State tries to strip parental rights in mutilation case

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Detroit — Child welfare officials moved Friday to terminate the parental rights of as many as five families from a small Shia Muslim sect in Metro Detroit, alleging their children are victims of female genital mutilation, a lawyer said.

FBI agents last month raid the office of Dr. Fakhruddin Attar at the Burhani Clinic in Livonia.

The initial moves could impact as many as 12 children from the families in Oakland and Wayne counties and sent waves of fear rippling across the local Dawoodi Bohra community.

Those targeted Friday include children of three members of the community: Dr. Jumana Nagarwala of Northville, Dr. Fakhruddin Attar and his wife, Farida Attar, of Farmington Hills. They were indicted last week by a federal grand jury and accused of cutting two 7-year-old Minnesota girls brought to Metro Detroit for the illegal surgeries in February.

The sect, which is based out of a Farmington Hills mosque and includes about 125 families, is embroiled in a widening conspiracy that emerged last month in federal court.

The cases follow a weeks-long child welfare investigation that subjected elementary-school age girls to questions from law enforcement and medical examinations to determine whether their genitals were mutilated as part of an illegal procedure practiced by the Dawoodi Bohra sect.

“They are absolutely terrified,” said attorney Margaret Sind Raben, who represents two Oakland County families who have been targeted by child welfare investigators.

The mutilation scandal drew national attention Wednesday when FBI Director James Comey highlighted his bureau’s role in the investigation while testifying in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The cases are a civil matter and emerged on the sideline of an ongoing criminal case headed by the Detroit U.S. Attorney’s Office and federal agents from the FBI and Homeland Security Investigations. Investigators are trying to determine the breadth and scope of the mutilation scandal and prosecute those responsible.

At least some of the cases revealed Friday are being handled by the Michigan Attorney General’s Office in conjunction with the state Department of Health and Human Services, sources said.

Attorney General Bill Schuette’s Office directed questions about any filings to the health agency.

“The opinion of the attorney general is that a court should review the safety, health and well-being of the young girls involved in this case,” said Schuette spokeswoman Andrea Bitely.

A state Health and Human Services spokesman declined comment Friday.

Sind Raben’s clients have hearings scheduled Tuesday morning in Oakland County Circuit Court, she said. The two families she represents have four minor children.

“I am by no means conceding that there is any abuse or neglect in my families’ cases,” she said. “If, in fact, something has happened to these children, it’s already happened. It’s not going to happen again. I guess I’m wondering what’s the rush on this?”

Some members of the Dawoodi Bohra community who have spoken against the procedure say the surgery is performed to suppress female sexuality, reduce sexual pleasure and curb promiscuity, according to court records.

The procedure is most common in parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia, along with migrants from those regions, says the World Health Organization.

There are four major types of female genital mutilation, including a partial or total removal of the clitoris.

The families targeted Friday include three central figures in the alleged conspiracy.

Dr. Jumana Nagarwala

They are Nagarwala, an emergency room physician who has two children at home, including a 6-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter; and one daughter of Dr. Fakhruddin Attar and his wife, Farida.

Nagarwala and the Attars were charged April 26 in the country’s first female genital mutilation indictment in federal court.

They are accused of cutting the 7-year-old Minnesota girls at Fakhruddin Attar’s Livonia clinic and trying to cover up the crime. They are being held without bond pending trial June 27 in federal court in Detroit.

Lawyers for Nagarwala and the Attars denied their clients performed the illegal procedure. They instead described a benign religious ritual that merely removed mucous membrane from the girls’ genitalia.

Dr. Fakhruddin Attar

The cases revealed Friday mean child welfare officials are moving to terminate the rights of some parents who have not been charged with a crime in the federal investigation. Federal prosecutors said three girls from Michigan might have been cut but investigators are awaiting test results before deciding whether to file criminal charges.

Child welfare officials in Minnesota have taken steps to protect the two victims allegedly cut by Nagarwala.

Court records show one of the Minnesota girls was removed briefly from her family before being returned to her parents; court records for the other girl are sealed.

The Michigan cases on Friday apparently do not seek immediate removal of the children from their families. Instead, officials want to permanently strip the parents of rights to the children, lawyers told The Detroit News.

“They are not seeking to remove the children. They are seeking to monitor their health and safety,” Sind Raben said. “It’s a long way to any adjudication that terminates parental rights.”

Lawyers for the Attars and Nagarwala were not immediately available for comment.

The two doctors and Attar’s wife are members of the Dawoodi Bohra religious community based locally out of the Anjuman-e-Najmi mosque on Orchard Lake Road in Farmington Hills. It’s the only Dawoodi Bohra mosque in Michigan.

The Dawoodi Bohras hail mostly from western India and were traditionally comprised of businessmen, entrepreneurs and professionals. There are about 1 million followers worldwide.

Sect members were linked to a cutting scandal in Australia two years ago.

Three Dawoodi Bohras faced trial in Australia in a case that raised awareness of female genital mutilation. The case ended in prison sentences for the three, including a Dawoodi Bohra community leader.

Jonathan Oosting contributed.