Part I of this story was published last week, ending at the moment when Florida CPS arrived unannounced with police officers at the Grahams’ home, and took their baby away without saying why.
When Florida CPS took Tristan away I was hysterical and calling my friends to see what could be done. How could the system take our son without saying what we had done wrong? That was the most horrifying day for us. We felt blindsided. We didn’t know what else we were up against.
The next day at court, custody of Tristan was given to a family member who we found out had something to do with him being taken away. She was with me at the hospital when the Safety Plan was being discussed. Without telling me, and possibly in violation of the law, the CPS had been in touch with her independently. They scared her into believing that my husband, Jeremy, was a “danger”. She thought that the CPS would only take Tristan away from my husband, but the courts always seem to think that mothers are the victims when they don’t go along with accusations against the husband. The court issued a “no contact” order against Jeremy. I was permitted to be around Tristan only if supervised by family members. Jeremy was allowed to hold Tristan one last time in court as he fell asleep. That was the last time in weeks that Jeremy saw Tristan.
It was only after this hearing that I hired a family attorney. Till then we had been without one, as we did not know what kind of legal expertise was needed in a CPS case. The first thing the attorney asked me was, “Who was the accusing doctor?” When I told her it was Dr S., she shook her head and said, “Oh, she says everything is abuse.”
I never understood how this doctor was the sole deciding factor in our case. No one had contacted my son’s regular doctors. Tristan was a big baby for his age—almost 18 pounds (8kg) at four months. All his doctors’ reports noted his large size and how he was a well-fed, healthy baby. Even the pictures I took on the fateful day show him to be unhurt, thriving and loved to within minutes before the seizures. But none of that seemed to count against the word of this one doctor who had seen Tristan for just five minutes.
I began work to place my son with a family member that I trusted. In order to get a placement, you need a Home Study by the CPS of the person proposed. But our CPS investigator told me that she was unable to do another Home Study as she was going to Hawaii for two weeks! She also threatened that if I tried to change Tristan’s placement, they would put him in foster care. I was frightened, but my attorney assured me they couldn’t do that and filed the motion for a change of placement.
At the court hearing to change the placement of my son to my aunt, the state prosecutor tried hard to convince the judge not to give me permission to stay in her house saying that I would sneak my baby in the middle of the night to see his father! Luckily, the court allowed me to live in my aunt’s house with my son.
While we were waiting for a court date, I started researching this “shaken baby syndrome (‘SBS’)”/“abusive head trauma (‘AHT’)” that Dr S. had said Tristan had been subjected to. I discovered that families around the USA were accused of the same thing all the time. All our stories were very similar, down to the age and how it all started with seizures. Doctors were attributing certain types of internal bleeding in children to parental abuse. I learnt of medical research showing such bleeds to be for non-abuse reasons, but child abuse doctors affiliated with children’s hospitals were continuing to misdiagnose abuse or ignoring tests that would indicate non-abuse causes for them. In our case, three doctors testified that Tristan’s bleeds were owing to fluid collections commonly associated with infants, especially those with large heads. In rare cases, these bleeds cause seizures.
Before the court date, the Department of Children and Families (DCF), which is the child protection authority in Florida, pretty much told us if we wanted to get our son back, we had better not take the case to trial or even mediation. They told us to agree to a “Case Plan” drawn up by them. They said having a Case Plan meant we were not admitting guilt, but also not saying nothing happened. It was like dangling a carrot before us. Our only wish was to get our son back as quickly as possible. DCF told us it would take a year to complete the Case Plan. But they made it sound like it would take longer to get our son if we went to mediation or trial. We just wanted this nightmare to end and agreed to the Case Plan.
The Case Plan involved our spending money on “counselling” and “therapy”. My husband’s “no contact” order was lifted, and he was able to have his first “therapeutic session” with Tristan, at a cost of $60 an hour. They found us a dirty place and had no idea what kind of “therapy” to do with my son at the time as he was just six months old and not even talking! It was a joke. The system decides on what is needed to make money from parents trying to get their kids back.
About four months after my son was taken, in March 2016, I went to court again saying the Case Plan was nearly complete and I was reunified with Tristan. This meant I was able to move back into my house with him, but my husband had to move out with a friend of his. During this time, my son and husband now had so-called “parenting classes” added to the “therapeutic sessions”, where he would sit in a room and play with Tristan. While we were dealing with the case I had to go on extended unpaid maternity leave from my job in a school working with autistic children.
In May 2016, seven months after the nightmare began, we received word that a “no information” was filed in the criminal side of our matter. A fortnight later, my husband was permitted by court to return home, but the DCF’s Case Plan continued even though my husband had been cleared of the accusation that had brought the DCF into our lives in the first place. It was another six months before the DCF case was finally closed.
My son is now two-and-a-half years old but we continue to feel the emotional and financial damage of the case on our family. Every Christmas I send cards to the accusing doctor and police detective with a picture of us telling them they did not succeed in breaking us as a family. This year, to my surprise, I got a card back from the accusing doctor admitting that “perhaps I need to be more careful to consider gray areas” in cases like ours! The card had a UNICEF logo. Though the doctor used fine words wishing us “many years of enjoyment” with our son, she continues to accuse families in the same way. I have had a few families contact me saying that the same absurd accusations of shaken baby syndrome have been made against them based on this doctor’s opinion alone. Doctors have immunity and can get away with saying “abuse” in any case and the government makes money off families trapped by them.
It is getting worse now as I am seeing that families accused after us are having their children put into foster care, even though there are many family members ready to take them. Foster care is also a way of making money. In many states in the USA, if a child has spent more than a year in non-family care, they are liable to be adopted to strangers. The system is a corrupt cesspool filled with many doctors making wrong accusations and child protection agencies profiting from it.
Vivianna Graham is a special education teacher in Florida, USA