A couple whose children were removed from their Waltham home in the middle of the night has filed a federal lawsuit against a handful of Massachusetts Department of Children and Families employees and Waltham police officers for violating their civil rights.
Josh Sabey and Sarah Perkins, who now live out of state, first shared their story with the NBC10 Boston Investigators last September.
"The government cannot show up under the cover of night and take your children without a warrant or a reasonable belief a child is in imminent danger," said Joshua Thompson, senior attorney at Pacific Legal Foundation, the nonprofit firm representing the family. "Parents should be able to sleep without wondering if the government is going to take their kids in violation of constitutional guarantees."
According to the complaint, the ordeal for the parents started in July, when they took their 4-month-old son, Cal, to the hospital with a high fever. Tests by doctors revealed an almost-healed rib fracture.
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The parents had no explanation for Cal's injury, triggering health care workers to notify DCF. Perkins stayed at the hospital as doctors performed more tests and social workers questioned her about the circumstances.
Health care workers who specialize in child abuse told NBC10 Boston that certain injuries in babies — including broken ribs — immediately raise suspicion and can trigger an in-depth evaluation. Doctors are required by law to report suspicions of child abuse or neglect to DCF.
The lawsuit alleges that after hours of scrutiny and an overnight stay at the hospital, the mother eventually left Newton-Wellesley Hospital with her child.
The family thought the nightmare was over — until unexpected visitors arrived at their front door at 1 a.m.
Police and DCF workers were there to make an emergency removal of the two children. The complaint alleges that they did not provide any paperwork to the parents that justified the drastic decision.
Cellphone video of the incident captured 3-year-old Clarence screaming in fear about leaving with strangers in the middle of the night.
"It's devastating," Perkins told NBC10 Boston last year. "It preys on all your worst anxieties as a parent."
The lawsuit alleges several constitutional violations, like unlawful search and seizure and deprivation of parental rights without due process. It says the initial DCF investigation turned up no evidence of domestic abuse, no police calls to the parents' home, no evidence of substance abuse, and no concerns from the pediatrician who had regularly seen both boys.
In our report last September, DCF said because of state and federal privacy requirements, the agency could not confirm or deny involvement with the family.
Following the original NBC10 Boston investigation, a Massachusetts state lawmaker proposed another layer of oversight before DCF workers can make an emergency removal of children.
The legislation filed by Rep. Joan Meschino, D-Plymouth, would require DCF workers to get them to sign off before emergency removals are made during hours when courthouses are closed, similar to a search warrant or restraining order.
According to the legislation, DCF would need to demonstrate that removal is necessary to protect a child from serious abuse or neglect.
During a court proceeding last August, a judge granted Perkins and Sabey conditional custody. NBC10 Boston was there as they left the Cambridge courthouse hugging their kids.
However, the parents remained under the cloud of a DCF investigation as social workers visited their home. They waited months for their case to be closed, while they put their moving plans on hold.
The family had planned to move to Idaho over the summer to work on a documentary film, but were not able to leave Massachusetts during the ongoing investigation.
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Last November, the parents finally got the news they had been waiting for when the case was dismissed. At the time, the couple indicated they would like to have their experience spark a broader change to the system.
"This is nothing I would wish on anybody," Perkins told NBC10 Boston outside the courthouse. "It's completely draconian how the kids are removed, and the fact it can happen without paperwork or a warrant is just abysmal."
NBC10 Boston reached out to a DCF spokesperson and the Waltham Police Department about the lawsuit. The Waltham Police Department said that it hasn't been formally served the lawsuit and that it learned of it through news outlets. The department said it does not comment on ongoing litigation.