A mix-up over a bottle of Mike’s Hard Lemonade resulted in a distressing custody ordeal and current lawsuit for a University professor and his family. The incident occurred in April 2008 when Christopher Ratte, an associate professor of classical archeology and history of art, purchased lemonade for his son, Leo, at a Detroit Tigers’s game, unaware of the drink’s 5-percent alcohol content. Leo was seized by a security guard in the ninth inning and placed into the care of Children’s Protective Services. The American Civil Liberties Union recently filed a lawsuit on behalf of Ratte’s family in U.S. District Court, asking the court to change a state law that allows for a child to be taken from his or her parents without proof that the child is in immediate danger. This law needs to be changed to preserve the rights of families.

Ratte had never heard of Mike’s Hard Lemonade, and when he saw the concession sign that read “Mike’s Lemonade,” he assumed that it was just that — lemonade. Ratte was approached by a security guard at the game, who saw Leo drinking the beverage and insisted on taking Leo to the police. A medical examination that day revealed no trace of alcohol in Leo’s blood. Despite Leo being deemed healthy, his family was not permitted to contact him, and he was placed in foster care after spending the night at Children’s Protective Services. After further ordeals, Leo’s mother — Claire Zimmerman, an architecture professor at the University — was able to regain custody of her son and eventually the charges against her husband were dropped.

Ratte made a serious error in judgment in giving his child Mike’s Hard Lemonade, but it was an honest mistake. The assumption made by the police and Department of Human Services officials that he was knowingly giving his son alcohol is absurd, and their reaction was extreme. The security official was right to intervene, but taking a small child away from his family wasn’t only rash but also traumatic and damaging for the child.

The ACLU is rightfully accusing the police officers and DHS officials of violating the rights of Leo and his family. The officials were following a Michigan law that seems to stand in contrast to the due process clause of the 14th Amendment, which requires that in the absence of a valid court order, a child can only be removed under “exigent circumstances” or when the child faces “imminent danger.” The state law is extreme in that it doesn’t require officers to consider placing the child under the care of a non-offending parent.

Leo’s mother begged officials to put Leo in her custody, but they refused, even though she wasn’t at the Tiger’s game and had no involvement with the incident. While it’s important to keep children safe, this law is rash and assumes that separating a child from his entire family is always in the best interest of the child, which is certainly not the case.

The policy of protective care workers and police officers shouldn’t be to take children away first and ask questions later. There needs to be a responsible policy in place that protects children and remains in line with the rights of families.

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