‘American Idol’ star Syesha Mercado fights for custody of her son
Florida took thousands of children from families and failed to protect them
Six years ago Florida took a tough new approach to preventing child abuse, but no one figured out where all children should be placed.
For two months, former American Idol finalist and Broadway performer Syesha Mercado has been struggling to get her boy back after the child was taken into foster care during what she believed to be a routine trip to the hospital.
Mercado and partner Tyron Deener took their 13-month-old son to the Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg on February 26th. The couple said their son Amen’Ra was still breastfeeding when Mercados milk supply started running dry. The child would not accept any other fluids – and they had trouble feeding them.
What happened next surprised the Manatee County couple.
Almost two weeks after Amen’Ra was hospitalized, the St. Petersburg Police Department removed the parents from All Children’s Hospital to enter. The couple say the hospital kept their baby even after successfully weaning off breast milk – and after he was released in late March, the boy was taken into foster care by officials on alleged malnutrition. Mercado said she was never informed that her son had been released and that child welfare officials never spoke to other relatives about possible family placement.
The case involves doctor Sally Smith, the head of the Pinellas County’s child protection team, who oversees almost every case at All Children’s Hospital with suspicious injuries and is considered one of the most powerful figures in the children’s care system on the Gulf Coast of Florida. She has long been criticized by defenders, parents and child welfare workers for her aggressive manner in questioning parents. She often saw injuries that other doctors didn’t have.
As part of an investigation into the Florida child welfare system, the USA TODAY Network reviewed hundreds of Smith’s cases and found that more than a dozen cases were dropped, parents were acquitted, or caregivers had credible claims of innocence but irreparable harm to their lives and reputations had suffered.
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Smith could not be reached for this story. She previously denied “problems with my work” when interviewed by the USA TODAY Network.
On Mother’s Day, Mercado publicly took up her efforts and hosted an online press conference to voice her complaints about her son’s removal. Mercado said she went to the hospital for help as an affected parent, but asked questions from hospital staff that ultimately led to Amen’Ra being released from custody by child protection services on March 11.
“We were treated like criminals just for going to the hospital and doing what a lot of parents do – seeking medical help,” said Mercado, a 2005 graduate of Booker High School’s Visual and Performing Arts Center who was named Third nationally known ranked finalist in the seventh season of “American Idol” in 2008.
“I could never have imagined going to this particular hospital to get help for my child, but leaving without my child.”
“Treated like a criminal”
Mercado said the reason she took Amen’Ra to the hospital was because of her own concern as a parent for his diet, citing the difficulties she had during the weaning process.
Medical experts at the hospital said the child was dehydrated, malnourished and in dire need of intravenous feeding, said Randy Warren, a spokesman for the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office who is investigating the case.
“He wanted mom’s breast milk, like many breastfeeding babies do, and I went to the hospital in the middle of that whole process, in the middle of the weaning process that a lot of mothers out there are constantly experiencing,” Mercado said. “I’ve faced many judgments and allegations that literally got out of hand.”
According to the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, medical workers reported that Mercado and Deener refused a B-12 intramuscular shot as recommended by the hospital, a claim that Mercado and Deener vehemently deny.
Deener, a black man, added that even if they had turned down the vitamins, “that is no reason to separate a child from their parents,” noting that anyone who has handled his child’s case knows from the case manager to the guardian ad litem and the judge.
“It was not a welcoming or good experience to see Sy being treated as a mother,” said Deener.
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A judge quoted information from medical experts at the hospital when he ruled in March that Amen’Ra would need special care from a medical nursing home.
In addition to seeking their son’s return, Mercado and Deener argue that no one in their extended families was allowed to take care of Amen’Ra, including Deener’s mother, who is one of their emergency contacts. Mercado is also pregnant with the couple’s second child.
Mercado launched a Go Fund Me page that raised nearly half of a $ 50,000 goal by Monday afternoon to help cover the cost of returning the child.
The couple have partnered with the organization “We Have the Right to Be Right” which was created as a platform to induce change, educate, inspire, motivate and generate emotional insights into tough conversations.
“We are told that children are being taken away from bad parents, but my question to all of you today is who exactly sets this standard for treating parents.” Mercado said. “Every day in America parents are separated from their families and mistreated, they are mistreated, they are misquoted by a very suppressive system.”
“I know my family is an example of this,” she said. “I went to the hospital for help. I went to the hospital for support and instead I was treated like a criminal. My family was treated like a criminal.” seek medical help. ”
Smith has been with All Children’s Hospital since the 1990s and has been the Medical Director of the Pinellas County’s Child Protection Team since 2002.
In 2019, the USA TODAY Network published an investigation into years of complaints about Smith’s aggressive way of asking parents and how she saw injuries other doctors didn’t have.
These cases included the story of John Stewart, a Marine Corps veteran who spent 300 days in jail for claiming he killed his girlfriend’s son by repeatedly throwing him against a soft surface. The prosecution dropped the charges after a neuropathologist contradicted Smith’s findings, according to internal memos.
Tara Brown – who said she went through three grueling rounds of in vitro fertilization to father twins with her husband – has been accused of causing fractures to her 6-week-old infants. Those allegations were later cleared after another doctor diagnosed the twins with a rare bone disease.
Ashley Finnegan and her fiancé George Gluschenko were accused of beating their young daughter so hard that they dented her skull. Finnegan once said that Smith screamed “two inches from my face”. Finnegan and her fiancé were arrested, but months later prosecutors reversed course and refused to bring charges against Finnegan. They offered their fiancé 25 days in prison plus probation if he did not speak out against child abuse.
Since 2004, 7,425 cases of medical neglect have been reported in Pinellas County. Of these, 1,490 were verified, which, according to the Florida Department of Children and Families, corresponds to about 20 percent.
The agency reviewed 16% of medical neglect claims nationwide during that period, with 14% of claims being reviewed in the Suncoast Region, an area that includes Pinellas, Hillsborough, Manatee, and Sarasota, among others.
Experts said parents like Mercado and Deener are often confused about their rights when dealing with pediatricians on suspected child abuse.
“You speak to the police without knowing your rights,” said attorney Diane Redleaf, director of the Chicago Family Defense Center.