When Josh Sabey and Sarah Perkins took their sick 3-month-old to the emergency room, they had no idea that just two days later, the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF) would seize both their children from their home in the middle of the night, without a judge’s approval. Why? During a routine X-ray, doctors found a small fracture on the baby’s ribcage, an injury social workers claimed could only be the result of child abuse.
Sabey and Perkins live outside Boston, Massachusetts, with their two sons, 3-year-old Clarence and 3-month-old Cal. As Perkins later wrote, they’re a typical family of four who enjoy taking their children to the library and the local park.
On July 13, Cal developed a 103-degree fever, and Perkins took him to the emergency room. When doctors ordered an X-ray to check for signs of a lung infection, a small, thumbprint-size fracture was discovered in Cal’s ribcage. While the injury would seem innocuous, doctors were immediately suspicious, and a social worker from the DCF was sent to interview Perkins, Sabey, and their 3-year-old son.
According to The Washington Post, Perkins and her husband faced maddening interviews and were caught in a Catch-22 where social workers interpreted seemingly anything Perkins and her husband said as a likely sign of child abuse.
When Perkins displayed a lack of concern for Cal’s fracture, instead focusing on his high fever and breathing troubles, a social worker wrote that the couple did not ask “enough follow up questions” about the injury. When Perkins became emotional and began crying while her baby was subjected to painful blood draws as part of the DCF investigation, social workers thought she was worried that abuse would be found. “Their concern was that I seemed upset that they might find something in the test,” Perkins later told the Post.
After an exhausting gamut of interviews and after DCF workers surveyed Sabey and Perkins’ apartment—where no concerns were found—the couple and their children were sent home on July 14 with a DCF safety plan, assuming their ordeal was over.
Instead, DCF came to their house in the middle of the night—around 1:00 a.m.—and demanded custody of the children, despite having no court documents approving removal. “It seems everything was deliberately timed to avoid having to get a court order and avoid proving to a judge that the children were in imminent danger,” Perkins later wrote. “Their laziness came at the cost of our children’s sense of security.”
While Perkins’ parents, who had flown to Boston, were eventually granted temporary custody of the children, it still took nearly a month for Sabey and Perkins to regain full custody of their children. According to the Post, the couple spent over $50,000 in legal fees fighting to convince the state to return their children. They will likely have to spend much more to strike from the record the couple’s “supported allegation of child abuse.”
While Sabey and Perkins’ story is shocking, cases like theirs are surprisingly common and reveal just how child protective services (CPS) agencies are increasingly overstepping their authority.
Every year, more than 3 million children are subject to CPS investigations. Some estimates claim that more than a third of children are investigated before they turn 18.
Citing imminent danger of abuse, CPS agencies have sweeping authority to seize children, often without approval from a judge. However, instead of using their power only to rescue children who are truly in harm’s way, CPS scrutiny often falls on ordinary parents whose children suffer routine, accidental injuries.
The justification for these kinds of seemingly illogical removals comes from the field of child abuse pediatrics, a controversial field whose most gripping theory, “shaken-baby syndrome,” has been found to be, at best, junk science. But CPS agencies across the country and law enforcement still seem quick to trust child abuse pediatricians’ claims about the origin of childhood injuries. While a rib fracture like Cal’s can be caused by any quick squeezing motion—Perkins’ mother believes she may have accidentally caused the injury—the child’s doctors insisted that the only likely source of such an injury is deliberate violence.
“Child abuse pediatricians very often operate under secret contracts with police, child protection, and prosecution offices—never disclosed to the parents bringing their children in for emergency treatment,” Diane Redleaf, the legal consultant at Let Grow, told Lenore Skenazy. “These individuals have been billed as having special superhuman powers to tell abuse from accidents and rare diseases, superior to the powers of other doctors because they ‘know child abuse when they see it.'”
While Sabey and Perkins’ story is a nightmare for any parent, the couple is also lucky. Millions of parents each year face similar investigations—and many fail to regain custody of their children.
“It’s normally a year before parents are united with their kids. I remember reading that, and going outside to my car and just sobbing,” Perkins told the Post. “I said, ‘Cal’s going to learn to walk before I see him again.’ And thankfully that didn’t happen for us, but it’s what happens for most people.”