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Blind KC couple get newborn back after 57 days

Wednesday, July 21, 2010 | 9:09 a.m. CDT

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Erika Johnson will never be able to see her baby, Mikaela.

But for 57 days she couldn't keep her newborn close, smell her baby's breath, feel her downy hair.

The state took away her 2-day-old infant into protective custody — because Johnson and Mikaela's father are both blind.

No allegations of abuse, just a fear that the new parents would be unable to care for the child.

On Tuesday, Johnson still couldn't stop crying, although Mikaela was back in her arms.

"We never got the chance to be parents," she said. "We had to prove that we could."

Tuesday, she and Blake Sinnett knew their baby was finally coming home to their Independence apartment, but an adjudication hearing was scheduled for the afternoon on whether the state would stay involved in the rearing of the baby. Then from a morning phone call to their attorney, they learned that the state was dismissing their case.

"Every minute that has passed that this family wasn't together is a tragedy. A legal tragedy and a moral one, too," said Amy Coopman, their attorney. "How do you get 57 days back?"

Arleasha Mays, a spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Social Services, said privacy laws prohibited her from speaking about specific cases. But she added, "The only time we recommend a child be removed is if it's in imminent danger."

Johnson said she knew the system eventually would realize its horrible mistake, but she often was consumed with sadness. Sinnett tried his best to keep Johnson hopeful.

For almost two months she and Sinnett could visit their baby only two or three times a week, for just an hour at a time, with a foster parent monitoring.

"I'm a forgiving person," Johnson said, but she's resentful that people assumed she was incapable.

"Disability does not equal inability," she said.

Representatives of the sightless community agreed that people were well-meaning but blinded by ignorance.

Mikaela was born May 21 at Centerpoint Medical Center of Independence. The doctors let Sinnett "see" her birth by feeling the crowning of her head.

For Johnson, hearing Mikaela's whimpers was a thrill. The little human inside her all these months, the one who hiccupped and burped, who kicked and moved, especially at night, was now a real person whom she loved more than anything else she'd ever imagined.

In her overnight bag was Mikaela's special homecoming outfit, a green romper from Johnson's mother, with matching bottoms and a baby bow.

Questions arose within hours of Mikaela's birth, after Johnson's clumsy first attempts at breast-feeding — something many new mothers experience.

A lactation nurse noticed that Mikaela's nostrils were covered by Johnson's breast. Johnson felt that something was wrong and switched her baby to her other side, but not before Mikaela turned blue.

That's when the concerned nurse wrote on a chart: "The child is without proper custody, support or care due to both of parents being blind and they do not have specialized training to assist them."

Her words set into motion the state mechanisms intended to protect children from physical or sexual abuse, unsanitary conditions, neglect or absence of basic needs being met.

Centerpoint said it could not comment because of patient privacy laws, but spokeswoman Gene Hallinan said, "We put the welfare of our patients as our top priority."

A social worker from the state came by Johnson's hospital room and asked her questions: How could she take her baby's temperature? Johnson answered: with our talking thermometer. How will you take her to a doctor if she gets sick? Johnson's reply: If it were an emergency, they'd call an ambulance. For a regular doctor's appointment, they'd call a cab or ride a bus.

But it wasn't enough for the social worker, who told Johnson she would need 24-hour care by a sighted person at their apartment.

Johnson said they couldn't afford it, didn't need it.

"I needed help as a new parent, but not as a blind parent," Johnson said.

She recalled the social worker saying: " 'Look, because you guys are blind, I don't feel like you can adequately take care of her.' And she left."

The day of Johnson's discharge, another social worker delivered the news to the couple that Mikaela was not going home with them. The parents returned the next day to visit Mikaela before she left the hospital, but they were barred from holding her.

"All we could do was touch her arm or leg," Johnson said.

The couple began making calls. Gary Wunder, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Missouri, had trouble believing it at first.

"I needed to verify their whole story," he recalled. "We had to do due diligence. I found the couple to be intelligent and responsible.

"We knew this was an outrage that had taken place."

He notified Kansas City chapter president Shelia Wright, who visited the 24-year-olds. Hearing about the empty crib, the baby clothes, Wright recalled, "I felt as helpless as I've ever felt in my life.

"I hurt so bad for them. This is unforgivable."

They rallied other associations for the blind nationwide. More than 100 people at a national convention in Dallas volunteered to travel to Kansas City to protest and testify, both as blind parents and as the sighted children of blind parents. (Mikaela has normal sight.)

They also hired Coopman, who watched the young couple with their baby girl on Tuesday.

"I'm sorry," she said, wiping tears. "But this should not have happened."

Johnson kept a journal that Coopman is keeping closed for now. She indicates that legal action will be taken.

"Whether a couple is visually impaired or deaf or in a wheelchair, the state should not keep them from their children," she said.

For photos of the family, please see the story on kcstar.com.


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Comments

tim holstein July 21, 2010 | 9:54 a.m.

Once again another "well meaning" goverment agency playing big brother, turns the lives of innocent people upside down and demonstrates calous behaviour and blatant ignorance. Not once was it ever mentioned if the state could or would provide any assistance to help this young couple raise their child or find organizations that might help them. Too often children are taken away from their birth parents on the premiss of baseless accusations and put into foster care where they are abused and neglected because the acting agency fails to monitor or thoroughly investigate the backgroung and chartacter of foster caregivers. This couple most certainly would have received the support of family and friends with caring for their newborn child, but were never given any chance at all based on assumptions made by the Missouri Department of Social Services and the breif observation of one nurse. This is clearly an example of discrimination against people with a diasability. What about the laws in our country that guard all of us from this type of discrimination? Doesn't it apply equally to the people that work within the various agencies of govorment and social services!?

(Report Comment)
Daniel Jordan July 21, 2010 | 10:02 a.m.

I have an idea: let's make State employment even LESS attractive. That way, we can have even WORSE decisions. Coming soon (starting 2011) to an agency near you!

(Report Comment)
Tracy Greever-Rice July 21, 2010 | 11:47 a.m.

Will staff at this hospital receive additional training on understanding the capacities of people with certain types of disabilities?

Are the nurse and social worker still employed at the hospital?

(Report Comment)
Allan Sharrock July 21, 2010 | 1:36 p.m.

Daniel pay had nothing to do with this case. This was the government thinking they know what is best for everyone.

(Report Comment)
Daniel Jordan Jordan July 21, 2010 | 10:24 p.m.

Allan,

"This was the government thinking they know what is best for everyone."

Absolutely. Government is people ("they") who make decisions. Are less qualified people going to make better decisions?

(Report Comment)
Allan Sharrock July 22, 2010 | 9:21 a.m.

If you think that massive pay increases in the government roles will somehow get more qualified people you better think again. Some people have political connections that often lead to them getting a job. Have you ever heard of somebody losing their government job other than because of the recession? Doesn't generally happen unless there is some kind of scandal. It is like a union job and they keep everyone regardless of ability.

(Report Comment)
Daniel Jordan July 22, 2010 | 1:21 p.m.

Allen,

---"If you think that massive pay increases in the government roles will somehow get more qualified people you better think again."

Down, boy. Massive pay raises find mention only in your straw man argument. Consider cutting down on caffeine.

---"Have you ever heard of somebody losing their government job other than because of the recession?"

Yes, I have. It happens all the time.

---"It is like a union job and they keep everyone regardless of ability."

Nonsense. What do you think all those Personnel Advisory Board decisions are about? Employees not subject to the State merit system are subject to dismissal at will. These are basic facts about State employment that anyone commenting on it ought to know.

---"Doesn't generally happen unless there is some kind of scandal."

It happens because of poor job performance or a change of administration.

No matter how small State government gets, bad State decision-makers will make bad State decisions. Good decision-makers are the only way to get good decisions. Making State employment less attractive will lead to more decisions like the one this story is about.

(Report Comment)
Allan Sharrock July 23, 2010 | 11:34 a.m.

Are you employed by the government Dan?

(Report Comment)
Andrew Hansen July 23, 2010 | 12:08 p.m.

"Have you ever heard of somebody losing their government job other than because of the recession?"
.
In Missouri? Definitely. Not exactly a state with strong public employee unions.
.
And for the record I work for a big, evil, greedy pharma company, and not 'the government'. A few years ago I got job offers from both the State of Missouri and my current employer...pay was not even comparable. That is why I am in Texas working for big pharma.
.
State employee salaries in Missouri are pitiful. Heck, they pay state employees considerably more here in Texas.
.
Dan is right. If the State wants talented and skilled people they need to pay competitive salaries.

(Report Comment)

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