Josh Sabey and Sarah Perkins are lucky enough to be reunited with their two children.
On July 12, Perkins noticed that her 4-month-old Cal had a high fever and was vomiting. Perkins took Cal to the Newton-Wellesley emergency room, where the hospital ran a battery of tests. On an x-ray, the doctors found that Cal had an old broken rib that had almost healed. This led to more questions – specifically what led to the breakup.
“We didn’t know how it happened,” Sabey said. “Once he fell out of a bed and we thought maybe that was it. And the doctor said it wasn’t.”
Injuries in babies with no history can alert healthcare providers. Massachusetts law requires physicians to report to the Department of Children and Families if they have reason to suspect child abuse or neglect.
dr Bob Sege, a child abuse pediatrician at Tufts Medical Center, explains that certain injuries — including broken ribs — can immediately raise suspicions of child abuse and prompt a more thorough investigation.
“In general, babies are resilient. It takes quite a bit of energy to break a rib,” Sege said. “Certain types of head injuries, broken ribs, certain types of leg or arm injuries are more common in abuse than in accidents.”
If parents don’t have an explanation for their child’s injury, it can lead to more questions, Sege said.
Perkins and Cal stayed in the hospital overnight. In the morning, Perkins said a hospital worker told her she couldn’t legally go and she saw a police officer outside her room.
“I closed the door, took Cal and immediately called Josh,” Perkins recalls. She said to her husband, “I don’t think we’re going to leave this hospital with our baby.”
But after further testing, interviewing and a visit from a social worker to Sabey and 3-year-old Clarence at their home, Perkins and Cal were able to leave the hospital.
“That was a huge sigh of relief,” said Sabey.
The couple said they shared the story on a Zoom call with all their family that evening and laughed at how they thought they overreacted. They went to sleep that night thinking the nightmare was over.
But then, in the middle of the night, there was a knock on the door. Waltham police and DCF social workers were there to take their children away.
Perkins said she doesn’t think she’ll ever get over this moment.
“It’s devastating,” she said. “It preys on all your worst fears as a parent.”
Sabey says there was no other pattern of abuse.
“There was only one X-ray,” he said. “We didn’t have a dysfunctional relationship, the police were never called to us. We had food in the fridge. So there was no other reason to suspect that we had abused our children.”
Perkins and Sabey – who are documentarians – took cell phone footage of the extraction. The video shows cops declaring they have no papers after being questioned by Sabey and moments when Clarence cries and says he doesn’t want to leave.
“These children were unnecessarily, traumatically and wrongly removed,” said attorney Jennifer Lamanna, representing Perkins and Sabey.
Lamanna has represented parents and former children in DCF cases for more than 20 years.
She explained that when a commissioned reporter contacts the Department of Children and Families to make an allegation of abuse or neglect, they fill out a 51-A report under Massachusetts law. The DCF protocol is to interview the family and may then initiate a Section 51B investigation.
If a child is in an emergency situation, within the timeframe of preparing the report, DCF can arrange for a “B Deportation” where they are legally able to accept children if they deem it necessary.
“These people work in the shadows, in the dark,” Lamanna said. “You can show up at your home in the middle of the night with no paperwork, no court order whatsoever and say we’re pulling under the B, we’ve decided there’s an emergency.”
Emergencies removal power is to make children avoid tragic situations where some children may be seriously injured or killed.
“You have to get kids out of dangerous situations,” Lamanna said.
But she believes there should be more control over when DCF decides an emergency removal is the only option. She wonders why families have not been able to go to court first to explain a case to a judge before deportation. No paperwork or court order is required for an emergency removal.
“Why did it have to be done in the middle of the night? What suddenly happened that created this urgency?” asked Lamanna.
Upon request for comment, a DCF spokesman provided NBC10 Boston with its Q3 report for FY22 and this statement:
“Due to state and federal privacy laws, the Department of Children and Families cannot confirm or deny whether or not a family is involved in DCF.”
Cal and Clarence were initially placed in foster care and then placed with Sabey’s parents, who had flown in from Colorado.
Perkins and Sabey awaited a court hearing where a judge would decide whether the children faced harm and neglect if they returned home.
Jay Blitzman, a retired juvenile court judge for 24 years, knows the lasting effects of such decisions.
“Relocations are hugely important,” Blitzman said. “Even for a few days. Any kind of removal is traumatic.”
He believes there should be more checks and balances before DCF removes a child from an orphanage.
“Perhaps more harm than good has been done in the name of secrecy, and perhaps we will all benefit from greater transparency,” he said.
One idea that surfaced during this NBC10 investigation is creating a forensic review before DCF removes a child, just as it would in a search warrant or restraining order situation. Blitzman called the idea intriguing and something he would support.
If a parent loses custody of their child, they have 72 hours to challenge DCF and the removal in a closed provisional custody hearing.
The hearing of Perkins and Sabey at Cambridge Juvenile Court took place behind closed doors for three days in August.
The couple learned it’s possible the injury occurred after Sabey’s mother pushed Cal when she thought he might fall. They say they were unaware of this incident because Cal showed no signs of pain and Sabey’s mother didn’t think it was important to report it at the time.
A judge granted Perkins and Sabey conditional custody of their children. They left the courthouse with their children relieved.
“I’m looking forward to snuggling with my boys,” Perkins said, her hand on her heart.
According to DCF’s 2022 quarterly report, approximately 60% of parents are reunited with their children within a year of their removal by DCF.
“I didn’t know how quickly it could happen, how quickly things could turn,” Perkins said. “I think that was one of the biggest shocks of my life.”
The couple feel incredibly fortunate to have had the resources to win their children back. They remain under DCF investigation until October 31st.
“The most important thing I want to share with the public is that this is happening,” Lamanna said. “It could happen to you.”