before they pull into their driveway and return home, worrying something might have happened to the kids, worrying there will be another note on their door.

The Horvitzes say they have no previous record of abuse, but they did seem to be attracting the attention of police.

A few months before their arrest, an Amberley Village Police officer stopped by their home after seeing Jason walk Shira to the post office in a stroller. He asked the couple if they knew where their kids were, saying it was too dangerous for them to be out alone.

Two days after their lawsuit was filed, someone made an anonymous complaint of a fire hazard at the family's home. Two Children's Services caseworkers and two police officers showed up but found no problems, according to Haviva Horvitz.

Now the couple feels the system is waiting for them to make a mistake and the police are watching.

"Whether that's true or just simple paranoia, I don't know," Michael Horvitz says.

State law prevents caseworkers from commenting on the Horvitz case, according to Laurie Petrie, spokeswoman for the Hamilton County Department of Job and Family Services. But contrary to popular belief, she says, the department doesn't alone have the authority to indefinitely take kids away.

"We don't just remove children from their homes," Petrie says.

The department must get approval from a county court magistrate within 72 hours of taking custody of a child in an emergency, such as when a small child is home alone.

But that rule does not apply in a case such as the Horvitz family's. The department doesn't need a judge's approval if Children's Services doesn't take custody, according to Job and Family Services spokeswoman Denise Winkler. If the parents designate a relative or guardian to watch a child as part of a "safety plan" while alleged abuse is investigated, the department isn't taking custody — and therefore doesn't need to hold a hearing within 72 hours, according to Winkler.

In 2001, Children's Services investigated 5,822 reports of child neglect and opened 1,630 new cases, Petrie says. That year 237 charges of child endangerment were filed in Hamilton County. The county prosecutor's office took 189 child endangerment charges to trial, although some of the trials probably came from cases opened in 2000.

Michael Horvitz says he's suing to hold Children's Services accountable and to warn other parents.

"I don't care if I don't get a dime out of this thing," he says. "This is personal."

When Haviva Horvitz was a 12-year-old girl in New York, she babysat her newborn brother. At some point between then and now the rules on parenting changed, she says.

"And nobody gave me the rulebook," she says. ©