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Mother battles to reclaim baby taken from her

CYF doubted her maternal abilities

Thursday, November 22, 2001

By Barbara White Stack, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Marlena Massey was feeding her newborn at UPMC Shadyside last Thursday, just hours before they were to be discharged, when she got the first inkling that something was wrong.

Marlena Massey, 24, sits on her bed at UPMC Shadyside talking about how Allegheny County's Office of Children, Youth and Families -- CYF -- took her baby from her three days after he was born. Massey's other five children, three of them born with crack cocaine in their blood, also were taken by CYF. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

A nurse said she needed to do a "discharge physical" on the 3-day-old infant and Massey should hand him over without letting him finish his bottle. Massey knew from experience that didn't sound right. Though only 24, she'd given birth to five other children.

She suspected it meant that Allegheny County's Office of Children, Youth and Families -- CYF -- was coming to take her baby from her.

She was right.

Massey became one of 32 women in Allegheny County this year to lose custody of their babies within five days of birth. Each month, three or four mothers like Massey leave hospitals with empty blankets and tear-filled eyes.

The most common reason is that they've smoked crack cocaine while pregnant, so their babies are born addicted. Even so, most crack-addicted babies go home with their mothers. CYF takes only about one in five infants born with illegal drugs in their blood.

Because Massey knew drug-addicted babies frequently went home with their mothers, she couldn't understand why CYF took hers when he was born clean. In addition, it's not clear that CYF complied with state mandates that permit removal of children only when they're in imminent risk.

Now Massey must wait until at least Dec. 5 to get her baby back.

She admits she has failed to be a good mother to her children in the past.

Her three middle ones, ages 4, 2, and 1, were all born with crack in their blood. In March 2000, shortly after the last of those three was born, CYF took all five of her children, saying that she and the father, Harold Carter, were uncooperative with a program CYF had provided for treatment of their addictions and help in parenting.

And then, Massey didn't exactly run to get her babies back. It took her eight months to get herself into drug treatment. She signed up with a program called Operation Nehemiah in December and has been clean since January. Carter, who is 39, was even slower to start, not signing on with Operation Nehemiah until June. He has been clean since July.

Also in July, Massey got herself an apartment in McKees Rocks with plenty of rooms for her children. She went to prenatal appointments. She signed up for a program to monitor the progress of her baby after he was born. Carter, who lives in Homewood, enrolled in a carpentry apprentice program.

It all seemed like great progress to Betsy Price, Massey's former counselor from Operation Nehemiah. That's why she couldn't believe it when Massey called her last Thursday to say CYF caseworker Summer L. Clapper had taken her newborn away.

In Allegheny County, seizing children is easier than in most places, requiring only allegations from a caseworker and the signature of a juvenile probation officer. Most other counties in Pennsylvania require the signature of a judge.

Clapper contended that the baby should be taken because Massey already has five children in foster care, had minimally cooperated during her long history with CYF, and had concealed her pregnancy. In addition, Clapper contended that she didn't know who the father of the baby was.

A brief hearing was held Friday, at which CYF was supposed to demonstrate it had good reason to take the child.

Massey's lawyer, James Ball, demanded to know how the baby was at risk if he remained with his mother. The caseworker, Clapper, said the baby was at risk because of Massey's past failure to cooperate with CYF and because Clapper didn't know whether Massey had received prenatal care. CYF attorney Sarah Hart said the baby was in danger because Massey had been "disingenuous" with her caseworker about whether she was pregnant.

Ball and Jean Lupariello, a Carnegie lawyer who represented Carter, said Clapper should have been aware of the pregnancy, since it was discussed at a juvenile court hearing in September and noted in a psychologist's report released at that hearing.

Clapper later admitted Massey's doctor had told her that Massey had attended her prenatal appointments. And it's unclear why Clapper contended she didn't know Carter was the father, because she notified him of the Friday hearing.

Common Pleas Judge Robert Colville warned CYF at one point, "You may have problems showing clear necessity to remove this child." Still, he was unwilling to return the baby to Massey on Friday, partly because after 19 months, Massey had been unable get back any of her other children.

He explained that at such hearings, he always errs on the side of caution to ensure a child's safety. "I don't mind removing this child for a few weeks until I can find out what is going on." That will occur at the next proceeding, called a dependency petition hearing, scheduled for Dec. 5.

He ordered CYF to arrange for liberal visits between Massey and her baby until then. But the first visit wasn't scheduled until today, a week after CYF took the baby.

Massey was heartbroken. She'll be separated from her infant for two more weeks. "I was clean. I was feeding my baby, holding my baby. I was all packed the night before to leave the hospital. I was so happy. And they took it all away."

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