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Toddler Tantrum Costs a Family Everything—Including Their Kids

Photograph by Twenty20

An evening last November started out like any other for Mary*—but a parenting decision she made set off a spiral of events that will forever mark her family's stories about life with a toddler and a newborn. They'll look back on these days with mixed feelings, never forgetting the sheer terror and feelings of helplessnes watching strangers walk away with her sons, one of whom was a nursing newborn.

On that evening, her parents-in-law were cooking dinner and she played with her two boys while her husband took a shower. As usual, Vincent, the older of the two, got jealous of his baby brother and tried to nudge in. And, as usual, he threw a tantrum when the mom asked him to not take his brother’s toys.

Within a few minutes, his tantrum escalated and, after several attempts to calm him down, Mary picked him up, put him on the patio and stood by the open window, inches away, where she told him he could come back in as soon as he stopped hitting her.

To most parents, this seems like a typical evening with an emotional toddler. But for Mary and her family, who were a week away from relocating to Germany, it quickly became an unimaginable nightmare that lasted more than two months.

Moments later, she saw police carrying both children away and placing them in a police car.

Two hours after Vincent’s tantrum, there was a knock at the door. Mary saw several sheriff’s deputies standing outside and quickly opened up, assuming there had been a crime or an accident in the neighborhood. She was completely dumbfounded when they told her that they were investigating her for child abuse and endangerment.

“It was like something out of a movie,” Mary, a soft-spoken, trilingual woman with a master’s degree who'd lived all over the world, told me. “It never occurred to me that putting my kid on the patio was an issue. We live in a secure, gated apartment complex, and there are at least 4 feet of hedges between the sidewalk and our patio. We literally know all our neighbors, and I was never more than 12 inches away—even if it was on the other side of an open window.”

For the next two hours, sheriff’s deputies interviewed Mary and her husband, and asked Vincent questions while everyone waited for a Department of Children and Family Services caseworker to arrive. Close to midnight, the deputies decided they were tired of waiting and asked Mary to come to the sheriff's station. They told her that her children would not be separated from them. She agreed, hoping to spare her children any further stress.

Moments later, she saw police carrying both children away and placing them in a police car.

“They got them out of bed and didn’t even get them dressed," she said. "It was the worst moment of my life.”

Mary was charged with a 237(a)—misdemeanor child neglect—and her bail was set at $10,000. She spent the night with sex workers and drug offenders, praying and watching as her children were carried back and forth for physical exams and questioning. She was repeatedly ignored when she asked to nurse her infant son, Marcus, who was exclusively breastfed.

Back at home, a DCFS caseworker showed up to interrogate her husband, the boys' father.

“This guy seemed like he was trying to set us up. He asked me whether or not I knew that it was OK to hit a child, as long as it was with an open hand. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing!” he told me.

Mary was released the next morning without having to pay bail and, after giving her cellmate a ride home, they started calling DCFS to get an update on the kids, their whereabouts and when they could be returned.

'The infant had wasted away and was still throwing up, and his ears were filled with yellow goop.'

“The caseworker had repeatedly told me that he was trying to get the children back to us as soon as possible,” he said. “But when we called DCFS, they said no such recommendation had been made.” Family friends joined them and helped them make regular phone calls to follow up every time their caseworker’s shift started.

For the first few days, the parents remained upbeat. But it quickly became apparent that they were in over their heads. At one point, the operator at DCFS failed to locate the records for the infant, leading for a frantic, 5-hour search to retrieve the records. “No one knew where he was or what state he was in!” Mary recounted to me, still outraged. “How could they do that to an infant?”

She'd been pumping every two hours but, despite promises, no one ever came to pick up the milk and deliver it to her son.

The parents wouldn’t see their children again for another three days. Victor, the oldest, had been placed in a boy’s home in Compton, Calif., headed by an elderly woman who, in addition to her other young charges, cared for her husband who'd suffered a stroke. Their newborn was eventually located in a police holding facility, where he'd spent days and would be held for another week before being placed in a foster home. Mary and her husband were allowed a 2-hour visitation with each child. She wore sunglasses and spent most of the time crying and nursing her infant, who latched on to her with desperation.

The police caretaker told the parents the child had been throwing up a lot.

One of the family’s friends had been helping make phone calls and figure out the legal system, and learned she was eligible to file for temporary custody of the children. She applied immediately, going to a facility in downtown Los Angeles with her husband, mother-in-law and 2-year-old in the middle of the night to have her fingerprints done before the Thanksgiving holiday.

It had been a week since the children were taken and the infant had lost a lot of weight. His eyes were sunken.

“If there’s anything good that came out of his suffering, it is that we were able to use the before-and-after photos as leverage to get an emergency home inspection. If we’d waited for the Adoption Safe Family Act inspection, they would have been in a stranger’s house for another two months,” Mary said, clearly still in pain over the ordeal.

Two separate caseworkers delivered the children to the friend’s house nearly two weeks after they’d first been taken. The boys showed up in rough shape.

“The infant had wasted away and was still throwing up, and his ears were filled with yellow goop," she said. "The older one hadn’t bathed in a week, and literally threw himself on the table to grab food when it was time to eat.”

Over the next two months, there were continued delays, all of which were preventable.

The parents were only allowed to see their children twice a week in a public place, but their friends installed a baby cam, picked up breast milk and had the grandparents come over every day to play with the kids. Mary and her husband spent those days looking for a juvenile-dependency lawyer, attended court-mandated parenting classes and prepared their case file for the hearing.

She'd been sure that her kids would be returned after the first court date—especially given the numerous signatures on a petition, photos that showed the patio was a safe area, and letters from doctors, teachers and friends.

“But that didn’t happen.” she said. “Our lawyer didn’t even present the evidence and allowed the prosecution’s comments to go without response. Before we knew what was going on, another hearing had been set.”

“As I complained to some friends, I learned that more than one of them had been in the same situation,” Mary told me. One mom had been arrested for slapping her teenager after she intentionally smashed her brand-new iPhone, another one for play-kicking her daughter in the bottom.

All of them had the same advice: Start taking court-approved parenting classes.

Over the next two months, there were continued delays, all of which were preventable. First, the prosecution wanted to investigate if the court had jurisdiction, as the kids were foreign citizens. Without that, the judge wouldn’t be able to rule on the case, even though he stated he was prepared to hold trial and was prevented from hearing any evidence. Then the prosecution missed their deadline on resolving the matter. The next hearing was delayed because the judge was on vacation.

All the while, the family paid their lawyer and took parenting classes and attended private counseling sessions on parenting skills and anger management.

By the time the final court date rolled around in January, the case was immediately dismissed.

“The prosecution and DCFS cited our willingness to learn in the dismissal, but I think the truth is they never had a case,” she said.

When this whole thing started, we kept on telling ourselves that we are glad there are good people protecting kids. But the longer it dragged on, the more we resented that everyone wasted time while other kids were in real danger.

A few weeks later, her friend called her to tell her that she’d read a report about a spike in child removals after two caseworkers had been charged in the death of a child who had been under DCFS supervision in their parents' home.

“Hearing that, it all made so much sense," she said. "The long discussions by the sheriff’s deputies, the constant passing of responsibility by DCFS caseworkers …” she paused. “When this whole thing started, we kept on telling ourselves that we are glad there are good people protecting kids. But the longer it dragged on, the more we resented that everyone wasted time while other kids were in real danger.”

Mary's kids were returned to her in mid-January. While the family had originally planned to stay until her criminal trial, they decided to hire a lawyer to handle the case and leave the country. They'd learned from someone else who had a similar experience that children could, for a second time, be removed from the home with little cause.

"We didn’t want to keep borrowing money from friends and family, and we didn’t know how long it would take. We just wanted to get home and put this awful chapter behind us.”

Their case was dismissed without trial almost two months later.

When asked what she would do differently next time, Mary smiled. “Well, I’d let my toddler have his tantrum in the living room. But I would also skip hiring a lawyer. The court-appointed lawyer that was assigned to us did a better job than the one we hired and was less motivated to stand by while this case dragged out.”

*All names have been changed to protect the privacy of the family.

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