Late last week, former ‘American Idol’ contestant Syesha Mercado posted an hour-long video on Instagram. In the video, she and her partner Tyron Deneer are seen having their 10-day-old baby taken by Florida CPS. The couple cries in horror and argues to no avail. This is the second of their children to be taken by CPS. Their son, Amen’Ra, was taken earlier this year after a routine hospital visit. The person who made the decision to take Amen’Ra was identified as Sally Smith, a child abuse pediatrician.
USA Today Network did an extensive investigation on Sally Smith’s questionable medical practices by speaking with several families whose lives were thrown into turmoil. These families had taken their children to Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in Florida, the same hospital Mercado took her son to. They all said that their children were treated and deemed healthy by the hospital’s doctors, and the next thing they knew, their babies were being taken away. There is one commonality between them: Sally Smith.
Mercado’s case began after this investigation, but there’s no doubt it would have been included otherwise. She brought her son to the All Children’s Hospital because he was having trouble accepting fluids. Due to her pregnancy, her breastmilk was drying up, and she was afraid of possible dehydration. At the hospital, he was treated and deemed in good health. Suddenly Mercado and her partner were being told their son wasn’t coming with them and was being taken by Child Protective Services. They haven’t seen him since. That was March. Their newborn was subsequently taken because the family was flagged in the system.
Though none of their stories detail any interaction with Smith, reports are alleging that she was at the center of the decision to take Amen’Ra away from his parents. And it wouldn’t be the first time she’s made that decision. As the head of the Pinellas County child protection team, Dr. Smith examines nearly every child who has been flagged with ‘suspicious injuries,’ and for years other professionals (from defense attorneys to child welfare colleagues) have been waving the red flag.
You Can’t Deny The Racial Element
Though many of the families speaking out against Sally Smith are white, that doesn’t mean this only happens to white families. It’s impossible to hear the details of Mercado’s case and not see the racial element of this discussion. Because of the way the system works, it makes sense that Black families wouldn’t want to speak out for fear of further retribution. But we all know that Black children are taken from their home by authorities at much higher rates than their white counterparts.
Mike Bryant, chief operating officer at Embrace Families, an Orlando-based nonprofit that provides support for vulnerable and at-risk children wrote an op-ed addressing this very real problem for the Orlando Sentinel.
“If you’re African American, or Black, you’re more than twice as likely to be investigated as a white family following an abuse report,” he wrote. “Once in foster care, black children are 2.2 times more likely to be placed in out-of-home care, away from the support of a loving family — and they stay in out-of-home care, on average, 55% longer than white children.”
Keeping Black Families Together
Mercado has stated that when her son was taken, CPS never tried to find a qualified family member to care for him. If the system is all about making sure children are receiving the best care possible, why didn’t they reach out to family? How do you take a one-year-old away from his parents and not at least try to put him with family he knows and feels comfortable with? This is a baby who was already traumatized by being forced to wean before he was ready. To then rip him out of his home, separate him from his parents, and then not even make an attempt to keep him with people who could bring him comfort?
In the Orlando Sentinel piece, Bryant points out that Black people only make up about 17 percent of Central Florida’s population. Less than 20 percent of the population, but they’re twice as likely to be placed out of their homes? And then there is little immediate attempt to reunite them? I’m sorry, but that’s straight up racism in action. (Actually, I’m not sorry. This stuff must be part of the conversation, whether or not it makes people uncomfortable.)
Black people, and more specifically Black women, are understandably hesitant of the medical profession. Too often, our concerns are overlooked and dismissed. Medical racism keeps people from getting the care they genuinely need. The fact that Syesha Mercado, as a Black woman and mother, took her son to the hospital is a huge deal. But she knew that she could not adequately take care of his needs, and she did the right thing. So for her to then have her baby taken from her? That is beyond heartbreaking. And now she may be justifiably fearful in the future.
Sally Smith Has Been On Watch
In the USA Today Network article on Smith, they say they reached out for additional comment. Of course, she denied any wrongdoing, denying “any problems with my work.” Well no shit. This 61-year-old white woman isn’t going to casually tell a news organization that she’s out here breaking up families on purpose. The Day a white woman, especially a professional white woman, admits that she’s a racist is the day pigs fly. This woman is going to protect herself, first and foremost. And it’s not to say that some of these kids shouldn’t be taken away from their families. But many, especially Black ones, don’t need to have their families ripped apart in this manner. Many of them need resources. Syesha Mercado went to the hospital for help. And now, both of her babies have been take from her.
“It has been flabbergasting to me that she has been given the credence she’s been given by the state attorney’s and the sheriff’s office,” Jennifer Fury, a defense attorney, told USA Today Network.
And that’s the thing! People that work regularly with Sally Smith say that they don’t understand how she’s still allowed to have a job. This isn’t a woman who’s made a couple mistakes. Attorneys and parents alike think something is amiss. Not to mention that, but other CPS people have serious concerns about the way Smith conducts her business. Like, if these CPS workers are even like, “this woman is sus,” how are others still just blindly taking her word for things? Especially if their findings aren’t matching up? This is an outrage.
An Agent Of The State
Sally Smith is a doctor, but she is now more an agent of the state than someone who is there to offer genuine care. She is a member of the inaugural class of pediatricians who work specifically in abuse pediatrics. Having doctors who can identify the difference between abuse and accident is incredibly important. That importance is crucial when it comes to young children who may not be able to say they’re facing abuse, or for older kids who are too scared to speak up. But it’s also important that these investigators are doing all facets of their job, and doing it with nuance. That’s where Smith appears to be falling way short.
Pediatricians who specialize in child abuse run the risk of aligning themselves with the wrong side of the system. Because they work with the police and the court, it would be easy for them to forget that they’re advocating for children and working with real families. In the case of Smith, it seems that she forgets her reports have real life repercussions that are hard to come back from.
“They [parents] are talking to the equivalent of the police without knowing their rights,” Diane Redleaf, an attorney and head of the Family Defense Center in Chicago, told USA Today Network.
Multiple families said that Smith in no way introduced herself to them, let alone told them that she is an officer of the state, and not just a doctor. These parents are often emotional, delirious due to lack of sleep or stress, and then someone comes in to interrogate them. They probably have no idea what they should be saying, or asking. Smith can potentially come in and prey on their weakness, then have their children taken away.
Sally Smith Has Her Own Agenda
According to the USA Today Network article, Smith has admitted that she may not be reading children’s medical charts well enough before conducting her own examinations. For someone who is supposed to be doing such an important job, don’t you think she should be double (triple!) checking their charts and talking to their doctors before making any sort of final judgments? Especially the time of judgment that forces babies to separate from their families? It seems like the least she should be doing.
There are times when medical issues or injuries can look similar to abuse. It seems that instead of examining it further, Smith often jumps to abuse. How is it that this woman still has a job, when on more than one occasion it’s been found that she made egregious oversights? Obviously she’s skipping steps, she’s admitting to not looking closely enough at medical records, and that’s incredibly dangerous. She may have forgotten this because she’s drunk with power, but she’s there to help.
While it’s still too early to know what’s going to happen with Syesha Mercado and her case, it’s clear that Sally Smith, and those like her, do not always have children and families’ best interests at heart. And that is the most terrifying thing of all.