A Case of Failure

The story you will read below was not writte by me but appeared in the Rocky Mountain News on October 12, 2007.

Though I firmly believe each of us must be held accountable for our actions…I also firmly believe this story is an example of the failure of our foster care system.

Unfortunately Michael Tate’s story is not a unique one…there are several Michael’s in prison today across the country who in many ways have the same story…though it may not have resulted in murder.

As I said in the beginning, Michael must pay for his actions but I also feel others should pay for what they did (or did not do) for Michael while he was part of the system. I also do not find any record of his birth mother being charged with abuse; only her parental rights were terminated. A lot of damage was done during his first 3 years of life with his mother…the system added to it.

Today we see the results!


By Sue Lindsay Rocky Mountain News
October 12, 2007

He was blond, with a shy, sweet smile, the kind of little boy they just wanted to love.

Michael Tate was 6 years old when a Morrison couple chose him to be their son.

But it didn’t last long.

Tammy and Dave Wachtl had several successful visits with Michael at a foster home. But within a week of coming to live with the Wachtls, the couple relinquished the youngster. He would shriek like a wounded wild animal and bash his head against the wall.

The string of doctors who treated Tate described him as the most severely disturbed child they had ever seen.

His problems worsened as he became a teen. He tried to strangle himself, drank poison, and jumped out a window during repeated suicide attempts. At one point, he threatened to rape and kill a foster family.

Then, on Nov. 8, 2004, he wound up in the Fitzgerald family’s garage. What started out as a burglary turned deadly, after Tate and his friend, Michael Fitzgerald, were confronted by Fitzgerald’s father.

Steven Fitzgerald fought for his life, wildly swinging a scooter at the two teens. The 41-year-old man died after being beaten with a shovel and stabbed.

Both boys were charged with his murder. Tate faces a life sentence after a jury last month convicted him of felony murder. Michael Fitzgerald pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 72 years.

At the time of the killing, Fitzgerald, then 17, and Tate, 16, were runaways from a Jefferson County social services facility.

In fact, Tate had spent nearly all of his life in the custody of Jefferson County.

“He is the product of Jefferson County. They raised him and they prosecuted him for murder,” said his attorney, Shawna Geiger.

Social services in spotlight

Geiger, during Tate’s trial, tried unsuccessfully to persuade jurors Tate was not guilty of murder by reason of insanity.

The evidence extended far beyond the circumstances of Fitzgerald’s death, with Geiger, at times, putting Jefferson County social services in the defendant’s seat. One psychiatrist after another took the stand, revealing the dark and unpredictable world of a deeply troubled teen.

Geiger contends that social services failed Tate after he was taken, at 3, from his abusive mother.

In a letter written when Tate was 5, the boy’s first therapist, Dena Grossier, told his caseworker:

“I cannot stress strongly enough the need for … Michael to be in a stable, consistent, loving home on a permanent basis AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.”

By the time Tate was 16, however, he had been moved 40 times into 28 different foster homes, social services facilities and psychiatric hospitals.

“Social services is no place to raise a child,” Geiger said.

Today’s head of Jefferson County Human Services, Lynn Johnson, says policies have changed since Tate came into the system in 1994. Now, federal guidelines and state law require that children have a stable home within a year.

But some professionals familiar with the Tate case say there was little the system could do. They describe a child who was beyond repair by the time he was a toddler.

Tate’s case continues to haunt the two caseworkers who primarily managed his care.

Adoption caseworker Alice Johnson left trembling and wiping tears away after testifying.

“I think of him as a little boy still,” she said. “I hate to see him so hurt.”

Caseworker Lana Holmes cried as she told jurors about seeing Tate shortly after his adoption failed.

“Are you my mommy?” she recalled the 7-year-old saying.

Years later, she believes Tate should have been given something more than social services was equipped to provide.

“He got the treatment that was available, but I would say he still fell through the cracks,” she said. “He needed more than he was getting.”

Indications of abuse

The foundation for Tate’s mental and behavioral problems was forged during the first three years of his life, psychiatrists testified.

Tate and his older brother, Ronnie, had bruises and scars and described physical abuse at the hands of their mother. Later, Tate’s behavior pointed to sexual abuse as well.

The boys were put into a foster home where they proved to be unmanageable — defecating throughout the house, destroying furniture and scratching the ivory off the piano keys, Holmes told jurors.

The boys were moved to a “therapeutic” foster home.

Eventually, a judge terminated the parental rights of their mother, a substance abuser with her own mental health issues.

Tate, then 5, was now available for adoption, but Johnson said she knew Tate would be a challenge the minute she saw him. He was hiding under a table with his hands over his ears.

“He just struck me as being very, very alone and empty,” she said.

That same year, Tate had his first psychiatric hospitalization because he was biting himself, screaming uncontrollably in the grip of apparent flashbacks, tearing his hair out and was “so emotionally distraught he couldn’t function,” Johnson said.

After a month at a psychiatric hospital, he spent about eight months in residential treatment, then moved into another therapeutic foster home.

“He could hold it together for a while,” Johnson said, “but then he would lose it.”

‘Unreachable state’

By the time Tate was 6, Johnson had decided that Tate and his brother would have to be split up. Tate’s brother went to a foster family where he stayed for six years.

Tate’s prospects remained slim. Then Johnson found the Wachtls.

The caseworker told Tate she had found him a “forever home.” Tate was so elated he ran smack into the plate glass sliding door of the Wachtls’ mountain home the first time he visited in July 1995.

“Hi, Mom! Hi, Dad!” he called when he first saw them.

“His enthusiasm was overwhelming,” Tammy Wachtl recalled. “He couldn’t get over that this was his new house, that these were his new dogs.”

But to Johnson, the boy’s exuberance seemed to be a warning sign. This wasn’t a true and healthy attachment — the kind that is made slowly, over time.

“He didn’t know these people, but he desperately wanted a family,” she said.

Tammy Wachtl said she fell in love with the boy the moment she saw him.

“I was thinking emotionally there was such goodness within him. There was just no way I could say no,” she said. “He was so happy, so eager to please, so lovable.”

She quit her job to care for him, but soon learned it was more than a full-time job.

“He would slip into this unreachable state,” she said. “He would go into fits until he had completely exhausted himself. We couldn’t determine what was causing them, so we couldn’t prevent them or predict when they would happen.”

The first happened when a ball grazed his arm during a game of catch.

“It was like a wild animal had been shot, the sounds he made. I still can hear it. It was horrible,” she said, crying softly. “He just went on with this sound until he literally had nothing left.”

Episodes took place several times a day.

During the ride home from a McDonald’s outing, Wachtl said, “Out of the clear blue, he said, ‘I saw you looking out of the corner of your eyes at my shorts.'” He began viciously kicking the window of the car, trying to get out.

At home, he banged his head, bit himself, kicked and flailed so hard that he put a hole in the wall.

Ultimately, the caseworker advised that the Wachtls return him to the county.

Wachtl called the decision “heartbreaking.”

“He had so much to offer. He deserved so much. But it became very evident that he needed more mental health care than we could provide.

“I was scared of the future,” she said. “I knew my marriage would not survive it. We would have to become missionaries to make this work. Literally, this would be our life.”

Johnson told Tate he hadn’t been “behaving well,” so he wouldn’t be able to live with the Wachtls.

Tammy Wachtl said she and Tate sat next to each other on the sofa, crying. Tate, who had just turned 7, clung to her and sobbed.

Tate later told his guardian ad litem, “I blew it.”

In retrospect, Tammy Wachtl wonders if things would have turned out differently if she and her husband had been better prepared. They underwent eight hours of training as adoptive parents, but felt helpless when Tate went into his psychotic rages.

“The training we got was really generic, for dealing with a normal kid,” she said. “I don’t remember any specific tools that they gave me for dealing with the problems that Michael had.”

Diagnosed with PTSD

Tate next bounced between a therapeutic foster home, a residential center and four visits to the psych ward at Children’s Hospital.

He set fires and saw spiders. He accused families of abusing him and was flooded with memories of sexual abuse, Johnson testified.

He referred to himself in the third person, telling his foster family, “You’ll have to ask Michael.”

“It seemed like he was getting worse,” Johnson said.

He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and put on anti-psychotic drugs.

Johnson abandoned plans to place him for adoption and told him she wouldn’t be seeing him anymore.

The transition was devastating.

“Every child wants a family,” said his foster care caseworker, Holmes.

She moved the boy to Devereux Cleo Wallace, a center that offered both residential and psychiatric care.

He left the center at age 10, after staying three years. Holmes conceded the time was too long, but she was worried he wouldn’t be able to function in a family setting. She gave counselors six months to prepare him, then put him in a foster home for special-needs kids.

“It did not go well,” Holmes recalled. Tate was destructive, urinated all over the house and had screaming fits. Holmes tried to reunite Tate with his brother, but that also failed.

Tate’s life became a blur of residential treatment facilities, group homes and hospitalizations.

He bit himself and banged his head as a “soothing mechanism.” He began to cut himself. He was gripped by hallucinations, screaming, “Mommy, don’t do that to me! Mommy, don’t hurt me! … Don’t touch me! Don’t kill me!” He hoarded food and newspaper clips.

By his teen years, Tate had been given nearly every anti-psychotic, anti-seizure, anti-anxiety, anti-depressant and other mood-altering drug in existence.

He became institutionalized, unable to live outside the walls of a structured environment.

At age 13, Holmes said, Tate didn’t know how to tie his shoes. He had never been around anyone using a microwave or a washing machine. Except for a brief attempt at kindergarten, all of Tate’s education took place behind locked doors.

A final attempt to place him in a foster home in 2003, when he was 14, ended abruptly after Tate threatened to rape and kill the foster family. This happened after he told his religious foster father, “Satan is my lord.”

Caseworkers were trying to find Tate a permanent home in a residential center in Larkspur when he ran away from another center and hooked up with Michael Fitzgerald. Within weeks, Steven Fitzgerald was murdered.

Steven Fitzgerald’s widow declined to be interviewed for this story about her husband’s slaying or her son’s troubles before his dad’s death.

Tate, now 19, will be sentenced Nov. 2. Under Colorado law, he is guaranteed a new institutional home: Prison.

The victim:

Steven Fitzgerald

Age: 41

Job: Colorado Department of Transportation

Family: Wife Kris, teenage daughter Jessica and son Michael, now serving 62 years in prison for his dad’s death

What happened: He surprised his son, Michael, and Michael Tate as they were burglarizing the Fitzgerald home. The younger Fitzgerald watched as Tate stabbed and beat his father to death with a shovel. They had been in the home a day earlier, coming on a Sunday when they knew the devoutly religious Fitzgerald would be at church with the rest of his family.


One Response

  1. WTF – The lawyer hit it right on the nose, he is a product of the system. That story is extremely hard to read, partially because the signs were there and now it’s too late…I wish governmental agencies would start to learn from their mistakes.

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