Family regains custody

Becky Vargo • Jul 21, 2015 at 2:44 PM

That decision followed a three-day trial last week in Ottawa County Family Court.

The youngest child’s father, Steve Wagasky, was removed from the petition following the completion of the prosecutor’s case, said R.J. Winter, who served as the attorney for the children.

“That shows you how thin their case was against him,” Winter said.

Despite a direct verdict request by the defense for both parents, the name of the girls’ mother, Sara Huizenga, remained on the petition. Winter said there was enough evidence to proceed with her case.

Child Protective Services filed the petition against partners Wagasky and Huizenga after medical personnel discovered an unexplained injury on the couple’s 10-month-old daughter, Eliza, on Jan. 23.

Wagasky brought the child to the hospital on Jan. 22 because she remained fussy and unhappy after being involved in an icy slip and fall while being carried by her mother earlier that day. A doctor at North Ottawa Community Hospital diagnosed a femur fracture and sent the child to Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, where doctors discovered a skull fracture the next day.

The NOCH doctor filed a form with Child Protective Services, explaining that it is protocol to file such a report when a child who is not yet able to walk suffers an injury of that extent.

Defense attorney Michele McLean said early on that the slip and fall explained both injuries. However, an expert in abuse cases from the Grand Rapids hospital testified earlier in a preliminary examination that the mechanism of the fall, as described by the mother, couldn’t have caused the skull fracture.

The court referee allowed the petition and set up supervision restrictions for the couple’s three children, which includes two older girls from Huizenga’s previous marriage.

Winter said he advocated for the supervision, rather than removal of the children from the home.

“At no point were they ever removed from the home,” he stressed.

During the preliminary examination, at least a dozen people offered to supervise the children so they could stay at home, Winter said.

The supervision order said that Huizenga could not be left alone with the children, with the exception of the half-hour after Wagasky left for work before the older girls went to school, the attorney said.

“Then I find out later that the girls are not staying at home,” Winter said. “They decided on their own to have the children stay with their father or other family out of the home.”

McLean said the case should never have been brought to court.

“If CPS doesn’t like your explanation for how your kid was injured, then ‘bam,’” the defense attorney said.

McLean said the state went too far with this case.

“Their doctor went to great lengths to come up with some variant explanation,” she said. “Clearly, somebody had an agenda.”

Huizenga made no attempt to disguise her feelings about the situation, posting frequently on social media that her family was being targeted because their 2-year-old son, Ari, had drowned the previous year.

The family was staying at a cottage on June 24, 2013, when Huizenga left the boy in the care of her two daughters, ages 11 and 7 at the time, while she went into the cottage for a short time. The boy went missing and was later found facedown in the water.

A police investigation ruled the drowning as accidental.

Child Protective Services of Ottawa County also conducted an investigation into the drowning incident and did not file a petition against the family.

“These people are normal, good people who had an accident in their life that was a tragedy,” McLean said.

In his closing argument on Friday, Assistant Ottawa County Prosecuting Attorney Jay Tubergen emphasized a pattern of improper supervision starting with an incident on June 13, 2013, when Ari got into some prescription medication from his mother’s purse.

McLean pointed out that the incident happened quickly, that Huizenga caught the child with the medication and immediately took him to the hospital where it was determined he had not ingested any of it.

Winter agreed that each situation should be considered separately and not looked at as a pattern. But he said attacking CPS for performing the job they are required to do is inappropriate.

Scheduling the trial for last week — on the anniversary of Ari’s death — was an unfortunate coincidence and not an attempt to make the family suffer, Winter said.

The trial came down to the opinions of the doctors and a biomechanical engineer on how and when the skull fracture occurred.

Winter said he believes the explanation provided by the engineer — that Huizenga slipped and fell while the child was on her right hip, and rolled to the side slightly onto the child, causing both the leg and skull fractures.

“Why can’t we accept that as what happened? Isn’t that the simplest explanation?” Winter asked during his closing statement. “I don’t think there is a pattern. I don’t think you can conclude there is improper supervision.”

Still, the children’s attorney said he believes Huizenga has some issues she needs to correct.

“But do these issues rise to the level of abuse or neglect?” he questioned.

Winter said Huizenga’s name is on a central registry for Child Protective Services, meaning she couldn’t volunteer in schools or work in a day care facility. He believes that she can request an appeal of being on the list and successfully get her name removed from it.

Recommended for You

    Grand Haven Tribune Videos