Legal fight over foster home roils Oakland County's 'Horse Country'

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Oxford Township — Operators of a foster care facility claim a group of township residents conspired to "stalk, harass and intimidate" them into leaving a predominantly white community known as "Horse Country," according to a federal lawsuit.

Jason Dunn, a nondenominational minister and his wife, Maggie, a licensed therapist, moved their family and Christian-based foster care facility from Detroit to Oxford Township in hopes of providing a fresh start for children faced with the trauma of abandonment or loss of their birth family.

Instead, the Dunns allege in their November complaint, they’ve faced a campaign to harass their interracial family with personal attacks and false allegations.

House of Providence co-founder Jason Dunn, right, gives a tour of the Girls Home to his attorneys, Joseph N. Ejbeh of Shelby Township and Nina M. Paolini-Lotarski of Rochester Hills.

“There has been no let-up,” said Joseph N. Ejbeh, the couple's attorney. “When the Dunns attempted to take over a boys’ home in another township across the county, these same people printed up fliers, made phone calls and emails, and angered up people there.

“People were so upset at a township hall informational meeting I thought I was at a Klan rally,” said Ejbeh, a former special inspector for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The Dunns, who are white, have a biracial family that includes their two biological children, a foster daughter from Bulgaria, now 30, whom they raised from a teenager, and five African American children, ages 5 through 17, that they have adopted since 2008.

They also have a 20-year-old African American female ward who has mental and physical challenges, according to the complaint.

In 2016, they purchased a 118-acre former hunt club off Barber Road in Oxford Township that currently houses their immediate family and a separate all-girls foster home with six girls. They hope to eventually add housing for children with disabilities.

The Girls Home is seen through the woods from Barber Rd.

The Dunns are remodeling a barn they live in. They built the girls foster home more than a year ago on the property, formerly known as Hunters Ridge. 

Dunn said he and his wife believe so much in the project that they sold a Clinton Township home and invested “everything we had, about $80,000, in this."

“We wanted to be here and on the property 24/7,” said Dunn, adding: “The need for foster care is great."

Bob Wheaton, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, which supervises foster care in Michigan, said as of October there were 13,108 youth in foster care in Michigan.

The Dunns’ lawsuit, which lists the House of Providence, the couple and the initials of the five adoptive children and ward as plaintiffs, seeks to recover damages for the “deprivation of their civil rights and denial of their equal protection” under the law.

According to the couple's 15-count complaint, the listed defendants have:

  • Interfered with the Dunns’ ability to obtain a Child Care Institution license, divide the property, build a private road, solicit donors, obtain a grant to clean up the property, and operate a nonprofit, foster care group home.
  • Made false child abuse reports to the state Department of Health and Human Services to prompt an investigation and tear apart the Dunn family.
  • Used intimidation tactics against the children, including stalking them, referring to them with racial epithets and slurs and sending Freedom of Information requests to the children’s schools and juvenile family courts causing them to fear they would be removed from custody.
  • Made false accusations about the Dunns’ values, beliefs and actions, including diversion of charitable funds.

Named in the complaint are Bruce Meyers, Kallie Roesner-Meyers, James Unis, Donna Unis, Cynthia Unis, Barbara Blanock, Ginny Benson, Larry Roesner, Paul Warfield and Kathy Warfield.

Attorneys for all 10 were contacted for comment by The Detroit News or to interview their clients. None of the lawyers would discuss the lawsuit, speak about their clients or make them available for interviews.

The case is pending before U.S. District Judge Bernard A. Friedman. No court date has been set.

The lone formal response to the lawsuit is a 90-page answer filed by attorney Michael Nolan on behalf of his clients, the Warfields, which says they have been falsely accused of wrongdoing. While the answer neither admits nor denies allegations contained in the lawsuit, it says they don't apply to the Warfields or that the couple have no knowledge of whether they are true or not concerning other co-defendants.

Other references made regarding the Warfields, are referred to by Nolan as "false and vicious" and "recklessly" made "outrageous, inflammatory, salacious allegations."

In their response to the suit, the couple "deny racial animus" and say many allegations in the lawsuit have "false and racial overtones." The filing states the Warfields "made no knowingly false statements and as such no retraction was necessary from them."

Several CAUTION HORSE COUNTRY signs are displayed throughout the area like this one on the north side of Brocker Rd. just east of Barber Rd., cautioning motorist to be on the lookout for horses and their riders in the hills and valleys of Northern Oakland County.

In the couple's response, Kathy Warfield said some correspondence attributed to her was a "falsely characterized citation" and that she "in no way mentioned, stated or implied the foster children would be uprooted from their county," as alleged in the lawsuit.

Another reference implied that the Warfields may have expressed concerns to authorities about lead exposure in the former hunt club but said that restricting them from voicing their appropriate concern over that situation would infringe on their free speech rights.

Kallie Roesner-Meyers, described in the lawsuit as the “ring leader of the Horse Country Defendants," allegedly made threats at township meetings and in her emails as a member of the Oxford Township Planning Commission "that the Defendants (referred to by her as her 'scouting party') will not stop until they get what they want — specifically to get Plaintiffs out of Horse Country,” according to the complaint.

The area is often referred to as “Horse Country” because of its longtime affiliation with equestrian events and horse farms.

While there is no breakdown for “Horse Country,” the U.S. Census in 2018 found the township’s population of 22,749 to be 92.4% white, 0.3% African American, 0.1% Native American, 2.2% Asian and 3.4% Hispanic or Latino.

In various venues, the defendants have shown up and espoused claims that the House of Providence is “not really operating as a foster home but rather as a work farm and/or prison for the foster children to work for free as indentured servants or slaves,” according to the complaint.

One, Ginny Benson, allegedly appeared before a Senate Committee for Families, Seniors and Human Services and accused the House of Providence of “operating a work farm with handpicked foster children to work in the supposed farm for free,” according to the lawsuit.

Ejbeh said several defendants were part of a “Team Twenty” group who battled the Oxford school district and others over earlier plans to establish an international housing facility for visiting students.

Township officials seem to want to distance themselves from the conflict.

“It’s not a township issue,” said Supervisor William Dunn, who's not related to Jason or Maggie. “From the beginning, we've never denied anyone their rights or taken sides."

William Dunn said the township, in accordance with ordinances, approved lot splits and construction of a road into the property.

Matt Johnson, a spokesman for Oxford Community Schools, said the House of Providence children are exemplary students.

“If all of our students were as well-behaved and hard-working as them, we would have no need for a dean of students here,” said Johnson. “We don’t have any issues with the House of Providence.”

A bolder encircled fire ring overlooks the property.

Dunn declined to permit The News to photograph any of the foster children or his own children but did recently open the doors of the girls’ foster care facility in Oxford Township for a tour. It revealed a well-maintained five-bedroom home. 

The girls decide menus, cook the meals and clean up afterward, Dunn said. They dine together around a custom-made 12-foot long walnut table with benches, some having a view of sunsets and passing wildlife.

Jason Dunn reflects as he talks in the girls' bathroom.

There is a “dormitory-style” bathroom with glass-enclosed showers, toilets with doors for privacy, and small wooden lockers where the girls can keep toiletries.

New arrivals receive a duffel bag containing slippers, pajamas, a robe, stuffed animals and personal items, Dunn said. “One was surprised to find a toothbrush inside their bag. A toothbrush. They had never had one of their own.”

The House of Providence has 40 employees split between the girls’ home and a boys’ home in Rose Township, where seven children live.

Pastor Don Jackson of the nearby nondenominational Oakwood Community Church in Ortonville, said his 400-member congregation is “100% behind the Dunns and the House of Providence.”

“They are beautiful and doing what we all should — supporting children who through no fault of their own are finding themselves without parents or family to take care of them and without a home,” said Jackson. “These aren’t problem children or juvenile delinquents. They are just kids.”

Jackson said critics of the House of Providence have “gone out of their way” to make the Dunns and others feel unwelcome. “I’ve heard them say ‘these kids don’t belong in white Horse Country,’” he said.

Wayne County Circuit Judge Karen Braxton, who has placed children in permanent or temporary foster care throughout Michigan for seven years, has visited House of Providence and found the level of care "exceptional."

"They are doing an amazing job," said Braxton. "A goal of foster care is to normalize a child's life as much as possible."

Janet Snyder, who deals with 52 agencies as executive director of the state-wide Michigan Federation of Children and Families, described House of Providence as "visionary."

"They are helping to provide stability to lives that have been in turmoil," she said. 

Snyder said her agency knows of 37 residential care facilities statewide and it is "not unheard of" for such operations to face resistance from neighbors.

"Despite the best intentions, others have been faced with people who are fearful of the children coming there. It's an almost a 'Not-In-My-Backyard' mentality. Usually based on a misunderstanding of what is going on there."

Snyder said the best approach is to a dialogue with community members in a public, neutral setting.

"You can't open your doors and let people walk in there — it's a private home and that is an intrusion into anyone's privacy," she said. "But I think open discussions can go far at solving problems. I hope that is the case here."

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