Music Cue: The Case of Mistaken Lemonade

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Scott Simon reflects on the story of a man in Detroit who inadvertently bought his young son a bottle of alcoholic hard lemonade. Authorities took his kids away from him for a couple of weeks.


Christopher Ratte recently took his seven-year-old son Leo to a Detroit Tigers game. They all wanted some lemonade. When Mr. Ratte asked for lemonade at a concession stand, he was handed a bottle of something called Mike's Hard Lemonade. Mr. Ratte says he didn't know that hard means alcoholic. Mr. Ratte is a professor of archeology at the University of Michigan, an expert on Greek urbanism and the archeology of Asia Minor, not ballpark beverages.

Mike's Hard Lemonade is spiked with five percent alcohol, though that fact appears in such small letters on the bottle, the words on a shard from an ancient Greek pot might be easier to read. I'd never drunk it, never purchased it, never heard of it, Professor Ratte told the Detroit News, and it's certainly not what I expected when I ordered lemonade for my seven-year-old.

The seven dollar price might've been a tip, but the price of everything at a ballpark is ludicrous, from a bag of peanuts to the pay of the first baseman. A ballpark security guard noticed young Leo Ratte sipping from the bottle. He was whisked by ambulance to Children's Hospital where doctors actually found no trace of alcohol in his blood. Children are blessed with rapid metabolism. Doctors cleared him to go home with his father, but instead, police officers put Leo Ratte into a Wayne County Child Protective Services foster home.

They said they hated to do it, but had to follow procedure. County bureaucrats said they would like to let Leo go home, but they had to follow procedure. After three days a juvenile court judge ruled the little boy could come home to his mother, but only if his father moved into a hotel. A judge said he hated to do it, but he had to follow procedure. The case has now been dismissed and the Ratte family is together, but only after two weeks of anxiety, separation, and humiliation.

At each step, informed and responsible officials, police officers, social workers, and judges said they hated to do what they did, but had to obey procedures. Procedures are usually what people from bureaucrats to corporate CEOs cite when they fear to take responsibility for an independent decision. Decisions can be criticized and second-guessed. Procedures may be dumb, but they spare you from thinking or being criticized from the consequences of your own judgment.

And to be fair, procedures are often imposed because previous officials have been lax and let a child go back to an abusive household. A story like this usually doesn't get much coverage on NPR where we try to analyze policy implications, but you might remember what happened to the Ratte family the next time a poll discloses that the American people distrust bureaucracies public or private. Whether they run schools, airlines, or healthcare systems, they abide by procedures, not people. They take lemons and just make a mess.

(Soundbite of song 'Lemonade')

Mr. WILLIS GATOR JACKSON (Singing): I'm looking for a chick that only drinks lemonade. Yes, I'm looking for a chick that only drinks lemonade. Ain't see one yet, but heard a few of them was made. Now it's got for a slice of money and riot's costly too.

SIMON: Willis Jackson, this is NPR News.

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