How I lost my grandson to ruthless US child protection authorities by Susan Barringer Wells

This article was serialised in two parts in the Sunday Guardian on 15 April 2018 with the title “The story of an accident and a state-led child confiscation” and on 21 April 2018 with the title “The authorities had no right to take my grandson away” as part of the series called “Global Child Rights and Wrongs” being published in collaboration with this website, www.saveyourchildren.in.

PART I

I am a 67-year old grandmother, writer and artist from North Carolina, USA. Among my hobbies is tracing the ancestry of my family. I know the names of my ancestors from Germany and Britain who settled in America in the 16oos and 17oos. My grandson’s 9th great grandfather, John Wells, was one of the 50 signatories of the Tryon Resolves; an early Declaration of Independence from Britain from Tyron County in North Carolina. The house of my 5th great grandfather still stands.

my grandson will not know us or his history

But my grandson will not know us or his history. Five years ago he was taken from us at three months of age by Child Protection Services.

One of the author’s paintings, a folk townscape which hangs in a prestigious local gallery.

It is hard to know where to begin. Perhaps the beginnings lie in the Vietnam War. My husband served in that war and was exposed to the chemical known as Agent Orange. He developed diabetes and then leukemia from which he died at 44. In later years the Veterans Administration accepted the connection between my husband’s service and both his illnesses. We had separated before he fell ill. I left with our two children owing to his descent into alcoholism and aggressive behaviour, which would now be considered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from his war service. At the time I did not understand, but this experience made me acutely aware of chemical exposure.

When I first got married I too was exposed to toxic chemicals working as an accountant at an auto parts centre. I developed tumours that were surgically removed. In those days little was known about the effects of repeated exposures to chemicals at work and in everyday household materials such as paint. As my health suffered doctors would shrug their shoulders; some treated me as if I was just “depressed”. I had to do the research and figure it out myself.

Eventually I learnt about what was then considered a rare condition of multiple chemical sensitivities. I found doctors who specialized in chemical sensitivities. I also found an integrative chiropractor. Together they restored my health. The key was treating the effects of too many antibiotics, a complete change in diet, avoidance of exposure to chemicals, clean air, exercise and sweating to detoxify.

my life experiences led me to be more aware than most people about chemicals, drugs and non-allopathic treatments

So my life experiences led me to be more aware than most people about chemicals, drugs and non-allopathic treatments. I also learnt what many who experience prolonged illness do – that medicine is not an exact science, doctors can differ in their approach and sometimes you have to take charge of your treatment by researching the drugs and diseases yourself and taking multiple medical opinions before settling on a particular course of action.

My interest in this subject also led me to study public health. I took courses from the School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina and later worked and lectured as a child nutrition specialist. This background is relevant to understanding my later conflict with my county social services over the health and safety of my family.

Both my children did well in school. They were honour students, my daughter lettering in track and my son nominated for the prestigious Governor’s School. My daughter also had some chemical sensitivities that were treated before she started college.

At college my daughter was a straight-A student until she had a minor accident where a driver ran a red light and slammed into the side of her car. This was when her nightmare began. My daughter was not badly hurt, but began to suffer what we now understand, mostly because of the information about concussion among National Football League players, to be common symptoms of traumatic brain injury (TBI) – especially insomnia and depression. The college was not understanding, and my daughter eventually dropped out to take a break. During the break she continued her studies by using the local county library.

Then one day she fainted in the library bathroom, hitting her head on the floor and fracturing her jaw, chin and upper mouth. One tooth was knocked out, one broken in half and about 20 others fractured. She was treated by a surgeon but no one tested her for TBI, even though, I later learnt, such falls as she had had can result in brain and spinal injury. A recent brain map test confirmed that she has brain injury.

After her fractures healed, my daughter needed a lot of dental repair. At the time, I thought nothing about the prescription sedative the dentist prescribed for her. She was told to take half before she came to the appointment and to bring the other half with her. The sedative was Halcion. This is a very dangerous and controversial drug. It was banned at one time in the UK and currently the maximum permitted dose is .25 mg. But the dentist prescribed an entire milligram. I know now that the American Dental Association had just cracked down on the off-label use of this drug by dentists who were using it to knock patients out for long procedures, in lieu of hiring an anaesthesiologist.
My daughter was never the same after that dental appointment. I watched her descend into a state of confusion and fear that I never thought was possible. I was really bewildered. In the middle of this episode one day she took off in her car, suddenly unable to recognise me.

She was found three days later by the highway patrol. She had fallen asleep at the wheel in the early morning hours, perhaps the result of her severe insomnia after the Halcion overdose, and ran off the road, hitting an embankment and jolting her head again. When I went to get her, she didn’t know who I was, and I had to talk her into going home with me. I found a neuropsychiatrist who diagnosed my daughter with brain injury and suggested she get a complete evaluation and treatment for brain injury in the state of Virginia. But my daughter resisted, afraid to get back into a car again and not realizing the effects of all that had happened to her.

Hoping to persuade her in time, I consulted with the State Brain Injury Association and the University of North Carolina School of Integrative Medicine. They referred me to a neurologist, who in turn referred me to a homeopath. The research showed, and all the experts told me, that there was no drug or set treatment at the time for TBI but studies had been done with homeopathy that had produced some results. I was told that rest and time to recover was the most helpful. I worked with the homeopath and another doctor who used supplements, and my daughter improved dramatically. She calmed down and was able to sleep.

I don’t know what caused my daughter to have a setback, but she went out for a walk one day and the local police brought her home. This was how the Department of Social Services (DSS) and Adult Protective Services (APS) came into our lives. I met with the caseworker and explained about the TBI and the Halcion overdose. But from the start the county authorities decided that I was wrong. In their view my daughter was schizophrenic and had to be put on “antipsychotics for life.”

This led to a prolonged conflict with the authorities over the diagnosis and treatment of my daughter. A court proceeding was started to commit my daughter to care. In the USA, this can be done to an adult with mental conditions; the State has the power to confine you and dictate your medical treatment on grounds of mental incapacity, even over the wishes of your family.

they wanted to drug my daughter without consulting a brain injury expert

I resisted as they wanted to drug my daughter without consulting a brain injury expert as to the appropriate medications to use. I found psychiatrists and doctors who examined my daughter and gave opinions of suspected TBI. One day, while the case was in court and I was away from home, the DSS turned up with the police and dragged my daughter off to their chosen doctor, seeking a diagnosis that would agree with them. Later as I tried to get the court to recognize the facts and the need for TBI treatment, the court sided with whatever DSS said. I was denigrated for using homeopathy and for objecting to the use of drugs on my daughter that might worsen her TBI.
I eventually got my daughter free of state control, but not before she suffered the effects of the drugs they forced upon her. In particular, she got addicted to benzodiazepines prescribed by the DSS doctors. On these medicines, my daughter had no desire to seek TBI treatment. The DSS and their doctors had told her to “forget about TBI”. She was an adult and I could only advise her. In a way, the entire episode had driven a wedge between us. Instead of helping us as a family, the system created conflict and undermined the trust between us.

My daughter tried hard to get her life back. She found a good job in another part of the state and fell in love. Then the doctor who was prescribing her the benzodiazepines left town and thus her access to the drug was abruptly cut off. The correct way to get off benzodiazepines is by slowly lowering or “tapering” the dose. Abrupt suspension of this drug can cause severe harm – prolonged and painful withdrawal, psychosis and even death. But I did not know this and neither did my daughter. My daughter came home, her relationship with her boyfriend had ended. I saw her condition deteriorating just as it had with the Halcion overdose. And then my daughter learnt she was pregnant.

The grandson I spoke of at the beginning of this article was her child. He was taken by the authorities based on their history with us. They rejected my daughter as a caregiver claiming mental unfitness when it was they who did everything to exacerbate her problems. And they rejected me, the grandmother, as a caregiver, based on my disagreement with them on how to treat her. In the next part of this article, I will tell you the story of how they took my grandson away.

PART II

My grandson’s birth was a complete surprise. My daughter had started mild contractions and actually fallen asleep while we waited for them to get harder before leaving for hospital. Suddenly she woke, and the baby’s head was crowning! One push and my grandson was out – delivered by me! I didn’t even have a car seat as yet and ordered one right away. The unexpected home birth was later used against me as denying my grandson medical care.

After the delivery my daughter refused to go to the hospital for a check-up. She was scared of being forcibly hospitalised by DSS again. I could not force her and later this was used against me as denying her medical care even though I was in touch over the phone with doctors about any follow up she might need. They suggested some urine and blood tests, which I had done. I also called a paediatrician and said I would bring the baby along as soon as the car seat arrived. They told me to come when I could but the delay in taking the baby to the paediatrician was also used against me.

After the birth my daughter started showing signs of mental confusion again. Her thinking became irrational and I had to take over primary care and supervision of the baby while at the same time enabling as much involvement as possible with my daughter. In her disoriented state my daughter felt that I was trying to keep the baby from her. When I had to postpone the first appointment with the paediatrician by two days, my daughter got agitated and called the paediatrician saying that if I did not bring the baby over the next day, they should call Social Services. The DSS came to my door with a police officer the next day. To this day my daughter regrets that call, but I believe her confusion was brought on by post-natal hormonal changes exacerbating her already fragile state from protracted benzodiazepine withdrawal.

DSS would turn up unannounced, panicking my daughter who refused to speak to them

This began another round of inspections and conflict with DSS. DSS would turn up unannounced, panicking my daughter who refused to speak to them, though I begged her to. We left town for a few days to get a break from their constant harassment and they later accused us of “not co-operating” with them even though we returned home voluntarily after our break. They never explained what was expected of us and I even have in writing from the caseworker that I was “taking good care” of my grandson. DSS never explained why they continued to be involved after it was shown that my grandson was not sick or harmed in any way. They later accused me of denying my grandson medical care even though I did in fact take him to the paediatrician who reported him each time to be fine.

From my daughter’s history DSS were aware that she would make panicked calls when she was not herself. But DSS used this later to say that my daughter did not want me to care for her child – ignoring numerous other occasions when my daughter did ask for me to do so before them. From my studies in public health, I was aware of some concerns about vaccine damage in infants. So when taking my grandson to the paediatrician’s I had asked if we could hold off the vaccinations until I did a little research and perhaps went with an altered schedule. The paediatrician said “several of my parents have requested that and all I ask is that they sign a waiver.” I agreed. DSS later used this in court to make out that I was “adamantly opposed to vaccines”, which I am not.

The episode with the DSS motivated my daughter to see a well-known TBI specialist, the former President of the Brain Injury Association of America, who had given a preliminary finding of TBI based on her records. Being much in demand, he could only give us an appointment two months later. I took care of my grandson and hoped that things would improve with my daughter once we saw him.

my daughter was drugged with Haldol and Congentin – drugs given to Gitmo detainees before they are interrogated

But we were never able to keep that appointment. DSS got an ex parte order to forcibly commit my daughter a second time to hospital. She was put through a psyche evaluation at which her request and right to have me present was denied. I later learnt that my daughter was drugged that day with Haldol and Congentin. These are drugs given to Gitmo detainees before they are interrogated. While my daughter was on those drugs two DSS caseworkers came in and interrogated her. She says she has no memory of what she said. I was allowed to see her for a few moments after the interrogation. She looked like she had been sleeping and signed a power of attorney in my favour asking me to care for the baby in her absence.

Later that day DSS filed a petition to take over custody of my grandson citing my daughter’s mental condition, accusing me of refusing to accept her diagnosis of “mental illness”, of being “adamantly opposed to vaccines” and alleging that my daughter had claimed I had bruised her and held her hostage. This, even though my daughter had signed a power of attorney in my favour after the interrogation and the State Social Service Manual states that not taking children for well visits, not vaccinating them at all, or not forcing them to take behavioural modification medications is not, in itself, neglect. Based on these phony claims they got an unlawful ex parte order without even alleging the required immediate need for removal from an out-of-town judge known for easily granting DSS custody over children. They came to my home and took my three-month-old grandson from my arms that very day.

I was not even named as a party to the DSS’s custody petition. This itself was illegal because I had been the child’s caretaker from birth, and with my daughter in hospital, I was its custodian.

I had to sit in the spectator’s section at the custody hearing.

A custody hearing was held two days later. As I was not joined as a party to the proceeding I had to sit in the spectator’s section. I could barely hear what was being said. When the hearing was apparently coming to a close, I raised my hand and very meekly asked if I could speak. The judge did not even look up. He flicked his hand as though he were shooing away a fly and kept my grandson in foster care.

set up for failure: so long as my daughter was in a fragile mental state, she needed my help to properly care for the baby, but I had been cut out by DSS

DSS now began to go through the motions of “reunifying” my daughter with my grandson. Under the law, they are obliged to attempt to reunite parents and children, but in my daughter’s case they did it in a way that was doomed to failure. For one thing, so long as my daughter was in a fragile mental state, she needed my help to properly care for the baby, but I had been cut out by DSS. As they had done before, DSS tried to alienate my daughter from me. They got her to repudiate the power of attorney she had given me. They told her I was wrong about her needing to see a brain injury specialist. They made her believe that if she would just “take her meds ” and do what they said, she would get her son back. They put her back on benzodiazepines.

They also barred my daughter from living with me. They sent her to a badly run group home where almost all her rights were violated. My daughter tried hard to please the caseworkers. But they criticised her every move.

They used my special concern about chemical sensitivities and use of homeopathy and food supplements to portray me as a crank who was “inappropriate” to care for the baby and had “no insight” into my daughter’s condition.

Finally DSS joined me as a party accusing me of “serious neglect”, based on claims that all had an innocent explanation, such as the unexpected home birth of the baby, the delay in taking him to the paediatrician, my asking about vaccines, my disagreement over the use of drugs on my daughter without taking into account her TBI and so on. They added a completely false allegation of “failure to provide remedial care” to my grandson, which made no sense as it was on record that he was in good health. They used my special concern about chemical sensitivities and use of homeopathy and food supplements to portray me as a crank who was “inappropriate” to care for the baby and had “no insight” into my daughter’s condition.

Before the case could go to trial DSS coerced me into signing a document called a “stipulation” that effectively had me admitting that my grandson was neglected while in my and my daughter’s care. I was uneasy but signed as at the time my state-appointed lawyer persuaded me that reunification was on the cards if I did so. My state-appointed lawyer had not explained the consequences of the stipulation to me, or even shown me the full document in writing ahead of time. He told me in writing that all my rights were intact if I should later decide to appeal to court. But this was wrong.

I later learnt that this is a routine DSS strategy: to allege serious neglect and then push the family to agree to a stipulation that accepts a lower charge of neglect. This is technically different from “serious neglect”, which allows DSS to avoid having to prove its allegations in a trial, while at the same time justifying its removal of the child. The bait given to the family is that agreeing to a stipulation of neglect will put the family on the path to reunification, instead of being left to the uncertainties of a trial.

After the stipulation, the court removed me as a party on DSS’s application saying that I had no remaining rights in the matter as I had agreed to the stipulation of neglect and was not claiming custody of the child, but agreeing to his reunification with his mother. None of us realised that the clock was now ticking on us. Under the law, if the reunification efforts failed, the baby could be given up in forced adoption.

when I filed a motion to intervene so I could explain my daughter’s medical condition, I was sanctioned $5000.

With me out of the picture, DSS began to pile the pressure on my daughter. Their involvement resulted in her being, again, abruptly cut off of the benzodiazepines which they were responsible for putting her on in the first place. This brought on another episode of acute benzodiazepine withdrawal. My daughter deteriorated and was unable to continue the supervised visitations with her baby. Now certain that her disability was the result of abrupt benzo withdrawal, I found a doctor to get her treated and back on the drug for a slow safer taper, knowing my daughter could not recover and meet DSS demands otherwise. I tried to explain to the DSS, sending them the doctor’s report, but they ignored it. The father had already given up his rights, and when I filed a motion to intervene so I could explain my daughter’s medical condition, I was sanctioned $5000.

DSS now claimed that my daughter had willingly stopped visiting her child. They went ahead and obtained a decree for the adoption of my grandson by his foster carers, even while I was in the process of trying to get the court to consider me for custody and adoption. I lost in the Court of Appeals which said that the case was moot with my grandson having been adopted already.

But I am not giving up my legal battle. DSS had no right to take my grandson when there was no abuse, neglect or emergency. I was never given a meaningful chance to be heard in court. I plan to appeal to the US Supreme Court.

To spread awareness about this issue, I have tied up with a national art project called ‘Inside Out’ for which I am asking victims of child protection services to send me their photographs with a list of violations committed against them.

I will leave the reader with this excerpt from the North Carolina state social services manual to demonstrate how far is the practice of child protection services from how they are supposed to act:

“We believe that the family is the fundamental resource for the nurturing of children and that children have a right to their own families.…..We support and require the involvement of children and families throughout their involvement with child welfare.…. It is our job to instil hope because even families who feel hopeless can grow and change. This means …..that the family’s ideas and resources are given the same legitimacy as those proposed by professionals, and that mutual agreement in decision making is a primary goal.”

The author is a grandmother, artist and award-winning writer from North Carolina, USA. Her book, A Game Called Salisbury, has received the Willie Parker Peace History Book Award. 

 

 

 

 

 

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