Charges Against Sarah Markham Dropped

Written by Mark O'Mara on . Posted in Opinion

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Last week, Sarah Markham was reunited with her son, and she regained the right to care for her baby without supervision by DCF. This week, upon confirmation that Sarah had visited a new pediatrician and saw a nutritionist, the criminal child neglect charges have been dismissed as well. The prosecutors took their responsibility seriously, they looked at all the information objectively, and they exercised their authority properly in dismissing the case. That is more than can be said for DCF, who misused their authority while they, in effect, held Sarah’s baby hostage for almost five months, forcing us to fight a broken system to regain custody. That was a heinous waste of valuable resources which could have been spent on a family in true need.

Is the Ferguson Grand Jury Being Properly Conducted?

Written by Mark O'Mara on . Posted in Opinion

I joined Jeffrey Toobin and Sunny Hostin on AC360 to talk about the Ferguson Grand Jury. We all agree that the grand jury process in this case is very unusual. It’s taking much longer than a typical grand jury, and the prosecutor is presenting more evidence than a grand jury would typically use to decide whether it is more likely than not that a crime was committed. We disagree, however, regarding what this all means. Sunny Hostin suggests that the prosecutor is trying to overwhelm the grand jury, confusing them with so much information that they’ll be more likely to tender a “no true bill.” I suggest that, considering the massive scrutiny any decision will have to bear, the prosecutor is going above and beyond in his presentation to ensure the jury’s decision can survive scrutiny. The essence of a grand jury is for the community to decide such issues. As long as it is done properly (and we will have the transcripts to ascertain that) I accept the decision to create a "super grand jury," giving it much more evidence than usual. I disagree that they are only being confused, and I bet they will deny confusion if and when they speak.

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.

What Does Justice Mean for Ferguson

Written by Mark O'Mara on . Posted in Opinion

cnnThe Michael Brown case has great significance because it is yet another in a growing line of tragedies that further demand a conversation about our civil liberties within the criminal justice system.

It has highlighted a massive lack of trust that exists between police and minorities. We must face the inconsistencies and the biases that remain if we are ever to move towards a system worthy of the trust it needs to succeed. Only by doing so can we end the devastating loss of life that is becoming an all-too-common occurrence.

We have another opportunity to become focused on and vocal about the changes that are necessary. It is only by bringing those problems to the forefront and into the harsh light of constant and public critique that we can hope to make a better system.

I still contend our criminal justice system is the best in the world for dispensing true justice, but, like every facet of the American democratic experience, it can use polishing. However, I reject the notion that the system is incapable of dispensing justice in cases where young, unarmed black men and women are killed.

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