Marc Fisher: Child Protection System Puts New Mother Through the Wringer

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, April 23, 2009

Woozy from pain medication after a Caesarean section, swinging from joy over her newborn boy to exhaustion from the strain of delivering him, Karen Piper mentioned to her doctor that she'd been hoping for a girl. She would come to regret those words.

There she was at Washington Hospital Center on an early spring afternoon, three days after giving birth. She'd be taking Luke home to the room she had lovingly prepared, to a time she'd dreamed about for years, just the two of them getting to know each other, reveling in the miracle of new life.

When nurses finally told Piper she was free to leave, no discharge papers for her son were brought out. Instead, she faced a parade of inquisitive official visitors, including uniformed police, a social worker, a psychiatrist, and assorted doctors and nurses. Her baby had been placed on medical hold while government investigators considered whether Piper was fit to take Luke home to Prince George's County, the authorities said. She had failed to bond with her baby, a nurse told Piper.

For three days, Piper fought through a bewildering nightmare of lawyers, investigators from the District and Prince George's, and hospital officials. A night nurse reported that Piper had declined an opportunity to breast-feed her baby, according to the mother and her lawyer. "I was so groggy, I don't even remember that incident," Piper says.

A psychiatric intern asked Piper to spell "world" backward. A nurse-practitioner told Piper that it was awful that a new mother could be disappointed not to have had a girl. "She told me the burden was on me to prove that I should be allowed to take my baby home," says Piper, a lawyer who works at the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Like too many parents before her, Piper had fallen into the rigid, overlawyered maw of a child protection system that substitutes mandatory reporting for the judgment and human sensitivity medical professionals should exercise.

Washington Hospital Center spokeswoman Paula Faria says medical personnel "have a legal obligation to report to local agencies any concerns staff have about discharge of a patient, and especially little newborns." She says it was the medical staff's "professional recommendation that we had to take steps to make sure the best interests of the baby were protected. We really believe we did do the right thing."

Mindy Good, spokeswoman for the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency, says her agency got involved after hospital personnel reported their concern. "Mandated reporters often err on the side of being cautious," she says.

The Prince George's and D.C. agencies eventually found no cause to keep mother and child apart, but for the better part of a week, it seemed to Piper, her family and her attorney that the hospital's care was being used against her. The hospital gave her pain meds that made her woozy, the hospital took her son to be circumcised, and then investigators wanted to know why Piper hadn't spent more hours with her baby.

When a social worker asked for details of Luke's conception -- Piper is a single mother and, at 50, an unusually old one -- Piper concedes she blew up. "My attitude with her was confrontational because I was getting scared they would take my son from me," she says.

When uniformed officers came to take Luke, she yelled at them: "This is my child, in my custody." Piper says one D.C. police officer dug her fingernails into Piper's palm "to make me let go of Luke's crib," then blocked her way when she tried to visit her son in the nursery. Citing privacy rules, hospital officials won't comment on the incident.

"I've been practicing family law for 31 years, and I've seen many abuse cases, but this is unique," says Joel Anders, who represented Piper. "To accuse Mom of neglect as a result of her not spending adequate time with the child in the hospital is just extraordinary, especially since Ms. Piper was postoperative and highly medicated."

The Prince George's child welfare agency refused to comment. A social services source familiar with the case says that "the issue is, Ms. Piper really believed she was going to have a girl and made some comments that caused concern." A hospital spokesman says putting a medical hold on a newborn is a rare move.

Anders says child protective services personnel "embraced the complaint no differently than if they had seen bruises on a child. Don't they have an obligation to sort out what they do and don't investigate?"

Astonishingly, that's a matter of debate. When I wrote about a similar case of overzealous child protection last year, D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles argued that "this is a very law-driven process that can have very unsatisfying results. . . . The law is skewed properly toward the protection of the child." But in that same case, Roque Gerald, then deputy chief of the city's child protection agency and now its head, criticized "defensive child welfare. In our attempt to protect, we have also lost the ability of balance for fear of retribution."

That's welcome honesty; if only the authorities would act on it.

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