A Massachusetts state lawmaker is proposing another layer of oversight before social workers with the Department of Children and Families make an emergency removal of children during hours when courts are closed.
In September, the NBC10 Investigators showed how DCF removed two young kids in the middle of the night from a Waltham family’s home. The agency has the power to make the decision when it determines the emergency action is needed for the safety of children.
“Any time government takes that step to intervene, we owe it to ourselves and to those families to be thoughtful,” said Rep. Joan Meschino, a Plymouth County Democrat.
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The ordeal for Sarah Perkins and Josh Sabey 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.
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.
“I remember calling Josh and saying, ‘They are going to take Cal. I don’t think we’re going to leave this hospital with our baby,’” Perkins recalled.
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But after hours of scrutiny, the mother did eventually leave Newton Wellesley 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. 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 said. “It preys on all your worst anxieties as a parent.”
Attorney Jennifer Lamanna has handled child protection cases for more than two decades and represented the couple in their legal battle.
Just like a late-night restraining order or search warrant, Lamanna believes there should be a system in place that requires judicial review before DCF makes an emergency removal.
“Those kids were removed unnecessarily, traumatically and wrongfully,” Lamanna said. “Why don’t we have on-call judges for emergency removals by DCF? Why not?”
The NBC10 Investigators took that question to Rep. Meschino, who said the framework of on-call judges is already in place in Massachusetts.
That’s why she is proposing legislation that would require DCF workers to get them to sign off before emergency removals are made during hours when courthouses are closed. The change would mean such a serious decision would not fall on one person or agency’s shoulders.
According to the legislation, DCF would need to demonstrate that removal is necessary to protect a child from serious abuse or neglect.
“It seems like an obvious and reasonable thing,” Meschino said. “It is an important opportunity for key oversight to make sure we are making good decisions at critical moments.”
NBC10 Boston also took the issue to Jay Blitzman, a retired juvenile court judge and supporter of adding more transparency to a child protective system that is shrouded in secrecy. Court hearings that detail justification for DCF decisions are not open to the public in Massachusetts.
“I’d love to have a further conversation about this,” Blitzman said. “I think it’s very provocative. I’m intrigued by the idea. I kind of like it.”
During a court proceeding in 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 during the ongoing investigation.
On Tuesday, the parents finally got the news they had been waiting for when the case was dismissed.
“This is nothing I would wish on anybody,” Perkins said. “It’s completely draconian how the kids are removed and the fact it can happen without paperwork or a warrant is just abysmal.”
The couple is quick to point out their ordeal turned out better than many other removal situations, especially for minority and low-income parents.
For one, their kids were placed with relatives after a brief stint in foster care, allowing them to regularly see Clarence and Cal. They also had the resources to hire an experienced attorney to navigate the complicated process.
“There certainly needs to be a check and balance there,” Sabey said. “We’re going to try to change the system and improve things for other families that don’t necessarily have the social capital or network that we have.”
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