Blind Couple Reunited With Baby Taken Away by State

Filed under: In The News, Amazing Parents

Erika Johnson and Blake Sinnett

Erika Johnson and Blake Sinnett's daughter, Mikaela Sinnett, was returned to them after 57 days in foster care. Credit: David Eulitt, Kansas City Star / MCT

Erika Johnson and Blake Sinnett of Missouri had a baby. For two days. Then they had a nightmare. State authorities took their baby away because both Johnson and Sinnett are blind.

Following a public outcry, little Mikaela was returned to her parents this week, and authorities were reminded of an ancient truism: None are so blind than those who will not see.

But Johnson tells the Kansas City Star she's not bitter.

Erika Johnson and Blake Sinnett

Blake Sinnett is guided to his mother's van with Erika Johnson as the two parents left for their Kansas City, Missouri apartment with their 2-month-old daughter. Credit: David Eulitt, Kansas City Star / MCT

"I'm a forgiving person," she says. Nonetheless, she adds, she resents the lingering prejudice people in power have against the handicapped.

"Disability does not equal inability," she tells the newspaper.

Mikaela was born May 21 at Centerpoint Medical Center in Independence, Mo. The Star reports doctors let Sinnett "see" his daughter's birth by feeling the crowning of her head.

According to the newspaper, Johnson's first attempts at breast-feeding were clumsy. A nurse noticed Mikaela's nostrils were covered by Johnson's breast, and Johnson felt that something was wrong. She switched the baby to her other side, but not before Mikaela turned blue.

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

That notation kicked the system into auto-pilot and plunged the new parents, both 24, into a nightmare. It would be 57 days before they were reunited with their baby.

When Johnson held Mikaela again July 20, the Star reports, the new mother couldn't stop crying.

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

Although they were able to return to their home in Independence that day, they still faced an adjudication hearing to determine whether or not they would have to basically share custody of their baby with the state.

However, the Star reports, they got a call from their attorney, Amy Coopman, saying the state had dropped the case.

"Every minute that has passed that this family wasn't together is a tragedy -- a legal tragedy and a moral one, too," Coopman tells the Star. "How do you get 57 days back?"

Arleasha Mays, a spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Social Services, tells the newspaper she can't comment on what happened because of privacy rules. Still, she insists, "the only time we recommend a child be removed is if it's in imminent danger."

Johnson tells the Star questions from a social worker started flying as soon as Mikaela was born.

How could they take the baby's temperature? With a talking thermometer. How would they get her to a doctor? In an emergency, they'd call an ambulance. For a regular appointment, they'd call a cab or ride a bus.

Johnson tells the paper those solutions weren't enough for the social worker. She and Sinnett were told they would need 24-hour care by a sighted person at their apartment. Johnson responded they couldn't afford such help and didn't need it.

"I needed help as a new parent, but not as a blind parent," Johnson tells the Star.

Soon, Mikaela was gone. The Star reports her parents weren't even allowed to hold her as she left the hospital. All they could do was touch her arm or leg.

Advocates for the blind were quickly on the case.

Gary Wunder, the president of the National Federation of the Blind of Missouri, tells the Star he found the story almost too incredible to believe.

"I needed to verify their whole story," he tells the newspaper. "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."

Wunder and other advocates rallied other associations for the blind nationwide. More than 100 people at a National Federation of the Blind 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.

They also hired Coopman, who tells the Star this is not the end of the story. 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 adds.

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.