Infant is Returned to Blind Couple After State Places Her in Protective Custody

Posted on Wed, Jul. 21, 2010 12:15 AM
The Kansas City Star,

Fifty-seven days after she was born, Mikaela Sinnett was home for the first time Tuesday with her parents, Erika Johnson and Blake Sinnett of

State officials had worried they were unable to care for her.

A folding cane used by Blake Sinnett rested in the baby carrier used to
carry home his daughter.

On Tuesday, Blake Sinnett, guided by his mother, Jenne Sinnett, carried his 2-month-old daughter, Mikaela Sinnett. Behind
them was Mikaela’s mother, Erika Johnson.

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

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. Now breast-feeding is a lost option. And the beautiful
newborn clothes hanging in the closet went unworn, because their baby was growing bigger in the arms of someone else.

The couple said they had tried to prove themselves to the sighted community since their early years. Sinnett rode his bicycle on the street with the
help of a safety gadget. Johnson graduated from high school with honors. But all the challenges they’ve endured over the years shrink compared to the
responsibility of caring for 10 pounds of squirming baby girl.

Johnson cuddled Mikaela. Gave her a bottle. Patted her back until she burped. Mikaela gave a tiny smile. In their 24 years, the couple said, they’ve both endured prejudice from others. They don’t want any other blind parent to suffer the same obstacle
they did. Fifty-seven days are too precious to lose.

The Star’s Laura Bauer contributed to this report. To reach Lee Hill
Kavanaugh, call 816-234-4420 or send e-mail to

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