Baby Sent to Foster Care for 57 Days Because Parents Are Blind
Child turns blue during breastfeeding incident and nurse calls welfare services.
July 28, 2010 — -- For two months, as Erika Johnson ached to bond with her newborn baby and her breast milk dried up, her daughter remained in the custody of Missouri's Department of Social Services.
Johnson and her boyfriend Blake Sinnett, both students, had prepared well for the birth of their first child and say they did nothing wrong. But the 24-year-olds are both blind.
Johnson delivered Mikeala on May 21 at Centerpoint Medical Center in Independence, but when she had difficulty breast-feeding and the baby began to turn blue, a nurse called social services.
The case was dropped last week and Mikeala went home, but only after spending 57 days in foster care.
"It was horrible," said Johnson. "There was the pain of not breastfeeding and she wasn't there. I used to cry every day, 'What if she forgets me?' The hardest part was to see her go home with someone else."
Now, the new parents are preparing to file a lawsuit claiming their civil rights were violated when they were denied the opportunity to care for their daughter. They say they want make sure it never happens to another blind couple planning to have a family.
"I'm the one that should have been waking up at, you know, one o'clock in the morning feeding her," said Johnson. "We're visually impaired, not mentally impaired. And you know we're just like everybody else, we just can't see as well."
While nursing the baby, Johnson said she sensed something was wrong and called a nurse.
"Everything was going smoothly until I had to breast feed, and there was some breast blocking the nose," said Johnson. "I asked the nurse if she was OK and she was beginning to turn blue. It could have happened to anybody."
The couple alleges the nurse was not properly trained, and the state's social service system "also has a problem with the training of its employees," according to their lawyer, Amy Coopman.
"It's a combination of multiple violations at a multiple level -- it's so egregious," she said. "At the top, it's unconstitutional. The parents had a right to raise their kid and the Constitution protects that. It's one of the oldest liberties forever. It doesn't matter if you are blind, deaf or in a wheelchair. You have the right to raise your child and they denied it for two months."
Centerpoint Medical Center's Chief Medical Officer Dr. Christopher Sullivan said in a prepared statement that the welfare of patients was the hospital's "top priority."
"Legitimate concerns about the safety and well-being of any patient are reported to the appropriate authority as required under Missouri law," he said.
The hospital is "committed to providing the very best patient care for our expectant mothers and newborn babies," said spokeswoman Gene Hallinan, who said she could not comment on the specific allegations because of patient privacy.
She said that "absolutely no action" would be taken against the nurse in question. "Legally, she has to report legitimate concerns to the authorities. It's part of the statute."