Where is my baby?

Three loving adults—including his mom—cared for 13-day-old Jacob Perry, but child-welfare officials removed him from his home anyway

THREE, NOT FOUR <br>Rita and Al Perry and their daughter Dorothy (right) were doing all they could to care for Dorothy’s baby boy, who was born with a cleft palate, when child-welfare officials removed the child from their home.

Rita and Al Perry and their daughter Dorothy (right) were doing all they could to care for Dorothy’s baby boy, who was born with a cleft palate, when child-welfare officials removed the child from their home.

Photo By Jasmine Roufchaie

What is ‘failure to thrive’?
This non-specific term is used to describe inadequate growth in early childhood over an extended period of time. There are many possible causes: poor diet and/or neglect, gastrointestinal problems, intolerance to milk protein, infections and metabolic disorders. Cleft palate is also listed as a possible cause.

Amanda Farrell recalled how upset she felt watching the 2001 movie I Am Sam, about a mentally challenged single parent, played by Sean Penn, whose young daughter is taken away from him by Child Protective Services, despite the loving, stable home he provides with the support of a close network of friends.

“I remember watching and thinking, ‘I hope I never have to see a situation like that,’ ” said Farrell, a 28-year-old single mother of a 2-year-old daughter.

Now, Farrell believes, she is doing just that.

For several weeks, Farrell has been waging an energetic Internet campaign to publicize, and seek advice about, the plight of her developmentally disabled friend and neighbor, 22-year-old Dorothy Perry. On April 10, Perry’s 13-day-old baby was taken into custody by Butte County Children’s Services (formerly Child Protective Services, or CPS) and put into foster care because of a “failure to thrive,” Farrell said in a recent interview.

Dorothy Perry was diagnosed at age 3 as mentally retarded (though her father, Clearance “Al” Perry, who is not disabled, begs to differ with that diagnosis, describing her instead as “a slow learner, with ADHD and ADD”).

She lives with her father and her mother, Rita, who has a learning disability, in a modest west Chico home. Dorothy attended local schools, in a mixture of special-ed and mainstream classes, and was active in Special Olympics, Girl Scouts and 4-H. In 2008, she was given the highest honor the Girl Scouts of America has to offer—the Gold Award.

Dorothy graduated from Pleasant Valley High School in 2005 and attended Butte College before giving birth at Enloe Medical Center, on March 28, to an 8-pound, 2-ounce baby boy—the product of her relationship with her ex-fiancé. She named him Jacob Henry Perry.

Jacob was born with a cleft palate. He was sent home from the hospital on March 31 weighing 7 pounds, 4 ounces, after displaying difficulty nursing or using a bottle, even with special nipples designed to help.

He weighed 7 pounds, 6 ounces, when Children’s Services took custody of him after Dorothy, Rita and Al Perry tried a number of times to get help for Jacob. The Saturday prior, for instance, Rita and Dorothy took Jacob to Enloe’s emergency room and tried to have him admitted, only to be told to take him back home and “wake him up every two to two-and-a-half hours,” related Farrell. “Of course, they did that, but he was getting too weak to wake up so often.”

The day Jacob was taken away from Dorothy was the same day that the Perrys were due to take the child to an afternoon appointment at UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento to seek expert help.

“[Cleft palate] can make breastfeeding your newborn baby very hard,” writes Farrell on her MySpace page, “and sometimes impossible. Even bottle feeding can be nearly impossible. … [A]ny new mother would have one hell of a time getting a baby with a cleft palate to eat and gain weight!”

Local pediatrician Amy Dolinar—who has not examined Jacob, and has not been involved with the Perry family—said in a phone interview that while it is possible for a baby to be diagnosed with “failure to thrive” at 13 days, the circumstances described in Jacob’s situation didn’t seem to fit that diagnosis.

“ ‘Failure to thrive’ is a lack of gaining weight,” offered Dolinar. “It doesn’t sound like failure to thrive. It sounds like typical weight loss for a new baby. We would like to see them back to birth weight by that point, but if the baby had a cleft palate, it would explain why he didn’t gain all the weight back.”

In a recent interview at their home, Rita, Al and Dorothy spoke of their sorrow and frustration at losing Jacob, and not knowing when or whether they would ever have him back.

Al—a 10-year veteran of the U.S. Army—is a cook at Townsend House, an assisted-living residence for senior citizens.

“It wasn’t right of them to take him,” said the 58-year-old, his voice quavering slightly. “And they’re not telling us what we need to do to get him back home with us. … I was told by [Children’s Services social worker] Nicole [Owens] that the main reason Jacob was taken away is because of his disability and Dorothy’s disability.”

“What did we do wrong to have the baby out of our hands?” asked Rita, who like Dorothy works for Addus HealthCare as an in-home health care worker. “Dorothy had taken parenting classes at Enloe before the baby was born. She even took six weeks of Enloe classes after Jacob was born, even after he was taken—Dorothy brought a doll with her instead of her baby. …

“Al and I were told by CPS that we can’t have Jacob back,” added Rita, “because he was taken from Dorothy while she lived in our home.” She and her husband are in the process of securing a lawyer in order to get legal guardianship of Jacob.

“I know there’s a lot of people out there who are handicapped who are raising babies, who have help that comes in,” continued Rita. “We’d even asked all of our neighbors, if we needed help, could we come to them, and they said yes.

“We would have learned so much at UC Davis,” she added, with sadness in her voice. “We could’ve all worked together as a team. I don’t think CPS understands this. This is a really different case.”

Dorothy, who broke into tears at one point in the interview, lamented the fact that her father, who used to cuddle Jacob on the living room sofa, “can’t sit on the couch any more and eat popcorn because it makes him really sad. Now he sits on his chair and eats popcorn.”

Dorothy Perry’s court-appointed public defender, Dale Rasmussen, could not confirm that Jacob was taken into custody on April 10, citing client-attorney confidentiality. However, Rasmussen described the Perry case as “a really difficult, heart-wrenching situation.”

He said: “Generally, I think CPS—or Children’s Services—does a really good job, but I do think there are some cases when they are overzealous in removing children from their parents, though I wouldn’t confirm if this was one of those cases.”

Karen Ely, assistant director for Butte County Children’s and Adults’ Services, said in a telephone interview, “Of course, I can’t talk about specific cases, but I can talk about the process.” Ely explained, among other things, the series of hearings that clients go through, and the difference between the Family Maintenance Program, where the child remains in the home, versus Family Reunification, in which the child is in foster care.

“There are some cases where we have to remove a child,” said Ely. “If there is imminent risk to a child of substantial harm, that would be the time we would possibly remove a child from the home. Our philosophy when we go out is we’re not looking to remove a child, but how to leave a child there safely—how can we assist this family?

“The key thing for me is we don’t do anything independently,” said Ely. “We make the initial decision, but we rely on the courts to sustain that original decision. … We don’t want to keep kids in out-of-home care. … We want those kids to go home, too.”

Butte County Public Health Nurse Holly Pearson, who is also involved in the Perry case, spoke very briefly in a phone interview. “I can’t tell you anything; this case has to be confidential,” Pearson said. “But I can tell you I’m glad you’re doing the story.”

Kathy Farrell, Amanda’s mother, who lives with Amanda and her daughter, has known the Perrys for five years. Kathy summed up her views: “I’ve never had anything get to me like this. This is Jacob’s bonding time, and it’s passing, with a foster mom. … Jacob should be home, with Al and Rita overseeing the home, with Dorothy the mommy—just the way they were. …

“After Jacob came home [from the hospital] … every time I was there, Jacob was clean and dry and being held. … [Dorothy, Rita and Al] were very, very nurturing. They love their baby.”

Dorothy Perry’s next Butte County Juvenile Court date is set for July 16.