Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Child protection

Ohio voters failed to legalize medical marijuana Tuesday—a law that could have prevented what's now happening to Hollie Sanford and her family. The Cleveland mom tried to alleviate extreme morning sickness and sciatic nerve pain during her pregnancy by drinking marijuana tea, a substance she tells Fox 8 she thoroughly researched and determined was safer than other alternatives. "THC, the psychoactive element, doesn't reach the baby after it's metabolized through my body," she says. "So it's not like the baby is stoned." But when her daughter, Nova, was born "very healthy" on Sept. 26, per court records, the infant was given a drug test—a test the Sanfords' lawyer says was taken without the parents' consent. The baby tested positive for a non-psychoactive byproduct of marijuana and was ordered removed from her family by a Juvenile Court magistrate, who said there was "immediate or threatened physical or emotional harm," the Plain Dealer reports.

Who's on Sanford's side: the county child services department, which says it only asked for "protective supervision" and that taking Nova "would only serve to disrupt the bond the child would develop with her parents," per a motion filed by an assistant county prosecuting attorney. The department also notes that it often battles Eleanore Hilow, the judge who threw the gavel down, for "rulings disregarding the agency's professional opinion and the opinions of other professionals in the courtroom," per the Plain Dealer. Sanford's lawyer agrees, calling Hilow "ill tempered" and with a rep for "punitive decisions." In the meantime, Sanford hopes her baby will be back home soon. "If people want to say I'm a terrible parent, that's their right," Sanford tells the paper. "I know in my heart that I'm an excellent mother." Nova is now with a family member, who was allowed to take the baby in so she wouldn't have to go to foster care; a hearing is set for December.
Their little girl who they named Nova was born healthy and alert September 26, but soon their happiness was shattered.

Attorney Joseph Jacobs, who is representing the Sanfords, said a drug test was wrongfully performed on the baby at Fairview Hospital.

He said the screenings are run when public assistance or Medicaid is paying for the hospital services but the hardworking Sanfords are not on public assistance and have private insurance.

“They never even asked us,” said Hollie, “They tested my baby’s diaper with the meconium stool.”

A urine sample was negative but the meconium stool, which is composed of materials from inside the womb, tested positive for a bi-product of marijuana.

Cuyahoga County Children and Family Services got involved immediately, despite court records documenting a “normal delivery” and that the baby was “very healthy at birth.”  In addition to that, records show there was "no evidence the child was exposed to THC or suffered from withdrawal.”

Daniel Sanford said none of that seemed to matter at the hospital. “The case worker came in and said 'you guys can leave, but you can not take your daughter.'"

The couple was able to get Nova placed with a family member with the help of their attorney as they continue to fight the custody battle in Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court.

They said Magistrate Eleanore Hilow wouldn’t listen to evidence involving the tea or to case workers who recommended the baby stay with her parents.

Court records show Hilow determined “removal necessary," citing “immediate or threatened physical or emotional harm.”

Attorney Jacobs filed an immediate appeal requesting an immediate/ emergency custody hearing to return Nova to her parents.

He said even CCDCFS workers testified that it would be more harmful than good to take the infant away from her parents.

Fox 8 reached out to the courts about the case but have not received a comment.

A hearing date isn’t scheduled until December.

In the meantime, Hollie and Daniel said they are visiting Nova every day, trying to build and maintain a  nurturing parental bond.

“It’s very hard. We’re just trying to be optimistic and count our blessings; that's what keeps us going,” said Hollie. “I do not have a dependency issue. I am not addicted to marijuana as has been clearly shown with my clean drug tests.”


  1. Sanford — who now lives in the Cleveland area with her husband, Daniel, and a supervisor at the Horseshoe Casino — is allowed to go and visit her daughter, but she cannot remain with her under provisions of the emergency custody ruling, Jacobs said.

    Hilow ordered Sanford’s baby to be taken into emergency custody Oct. 21 following an Oct. 15 hearing about which the parents had less than 24 hours notice, according to Jacobs.

    Jacobs said Cuyahoga County Children and Family Services are not seeking custody of Nova.

    The finding simply warranted protective supervision, Jacobs said.

    “In their (court) pleading, they sided with the family that they did not want to request custody but wanted to be involved through protective supervision so they could keep an eye on the family,” Jacobs said. “They determined the child was safe and there was absolutely no risk of harm.”

    Jacobs contends Hilow ordered an emergency custody hearing “despite the fact no one was asking for one.” And, in an Oct. 23 filing in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Juvenile Division, the county’s Children and Family Services made a motion to set aside Hilow’s Oct. 21 emergency custody order.

    The case started Oct. 9 when Children and Family Services filed a complaint alleging abuse based on the test result from the infant’s first stool — a test done without the family’s knowledge, according to Jacobs. The test found what the attorney termed “microscopic” amounts of marijuana metabolite, a byproduct of the drug.

    “You can use marijuana one day and you can still test positive for it a few weeks later because the metabolics stick in your system,” Jacobs said. “In theory, the mom used marijuana in her tea, and it was later measured by nano-grams.”

    An initial urine test of Sanford and her baby was negative, according to Jacobs.

    In the Oct. 23 filing and subsequent hearing, the agency argued that the family wasn’t a threat to the baby. An agency worker also testified she had no concerns that the family could care for the child, Jacobs said.

    “The agency and the parents are on the same side,” Jacobs said.

    Sanford testified in the same hearing that she would not use the marijuana tea around her children. Sanford further stated her husband and mother-in-law were present on a continuous basis for support and care of Nova and the couple’s 2-year-old.

    “This is a loving family with a very healthy, completely normal 2-year-old,” Jacobs said.

    Jacobs note that Hilow didn’t follow the rules when ordering the child removed from the family. He said based on appeals, this case isn’t the first to have a problematic ruling issued by Hilow.

    He plans to appeal to have her removed from the case.

    “Before you can take children out of a home, you have the obligation to demonstrate a risk of harm to them,” Jacobs said. “There was absolutely no risk of harm to this child, nor can the magistrate create one.”

  2. An infant taken from her parents after her mother drank medical marijuana tea to ease pregnancy and labor pains will be reunited with her family today.

    Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court Judge Thomas F. O'Malley today overturned a magistrate's decision to remove Nova Sanford from her home weeks after she was born -- against the advice of county child welfare workers who believed the baby was safe with her parents, Hollie and Daniel.

    "We're overjoyed," said Hollie Sanford, choking back emotion. The couple rushed from the courthouse eager to pick up Nova and take her home to be with her big brother, Logan.

    An attorney for the county argued last month that it would cause more harm to take the 6-week-old from her parents during a critical period when they needed to bond. The county also argued that there was no imminent threat to the baby's well being.

    Magistrate Eleanore Hilow, who works for O'Malley, disagreed with that assessment and ordered the baby into the emergency custody of the county, citing the mother's use of an illegal drug. The county placed Nova in the home of a relative where her family was able to visit.

    Hilow's decision was among numerous times in the past several years that she ordered children into the county's custody against the advice of experts, guardians ad litem or social workers.

    A county spokeswoman said attorneys for the Department of Children and Family Services had regularly appealed or asked for stays in cases involving decisions made by Hilow and approved by O'Malley that disregarded the opinions of professionals...

    After a story about the Sanford's case ran on and in The Plain Dealer last week, parents, grandparents and other court employees contacted a reporter with concerns about decisions made by the same magistrate in more than 20 other cases.

    The Plain Dealer is reviewing nearly 30 cases decided by Hilow and approved by O'Malley since 2011 that have been appealed to higher courts. The paper is comparing those appeals to ones from the court's other jurists who hear custody cases.

    Hilow has been a magistrate with the court since 2009, though retired briefly in 2012 and was rehired by the court.

    Before that she was an assistant county prosecutor for about 18 years. Hilow has no record of every being disciplined, according to the Ohio Supreme Court.

  3. A Cuyahoga County magistrate who removed a newborn from her parents last month after a mother drank marijuana-based tea for pregnancy pains chronically oversteps her legal authority in child custody cases, according to county children services workers and attorneys.

    County attorneys objected to Magistrate Eleanore Hilow's order to take Nova Sanford from her parents after her mother agreed to not use marijuana. Workers found the baby was in no danger living with her parents, Hollie and Daniel Sanford.

    Attorney Joseph Jacobs, who represents the family, has asked Hilow's boss, Juvenile Court Judge Thomas O'Malley, to overturn her order. Another hearing in the case is set for December.

    Jacobs called Hilow's courtroom "chaotic and tyrannical" and said her "unreasoned, ill-tempered and punitive decisions" were "wreaking havoc on families throughout Cuyahoga County."

    A spokeswoman for Children and Family Services said attorneys would appeal the orders in the Sanford case as they've done with numerous decisions Hilow has made that were then approved by O'Malley.

    "We are disappointed that this jurist regularly makes rulings disregarding the agency's professional opinion and the opinions of other professionals in the courtroom, including guardians ad litem and other child welfare experts," Mary Louise Madigan, a county spokeswoman said Monday.

    A juvenile court spokeswoman said officials declined to comment on the decision in the Sanford case and Madigan's comments about Hilow, who was hired as a magistrate in 2009 after she left the county prosecutor's office.

    Several attorneys and guardians ad litem with cases in Hilow's courtroom told the Plain Dealer she often makes unilateral decisions to remove children from parents or caregivers, forcing them into the county's custody without sufficient, or any, evidence being presented during a hearing.

    Those decisions are often appealed and overturned.

    In one recent appeals case, Hilow had ordered that a child's therapist be removed after she disagreed with her professional testimony that a 12-year-old would be best off with his father, even though the father had been found by police to have marijuana in his home, according to the Ohio 8th District appeals court's decision. The court found that the boy should live with the father and that the therapist should continue to treat him. (continued)

  4. (continued) In another recent case, an appeals panel found Hilow abused her discretion when she held a county case worker in contempt of court, with a fine of $75 and three days in jail, because a family case plan was filed four days late. The county worker showed she had provided the plan to prosecutors handling the case on time. The court said it was the agency, not the worker, who was legally responsible for filing the plan on time.

    In another case, an Ohio 8th District Appeals Court panel said a Hilow decision to ignore a prior appeals court order that a child should live with a grandfather "defies comprehension." The appeals court ordered the Juvenile Court's administrative judge to carry out its order.

    Those cases are among at least 10 reviewed by The Plain Dealer in which a higher court reversed Hilow's decisions in the past four years.

    The court said in one case that Hilow had "laudable goals" but overstepped her legal authority after she ordered that the county remove three teens from a home if they had "even one unexcused absence or tardy" from school.

    Attorneys say she is prone to making her own motions to remove children in custody cases, something other magistrates rarely do. The move often leaves parents and agency workers unprepared for hearings and can infringe on parents' rights if they aren't represented by attorneys.

    Daniel Sanford said this week that Hilow took custody of his daughter from him after refusing to continue a hearing so he could get a lawyer. He was told he made too much money to be appointed an attorney, though he was already paying for his wife's legal counsel.

    "It's extraordinarily unusual and terribly unfair to change the reason for the hearing," said attorney Daniel Margolis, a veteran juvenile court attorney not involved in any of the appeals cases.

    Margolis said a court shouldn't be summarily using its authority to strip parents of custody, especially without all parents represented by attorneys.

    "The court is substituting its judgment for the judgment of the professionals," Margolis said.

    "Especially when there's nothing terribly troubling in those recommendations when a family appears happy and healthy," he said, referring to the Sanford case.

  5. Just when you thought the case of the Tsimhoni children, locked up last summer for not wanting to have lunch with dad couldn't get more outrageous.

    The latest twist came Wednesday afternoon when a group of powerful people hired a plane to fly banner over the children's school this afternoon. The message: Mommy loves you - be strong - #free the kids.

    Someone snapped a picture of the three children watching it go by.

    "If there are concerned groups who really want to reunite this family no problem," said Charlie Langton, FOX 2 legal analyst. "The issue for the court is did mom have any knowledge or involvement in flying a banner overhead. I would say if the mom did and it can be proven, mom is in trouble."

    Langton is referring to Oakland County Judge Lisa Gorcyca, who will likely pursue whether mom was behind this move. Gorcyca's handling of this case has polarized the public.

    After the kids were released from Children's Village, she transferred them to an expensive summer camp. From there, Gorcyca ordered them to enter a five-day reunification program with their father, Omer Tsimhoni, who has since been given temporary custody.

    Mother Maya Tsimhoni who the judge blames for years of parental alienation, has not been allowed to have contact with her children. it's been 112 days.

    Psychiatrist Dr. Gerald Sheiner questions whether that is the best approach.

    "The kids are in the most difficult situation," he said. "Whatever their relationship with either parent was, deep down inside they have to know their parents love them and they have to miss the parent they are not seeing. That's the part that makes you wonder how this is going to be constructive."

    Since Gorcyca sent the kids to Children's Village, many online support groups have formed seeking justice for the Tsimhoni children, but even they call flying a banner a careless act.

    It gives the impression mom arranged it, which would violate both the gag and protective orders issued in this case.

    Insiders tell FOX 2 Maya Tsimhoni had nothing to do with this.

    "It's never ending," Scheiner said. "It doesn't help anyone doesn't bring this to a resolution. If two people, two adults can't sit down, can't get along and do what's best for the children. You run out of patience and run out of hope. The situation is very dire."

    Some say it is a desperate move by the mother, and others suspect the father may have done it to damage her case.

    Maya Tsimhoni previously tried to have Gorcyca removed from the case claiming bias, but she denied the motion.

  6. St. Clair County Chief Circuit Judge Daniel Kelley ruled that Maya Tsimhoni’s motion for recusal was “without merit” in an opinion released Thursday.

    Tsimhoni sought Gorcyca’s removal over what she described as “apparent bias and appearance of impropriety.” Tsimhoni and ex-husband Omer Tsimhoni, from Bloomfield Hills, are locked in a custody battle over their three children.

    Gorcyca rejected Tsimhoni’s motion seeking recusal, and Oakland Chief Circuit Judge Nanci Grant filed an order disqualifying herself from hearing the appeal, pushing it to Kelley’s courtroom.

    “It is understandable that the judge has become frustrated with the Plaintiff,” Kelley wrote.

    “The Defendant and the Guardian ad Litem have filed at least 13 motions to show cause against the Plaintiff, with all but one addressing Plaintiff’s failure to comply with the court’s parenting time orders and directives. The continued defiance by the Plaintiff may to some extent explain her difficulty in retaining counsel. Over the years the Plaintiff has been represented by more than a dozen lawyers with at least seven different law firms filing appearances on her behalf since August 2014. Despite these continued confrontations with the court and the multitude of lawyers representing Plaintiff, there has never been an assertion that Judge Gorcyca was biased or that she should be removed from the case until this past September.”

    Kelley said Tsimhoni’s filings referenced comments made by Gorcyca during hearings in November 2014 and June of this year.

    “These comments when viewed in full context convey a much different picture than when picked apart,” he wrote...

    The custody battle made national news over the summer when Gorcyca sent the children to Oakland County Children’s Village for refusing to speak with their father. Kelley believes Gorcyca’s handling of the case has been proper.

    “While some of the actions taken by (Gorcyca) may seem extreme to those not familiar with the full history of this case, the report from the Guardian ad Litem appointed to represent the children suggests that they were warranted and productive,” Kelley wrote.

    He cited a parental alienation program that the children were ordered to participate in. Within five days, the children began to speak with their father and make eye contact, and they shared meals and visited his home to choose beds, according to the guardian ad litem report, and progress has been steady.

    “The only drawback to reunification with the Plaintiff is her failure to secure the services of a therapist for herself,” Kelley wrote, again citing the guardian ad litem.

    “(The guardian ad litem) states that ‘There is no question that if mother would get on board here there would be no need for a custody hearing in October.”