Blind Independence couple gets newborn back after 57 days

KANSAS CITY, Missouri - 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.

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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