The Sarah Markham Dependency Case

Written by Mark O'Mara on . Posted in Opinion

sarah markhamI don’t often write about my cases, but in this particular instance, my client asked me to speak out.

In June, Sheriff’s Deputies, at the request of the Florida Department of Children and Families forcefully entered Sarah Markham’s home while she was feeding her newborn son. They took her 12-day-old baby from her arms and arrested her for child neglect.

That morning, Sarah had visited her doctor, Dr. Chaban from Hunt Club Pediatrics. According to Sarah, the doctor recommended she supplement her breast feeding with formula, and he offered her a sample of a specific brand. Sarah knew the brand, and she knew it contained animal by-products. As a vegan, and as a Seventh Day Adventist, Sarah asked the doctor if he had a vegan alternative. Instead of suggesting an alternative, the doctor changed his opinion, and he told Sarah that she needed to take the baby to the hospital right away.

Why the sudden change of opinion?

Sarah believes the doctor would NOT have recommended she go to the hospital if she hadn’t challenged him by asking for an alternative. Instead of going to the hospital, she went to a health food store, purchased a vegan formula, and returned home.

During this time, the doctor discovered Sarah had not checked into the hospital, and ultimately, he called the Florida Abuse Hotline to report the young mother. Sara was feeding the baby the vegan formula when DCF first arrived, with law enforcement in tow. Not knowing why she would be visited by law enforcement, she felt uncomfortable answering the door. Before long, the Casselberry Police department obtained a locksmith service to force their way into the family home, where they found the mother and child scared and alone in a back bedroom.

Sarah was arrested and taken to jail. The newborn was taken to the hospital where medical professionals were more than willing to honor the mother’s request to feed the baby with a vegan formula, and that’s all they did for the baby.

I need to acknowledge that Sarah’s baby was, in fact, having trouble gaining weight.

Due, in part, to a condition called ankyloglossia (‘tongue-tied’), the two-week old baby was not getting all the nourishment it needed from breast feeding. Dr. Chaban, the very pediatrician who called the Florida Abuse Hotline, had treated the condition, but it had begun to recur. As a result, the baby had been diagnosed with a condition called “failure to thrive,” which means the baby had lost more of its birth weight than was ideal, and had not yet started to gain that weight back.

The baby had also been previously been diagnosed with dehydration, which Sarah was able to quickly remedy. It seems, as with many new moms, breast feeding alone wasn’t enough.

In the hospital, after just a few days of supplementing with vegan formula, the baby regained his birth weight. But he was not allowed to return home. DCF had already intervened; the child had become a ward of the state, and the mother was not allowed to live with her child. Had Sarah’s mother not been immediately available, the baby would have been placed in a foster home -- with strangers.

After more than five months of fighting DCF, Sarah can still not be with her child unsupervised. The baby’s father put his job in jeopardy to make important court dates. Their lives have been turned upside down, and now we have to focus our attention on defending Sarah against the pending criminal charges. That is disgusting.

This is yet another example of a broken system spending valuable resources on a non-case. As an example, DCF demands visits to a nutritionist, presumably to “cure” Sarah of her concern, ignoring the fact that Sarah is almost done with her health services degree, along with several courses in the nutrition area.

If you are a parent, I think you should find this case both shocking and terrifying. It proves that a single phone call can lead to your arrest, leaving you in a desperate legal fight to win back your children. It proves that a difference of opinion with your doctor regarding the care of your child can lead to draconian government intervention.

State departments of children’s services are tasked with important work: they’re tasked with rescuing children from abusive or neglectful parents. But they are also a bureaucracy, and they suffer, as many bureaucracies do, from rampant dysfunction. They are a blunt instrument used to perform delicate tasks. The damage they can do, the families they shatter, the lives they destroy -- it cannot be justified by good work that they do. The “collateral damage” should not be so disproportional. Thank God we were able to avoid this child turning into yet another story of DCF’s mishandling leading to devastating consequences.

I feel that parents need to be given a little latitude when exercising discretion over important decisions regarding their children. When it comes to dealing with doctors, unless it is absolutely clear that a child is in imminent danger, involving children’s’ services should be off the table. New parents need gentle guidance, not harsh punishment. Parents should not fear that disagreeing with their doctor’s opinion could lead to criminal charges and losing custody of their own children.