A couple whose children were taken from their Massachusetts home by police in the middle of the night last year filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against four Waltham officers, four employees of the state’s Department of Children and Families, and the city of Waltham for violating the family’s civil rights.
Parents Josh Sabey and Sarah Perkins, who moved to Idaho because of the incident, allege police and DCF did not have a warrant when they took the kids from their Waltham house, violating their Fourth Amendment rights through an illegal search and seizure.
“They need to give people their constitutional protections and go through due process in order to remove kids,” Sabey said in an interview with the Globe. “And really removing kids should be a last resort. They view it as the safe thing ... but it’s not a safe thing. There’s irreversible damage the moment you take kids, and it’s not a safe intervention.”
Waltham Mayor Jeannette A. McCarthy and Waltham Police Chief Kevin O’Connell did not respond to requests for comment, and a spokesperson for the police department declined to comment. Neither the Department for Children and Families nor SEIU Local 509, the union for social workers, could immediately be reached for comment.
Last July, Perkins brought the couple’s 3-month-old son to the emergency room for a fever, according to the complaint. While the baby was there, hospital staff discovered an older, healed fracture on one of his ribs and notified DCF, the complaint said. Unknown to the family, DCF opened a child abuse investigation.
Around 1 a.m. on July 16, DCF workers and Waltham police appeared at the family’s front step without a warrant, the lawsuit alleges, and threatened to break down the door if they didn’t turn over the baby and his 3-year-old brother.
The children were taken to a foster home, and Sabey and Perkins were not granted full custody until four months later when they were cleared of any wrongdoing, the complaint said.
Sabey said his family has endured lingering trauma as a result of the separation; routine visits to the doctor have become a source of gripping anxiety.
“It was incredibly stressful, incredibly traumatic, and now it’s kind of hard to tell what the long-term effects are on our psychology and how we’re able to move on,” he said.
Joshua Thompson, the parents’ attorney, said that while defense lawyers may argue that police and DCF workers believed there was “an imminent threat to the children’s safety,” there was more than enough time to obtain a warrant in the days after DCF learned of the rib injury — including the many hours that the couple remained in the hospital.
“An imminent threat, in typical Fourth Amendment parlance, means someone had a knife to someone else’s throat and you could see it through the window,” Thompson said. “It doesn’t mean that [DCF] discovered a rib injury and then three days later broke into the Sabey’s home at one in the morning.”
The seizure of the children, which was first reported by the Washington Post in December, sparked public outrage. Neither Sabey nor Perkins have ever been charged with any civil or criminal offense related to their parenting, according to the lawsuit.
The state’s legal aid agency and public defender’s office, the Committee for Public Counsel Services is among those pushing for more oversight. Meanwhile, some legislators hope to change state law so that social workers can only take temporary custody of children without a court order in cases where there’s no time to go before a judge.
“The allegations made in this lawsuit echo what we hear from our clients across the state every single day: DCF is frequently overzealous in separating families, and removing children from their homes after hours and without court oversight has long-term, irreversible effects on children and their parents,” Mike Dsida, who leads the committee’s Children and Family Law Division, said in a statement.
Dsida said the lawsuit “outlines a fact pattern that is all too common. Families in Massachusetts deserve better, and if this suit leads to change, it would be a welcome step in the right direction.”
Josh Gupta-Kagan, professor at Columbia Law School, identified three ways an organization can push DCF toward policy change. The first would be to sue the agency itself for “a pattern or practice of civil rights violations,” he explained. The second would be to seek “injunctive relief” in a lawsuit, which sets a precedent for how an agency is allowed to operate in similar cases moving forward. Finally, in the event that the case is appealed up to the US Court of Appeals or the US Supreme Court, there is a likelihood that the federal court would set a legal precedent that applies not only to child welfare practices in Massachusetts, but more broadly across the country.
Gupta-Kagan also noted that lawsuits against individual employees, like the one filed by the Sabey family, still have the potential — if successful — to spur structural change within an agency.
“By allowing one officer to be sued in an individual capacity, it’s supposed to create a deterrent effect for someone else” in the future, he said. “Then the agency is supposed to be thinking, ‘Oh wait, if I screw up again and violate a family’s rights, then [our employees] could be held liable.’”
Sabey said he’s trying to raise awareness about the issue, going as far as writing a book about his family’s experience to spread the word. One of the greatest frustrations about it all, Sabey said, is the number of hurdles preventing families from taking legal action against agencies responsible for systemic problems.
“The individuals were just really just cogs in the system that’s forced to do what it does by its own policies and perceived responsibilities,” he said. “And that system just churns out injustice after injustice.”