Cost of Crime: Berrien County family fights for adoptive rights after double killing

The stack of papers on Stephanie Kopaceski’s wooden kitchen table has grown.

“The governor would not be able to assist you,” she continued reading, stopped, and looked at another. “Basically saying the same thing.”

Alongside those papers was a white binder filled with dozens of sheets of paper. She opened it, pointed to photos of her two nieces, Nova and Luna.

“These are pictures when the girls were first born,” she said.

It’s been more than a year since Kopaceski saw her two nieces. They were placed in Michigan’s foster care system after their mother, Renee Mitchell, was killed and their father, Alex Perez, was arrested and placed in jail in January 2016.

Police say Perez killed his children’s mother and her father, John Mitchell, took Nova and Luna Perez and drove west. Police caught him in Colorado after a nationwide Amber Alert was issued for the girls.

“That’s the only thing I have left of my family is the girls,” Kopaceski said through tears. “I’m the only thing the girls have left of their family.”

Kopaceski and her husband began the process to adopt their two nieces shortly after her sister died. She was granted a visit with the girls, hired a lawyer, worked with an adoption agency, and participated in home studies with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services – but she’s received little contact from the state or anyone else in a year’s time.

“I don’t think I should have to be a part from the girls because of what happened,” said Kopaceski. “I didn’t do it.”

Records showed that a Berrien County judge terminated Alex Perez’s parental rights. He appealed that decision but a judge has yet to rule on that appeal.

Our WSBT 22 investigation revealed that the adoption process cannot begin until a judge has ruled on that appeal. That process could take months and months, according to Gregory Feldman, a family and criminal lawyer.

He said it requires patience on everyone’s behalf.

“Especially on the part of not only the judiciary, but the parents, the foster parents, the system and worst of all the kids. They’re the ones that are languishing,” said Feldman.

Feldman said delays in adopting a child can be from the appeals process but also if the court has not yet decided the best permanent place for the child or children.

“While an appeal process is working, while the court system is working through the issues, those children are often left in limbo,” said Feldman.

Feldman said the court’s decision for permanent placement is a difficult one.

“Often times there is no clear direction, no first answer,” he said. “There’s not a big red mark over one and green mark over the other person that’s seeking long-term adoption or placement over a child. You have a lot of gray area.”

Perez’s case appears to be in that gray area. A spokesman for the Michigan Department of Health and Humans Services said the agency often prefers a relative “to maintain as much stability as possible for the child;” he added that if that’s not possible, the agency will look for a home in foster care.

Due to confidentiality requirements, the MDHHS was unable to comment on the status of Nova and Luna Perez’s case.

“I get nothing, no communication from anybody,” Kopaceski said of the process. “I’m stuck.”

‘These are the children who are most at need’

While Nova and Luna await a permanent home, they’re not alone in their fight to do so.

About 12,600 children are in the foster care system in Michigan, but unlike Nova and Luna, about 14% were adopted in 2016, according to data provided by MDHHS.

A spokesman said the state exceeds the federal permanency standard, which is placing a child in a permanent home 12-months after the child was removed from his/her home.

Many factors can delay the placement of a child including finding the right family, stabilizing a child through treatment, competing parties seeking to adopt, and a prospective family’s rigor in completing pre-adoption steps for the adoption process, according to the spokesman.

Some of those steps may include background checks, finger prints, interviews and extensive home studies.

Delays can also come from extended court action or delays in termination of parental rights, according to the spokesman.

Whether it’s less than 12-months or more than a year, those delays can impact a child in severe ways, according to Dr. Jim Henry at the Southwest Michigan Children’s Trauma Assessment Center.

“For anybody, adult or child, not knowing what’s going to happen next undermines any safety and just triggers these on-going fight-flight behaviors out of self-protection, that the child unconsciously reacts with because they just don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Dr. Henry.

Henry worked 17 years in for MDHHS and saw a need to better understand how trauma impacts a child’s brain. He started the institute at Western Michigan University in 2000 and has studied more than 3,700 children, many of whom are in the foster care system.

“These are our most vulnerable children in the country,” said Dr. Henry. “All children need a sense of security, consistency, predictability. If they don’t have that, the development continues to be impacted and compromised in a way that could have long-term, life-long implications for their functioning.”

Henry said the number one way to help a child overcome adversity is to have a trusted adult in their life; he said we all have a responsibility to help children who are in need.

“Their future is dependent on what the community does and in response to what they need,” he said. “There’s this recognition that the future is now and if we don’t respond now, we’re going to respond much more significantly in the future to a child who didn’t get what he or she needed. And then they continue to be in society but not successful in many different ways.”

Henry said his center assesses how trauma impacts a child’s motor skills, language, memory and relationships.

“As a society, as a school, as a community, we call them our children,” said Dr. Henry. “They’re our children with who we all have a responsibility to be able to provide for them what they haven’t gotten.”

As for Kopaceski, her determination is stronger than ever. She’s reached out to several lawmakers in Michigan.

WSBT 22 followed up with several of them. Representative Dave Pagel said it would be “improper” for him to comment on another district’s case, as this case fell outside of his jurisdiction.

“Certainly our hearts go out to these situations with children in the foster care system," said Rep. Pagel in a phone call WSBT 22. “If there’s ever a case where someone is struggling with the system, my office would be very willing to help.”

Pagel said lawmakers are able to intervene in some cases, which may include access to federal help.

“We’re here to serve the folks and sometimes people don’t know where to turn for help and we can point them in the right direction,” he said.

Senator John Proos also responded to WSBT 22 and said delays in adoptions are “judicial in nature” and lawmakers are more so involved when it comes to changes in child custody or child termination laws.

He said separation of powers “precludes him” from having any say in the judicial process and delays are a matter of the judiciary.

He said if there were concerns of how the adoption process intersected with legislation, that would a discussion he could engage in.

As for Kopaceski, her journey to adopt her nieces will never stop.

“Something just tells my mind to keep going, keep trying to do what’s best for the girls,” he said.

Watch part one of this story, "COST OF CRIME: More mental exams cause local, statewide delays"

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