Unfeeling U.S. agencieS confiScate children from indian parentS
Legal experts, doctors, and investigative journalists alleged that the US child PROTECTION AGENCIES WERE BIASED AND USED flAWED TECHNIQUES TO DETECT ABUSE.
Also, Indian families in the US are largely educated and know how to research and dig for answers. This makes their case stronger. However, there’s no doubt that with the lack of financial resources and family support, the entire experience is very traumatising for them,” Heather Kirwood, a lawyer and long time campaigner against misdiagnosis of Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS), told this reporter. Kirwood assists the SBS accused for free. She has helped dozens of Indian families and was one of the experts who briefed the Swedish authorities on SBS, after which the Swedes have dropped SBS as an indicator of abuse.
AFive years ago, the state child protective services in New Jersey took away the oneyear-old son of an Indian parent, Kumar (name changed on request), under the false allegation of child abuse. Kumar, a software engineer with a prominent multinational company, had moved to the US with the dream of a bright and prosperous future. He was still waiting for his first pay cheque when one fine day his son rolled over from bed and suffered an injury on his head. Kumar and his wife rushed their son to the hospital. But soon they lost the toddler to the child protection agency and subsequently faced a criminal investigation by the Morris County Prosecutors Office in New Jersey.
“If you are an outsider here and something like this happens, you are up against a flawed, biased and a very strong system. They will not lose and if they see they are losing, they will try to negotiate,” he told The Sunday Guardian. While people like Kumar, sooner or later, prove their innocence, their children are kept in foster homes with strangers until the case is settled. During this time, the accused parents are not allowed to visit their children for more than one to two hours, once or twice a week, subjected to permission granted by the state. It took Kumar six months to prove his innocence and get back his son. Speaking to this newspaper, American lawyers and researchers claimed that if the defence is really strong it still takes six to seven months to get justice. In the case of loose defence, the process may extend to over a year, where the parents may even face the threat of their child being given up for adoption.Several media reports have regularly accused the US state foster care of sexually and physically abusing children. While the US authorities claim to do a rigorous background check before registering a foster home, parents have often complained that their children have been returned to them with bruises and nutritional deficiency, caused by neglect.“I have researched and talked to many Indian parents and realised that more often than not these foster homes do not treat the child well. In one such case, the family was vegetarian and the child was placed with a non-vegetarian family. The child was starving when she came back to her parents,” noted Aiyar. Legal experts, doctors, researchers and investigative journalists this reporter talked to claimed that cultural difference is the biggest hurdle that these aggrieved Indian parents face in courts. The style of marriage combined with religious and cultural beliefs, and linguistic barrier make it harder for Indian parents to challenge the experts favouring child protection agencies in the courtroom.
“Indian parents have a diffi- cult time explaining their cultural aspects to the investigating officers. As the result of a language gap, there’s a broken understanding of the situation. The investigators level accusations of child abuse against them, not satisfied with the explanations given by the accused Indians,” Professor Vivek Sankaran, who is a part of the University of Michigan Innocence Project, which is appealing SBS convictions, told this reporter. In many of the cases, as noted by Aiyar in her report, parents have alleged that the investigators and prosecutors have cultural biases against them. In one such case, the investigator accused the parents of child abuse because the couple had an arranged marriage.“Arranged marriage leads them to imagine that the husband is repressive, and hence the parents must be abusive to their children. In fact, if the baby sleeps in the same bed with its parents or parents do not provide the bay with proper toys, it works against them, and these instances are cited to prove that the parents are abusive,” Aiyar noted. In another case, a child protection social worker grilled the mother of a child over her religious and cultural beliefs, allegedly to provoke her into making some statement that might go against her and her husband. In order to come out as a good parent, the mother stated that she and her husband loved their children but at the same time were strict with them to discipline them. This was taken as an instance of abusive behaviour by the investigators. “They criticise Indian childcare habits and even traits that is common for us Indians, like children crying or making noise. These are considered to be a mental disorder and are directly associated with inappropriate parenting,” said Aiyar. In their standard formulation, the diagnosis of Shaken Baby Syndrome is based on an outdated theory that claimed that “in absence of any other sign of abuse, shaking could be proved by three neurological symptoms—bleeding in the retina, brain swelling, and bleeding beneath the outer layer of membranes surrounding the brain—also called ‘the Triad’.” Despite scores of dismissals, acquittals and reversals of convictions, child abuse paediatricians are still defending the theory and routinely snatching away babies from the parents. A Pakistani scientist, Dr Ayub Ommaya refuted the theory and claimed that “SBS falls in the realm of faith and not science”.“It is a battle among the experts. Facts are not in dispute, but the interpretations are. Toddlers tend to fall down or bump their heads. That does not mean the parents aggressively shook their kids or abused them. Science rejects the theory of SBS, but these experts defend it. In such cases, finding a right lawyer who can challenge the arguments with facts and literature is the key,” Mark D. Freeman, a Pennsylvania-based lawyer who represented several falsely accused Indian families, told this reporter. According to the experts, there’s an entire branch of medicine focusing on SBS, which would largely disappear if it was found that this diagnosis is baseless. They alleged that the advocacy groups work in liaison with them and are only trying to protect their vested interest.
“The problems started when funds started flowing from Washington DC to the states for ensuring that no child is abused. Over the years, the entire industry has developed around it,” Susan Goldsmith, an investigative journalist from Oregon, told this newspaper. Susan has made a documentary called The Syndrome, showcasing the evidence that SBS is a mistaken theory and only ends up sending innocent parents to jail.Goldsmith further said that the group or lobby defending SBS theory comes down heavily on experts and doctors who oppose or challenge them.“Sweden-based SBU ( Statens Feredning för Medicinsk Och Social Utvärdering) analysed over 3,700 documents on SBS and found only two to be of modest scientific standards. Child abuse paediatricians have opposed their findings and even threatened the publication of the review,” she claimed.Experts have alleged that the systematic failure of child protection agencies to register legitimate cases is due to the federal funding stream.
Interestingly, according to Susan’s documentary, The Syndrome, the National Centre for Shaken Baby Syndrome, which sells teaching packages for parents, made a net profit of $2,372,627 from product sales between 2011 and 2013.
Meanwhile, taking a leaf from his experience, Kumar suggests that every Indian family moving to the US for short to mid-term assignments must do proper research on this topic, maintain strong community support, and immediately seek the help of a well-qualified attorney to deal with investigators. He also said that keeping the Indian embassy in the US and the Ministry of External Affairs in the loop may help in at least the repatriation of the child to India, while the case is still dragging on in court.
Five years ago, the state child protective services in New Jersey took away the one-year-old son of an Indian parent, Kumar (name changed on request), under the false allegation of child abuse.