Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Letter to Missouri Department of Social Services and Centerpoint Medical Center

Dionna Ford
July 21, 2010

Ronald J. Levy
Director, Missouri Dept. of Social Services
Office of the Director
Broadway State Office Building
P.O. Box 1527
Jefferson City, MO 65102-1527

Cc: Ms. Denise Molland
Director of Women's Services
Centerpoint Medical Center
19600 East 39th St.
Independence, MO

Dear Mr. Levy and Ms. Molland:

I respectfully write this letter to express my utmost concern over the conditions of the removal of Mikaela Sinnett from the custody of her parents, Erika Johnson and Blake Sinnett on May 23, 2010 from the Centerpoint Medical Center in Independence, MO. Of course the public does not know all of the details of this family’s story, but the fact that a breastfeeding mother was not given every opportunity to provide her child with proper nutrition should be addressed.

Mikaela was born to Erika Johnson and Blake Sinnett on May 21, 2010. The sound of Mikaela’s first cries after her birth may have been more special to her parents than they would be to other parents, because Mikaela’s parents are blind.

As with any new mother, when Erika latched little Mikaela on to breastfeed in those first few precious hours of her life, Erika struggled a little. Breastfeeding has a learning curve for every woman, but there is no requirement that a mother must see her infant in order to nurse her. When the Centerpoint lactation nurse noticed that Erika’s breast was covering Mikaela’s nostrils, she was concerned. But instead of patiently working with the young mother (like we would hope any nurse or lactation consultant would do), she decided that Erika was incapable of caring for her newborn.

On Mikaela’s chart, the Centerpoint nurse recorded the words that would irrevocably change the course of the infant’s future: “The child is without proper custody, support or care due to both of parents being blind and they do not have specialized training to assist them.”[1]

A social worker came next to ask questions: “How could she take her baby’s temperature? [Ms.] Johnson answered: with our talking thermometer. How will you take her to a doctor if she gets sick? Johnson’s reply: If it were an emergency, they’d call an ambulance. For a regular doctor’s appointment, they’d call a cab or ride a bus.” The couple’s answers were not good enough. The social worker declared, “Look, because you guys are blind, I don’t feel like you can adequately take care of her.”[2]

Two days later, Mikaela was taken by the Missouri Department of Social Services. For the next 57 days, Erika and Blake were only allowed to see Mikaela two or three times each week for an hour at a time, and only under the supervision of Mikaela’s foster parent.

Ironically, the Missouri Department of Social Services proudly proclaims on its website that its “mission is to create opportunities for eligible blind and visually impaired persons in order that they may attain personal and vocational success.” To accomplish that mission, you provide services “on the premise that with adequate preparation and reasonable accommodation, each blind or visually impaired person will be able to achieve his or her maximum potential in the home and community, in educational settings, and in employment.”[3]

How is taking a two day old infant away from her parents and placing her in foster care “adequate preparation” or “reasonable accommodation” to help Social Services achieve its mission of helping Erika and Blake “achieve their maximum potential”?

What reasonable efforts did the Missouri Department of Social Services make to prevent removal of Mikaela from her parents?[4] Why could Social Services find no family or community resources to help Erika and Blake learn how to parent their newborn?[5] The fact that a person is blind does not make him or her incompetent or incapable of caring for a child.

The Missouri Department of Social Services only removes children who are in “imminent danger.”[6] This covers situations where a child is in danger of physical or sexual abuse, unsanitary conditions, neglect, or is not having his basic needs met. I do not comprehend how the simple state of being blind can lead Social Services to believe that the parent is in danger of failing to meet a child’s basic needs, neglecting the child, subjecting the child to unsanitary conditions, or abusing the child.

And regardless of whether Social Services decided it was in Mikaela’s best interests to remove her from her parents’ home, there appears to have been absolutely no reason that Erika and Blake should have been limited to such infrequent, supervised visits. Two or three times per week for an hour each time is a reprehensible visitation schedule for new parents who had shown no signs of abuse or neglect. Erika and Blake were even barred from holding their newborn daughter – and so Erika lost her right to nourish and comfort her daughter at her breast.

The consequences to a child’s health from being denied the opportunity to breastfeed are well catalogued. Mikaela’s health has been irreparably harmed by the Missouri Department of Social Services’ decision to deny Mikaela her basic human right of the standard in infant nutrition.

Erika was never given adequate lactation support by Centerpoint Medical Center or Social Services, nor was she given adequate contact with her daughter to establish a healthy breastfeeding relationship. There appears to have been reason to bar Erika from visiting her daughter on a sufficient basis to maintain breastfeeding and/or pumping. The apparent lack of forethought given to this family’s situation by both Centerpoint and by Social Services is deplorable.

It is disheartening that no one at Centerpoint or Social Services cared about what was truly in Mikaela’s best interests: if she was to be denied the company of her parents, at least she could have been protected by her mother’s breastmilk. (And for those who would have advised Erika to pump her breastmilk, it is often a challenge to pump an adequate supply of breastmilk at all, much less to pump under the incredibly stressful conditions of having a child forcibly removed from your breast and of not having your child physically close to you while pumping, which helps stimulate milk production.)

If Social Services was that concerned about Erika and Blake’s ability to care for Mikaela, why couldn’t they have been placed with a social worker or foster parent who would have helped them in those crucial first few days or weeks? Why could they not have remained at the hospital for additional training? Surely someone could have come up with a solution that would have been less cruel than ripping a newborn from her loving parents’ arms.

Breastmilk and breastfeeding are the standard for infant nutrition.

There are numerous and well-documented benefits for both infants and mothers who breastfeed, as well as risks to those who do not breastfeed. Colostrum, the first milk that Mikaela was denied when she was taken from her mother, has over sixty components, each with a specific function to nourish and protect newborns. Colostrum acts as a vaccine: it is rich in immunoglobulins, which produce antibodies specific to the environment. The high concentrations of leukocytes found in colostrum can actually “destroy disease-causing bacteria and viruses.” Colostrum also protects by helping to “seal” a newborn’s intestines; this enables an additional defense against viruses and bacteria. [7] Moreover, colostrum provides the perfect amount of nutrients necessary for further growth and development of the brain, heart, and central nervous system.[8]

Mature breastmilk also contains growth factors, hormones, enzymes, and other substances that are immune-protective and foster proper growth and nutrition.[9] Breastfeeding is associated with a reduction of the risk for children of contracting pneumonia, staphylococcal infections, influenza, ear infections, severe infections of the lower respiratory tract, asthma, obesity, type 1 and type 2 diabetes, childhood leukemia, certain types of cancer, and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).[10]

Encouraging breastfeeding is an integral part of many governmental health and wellness initiatives, including programs created by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity, among others.[11] And breastfeeding is not just for infants. The American Academy of Family Physicians 2008 Position Paper on breastfeeding states that “breastfeeding at least until the second year of a child's life is not considered 'extended' breastfeeding. Rather, breastfeeding until the bare minimum age of 2 years is the norm and anything less brings about detrimental consequences.”[12]

The law protects a child’s right to breastfeed in Missouri.

Regardless of the many benefits of breastfeeding and its promotion by medical and governmental organizations, Missouri law protects a child’s right to nurse. Missouri enacted Mo. Rev. Stat. § 191.918 (1999), which reads:

Notwithstanding any other provision of law to the contrary, a mother may, with as much discretion as possible, breast-feed her child in any public or private location where the mother is otherwise authorized to be.

The Missouri legislature has recognized the critical importance of breastfeeding; Centerpoint Medical Center and the Missouri Department of Social Services should do the same.

Breastmilk and breastfeeding are the standard for infant nutrition. No infant should ever be forcibly denied the nourishment and comfort of her mother’s breast. The actions of Centerpoint Medical Center and the Missouri Department of Social Services have harmed the health of a newborn child. Such a situation should be intolerable.

Please work with me to protect the rights of breastfeeding children and mothers. I am writing to ask:
Centerpoint Medical Center: please revisit and improve the training provided to and the services provided by any staff member that comes in contact with a new mother. I would also ask that you provide to Ms. Johnson, free of charge, an in-home Lactation Consultant to help her induce lactation, so that she can enjoy a healthy breastfeeding relationship with her daughter.
·         Missouri Department of Social Services: please revisit and modify your policies about 1) the removal of breastfeeding infants in such circumstances and 2) the visitation privileges of breastfeeding mothers. Additionally, if the parents’ blindness was truly the only reasons for removal of Mikaela, please revisit and modify your policy on the removal of children from parents with disabilities.

If Mikaela was actually removed simply because her parents are blind, I hope that both Centerpoint and Social Services are working on official apologies to the family for the family’s emotional distress and the couple’s loss of time with their daughter caused by the agencies’ actions.

Thank you for your time and consideration.
Dionna Ford

[1] Kavanaugh, Lee Hill, Infant is Returned to Couple After State Places Her in Protective Custody, Kansas City Star, July 21, 2010
[2] Infant is Returned to Couple After State Places Her in Protective Custody
[3] Missouri Department of Social Services, Rehabilitation Services for the Blind
[4] Missouri Department of Social Services, Request and Summary for Authority to Remove a Child
[5] Missouri Department of Social Services, Safety Assessment, Part B, Section 2
[6] Infant is Returned to Couple After State Places Her in Protective Custody
[7] What Is Colostrum?; The Importance of Colostrum (citing Alm, J. et al. An anthroposophic lifestyle and intestinal microflora in infancy. Pediatric Allergy and Immunology 2002; 13(6):402)
[8] Hamosh, Margit, PhD, Breastfeeding: Unraveling the Mysteries of Mother’s Milk; Penchuk, Ellen, The Importance of Colostrum (citing Oddy, W. The impact of breastmilk on infant and child health. Breastfeeding Rev 2002; 10(3):5-18; Rivers, L. The long-term effects of early nutrition: the role of breastfeeding on cholesterol levels. J Hum Lact 2003; 19:(1))
[9] Breastfeeding: Unraveling the Mysteries of Mother’s Milk
[11] See ; ;
[12]; The AAFP’s position is almost identical to that of the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF, Global Strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding.
For similar positions from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and other medical organizations, see; see also


Oddly enough I was visiting MO today and directed to the bathroom to breastfeed when I enquired about a quiet room in a loud location for kids and families.

Oh Robin - where were you? I didn't mention this is my home city :(

This is outrageous!! My nephew is deaf. One day I'm sure he will have children, should he have to worry that his babies will be taken from him because he can't hear their cries?? I am so mad I can't see straight. There are children being beaten and raped by their parents everyday and yet they are more concerned with 2 parents who are caring for their child, but just can't see her. Sick!!

This is utterly despicable! It makes me embarrassed to live in Missouri when I hear stories such as this. I hope the couple sues & wins a large settlement to help compensate them for their anguish & denied healthy nutrition to their newborn daughter when she needed it most.

Has there been a responce?

This is absolutely heartbreaking. We pretend we are civilized and yet there was no way to help this family stay together? Separating them is barbaric. Just heartbreaking.

Good thing that you shared that letter to us. I hope they can settle that issue.

nursing home

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