The Cheaha Baby Case: Kidnapping or Child Protection?
By Enzor & Maniscalco – Attorneys at Law
In the past few weeks, you may have seen a social media controversy brewing over a baby taken by DHR in Cleburne County. According to the Anniston Star, Christian and Danielle Holm were on a mission to “live biblically” by walking from Montgomery to Mount Cheaha.
While camping there in October, Danielle went into labor, and later gave birth at RMC in Anniston. The next day, the child was taken by DHR.
In their efforts to regain custody of the child, the Holms have sought to sway public opinion by protesting and spreading their message on social media; their Facebook group now has over 3,000 members.
Comments there harshly criticize the authorities involved, calling the events “harassment” and “kidnapping.” Others cited the “corruption” and “evil permeating all levels of government.”
Lost in all the uproar is any mention of the legal background for these situations.
Here are some answers to common questions about the process:
How can the government just take a child from the parents?
Under Alabama law, anyone can file a lawsuit (called a “dependency” case) asking that child custody be removed from the parents. To succeed, they have to bring enough evidence to convince the judge that the child is “dependent.” “Dependency” includes a list of situations which can be found here, but generally means that the parents are unfit and unable to provide a safe and healthy home environment for the child.
The Alabama Department of Human Resources has a legal mandate to investigate reports of child abuse or neglect and, where necessary, to take legal action to ensure the safety and welfare of children. Frequently this takes the form of a dependency case.
When DHR removes a child from the home, the law requires the court to hold a hearing (called a “shelter care hearing”) within 72 hours to determine if there is sufficient evidence that shelter care is necessary.
Finally, at the outset of a dependency case, the judge will appoint an attorney, called a guardian ad litem, whose job it is to advocate for the child’s best interests. The GAL will meet with the parties, become familiar with the facts, and act as the child’s attorney in court.
Why don’t the parents have any rights?
Parents must be provided due process of law in any case involving their parental rights.
First, they are entitled to be represented by lawyer throughout the dependency process. If they can’t afford a lawyer, the State will pay for one to represent them.
Second, the petitioner in a dependency case, whether it’s DHR or anyone else, has to have proof. If they can’t prove that the child is at risk, then the law says they can’t take custody away from the parents. And if the judge makes a decision the parents disagree with, they have the right to appeal the judge’s decision to the Court of Civil Appeals, then the Alabama Supreme Court.
Even if there is sufficient proof of dependency, Alabama law requires DHR to make “reasonable efforts” to reunite children with their parents. This is accomplished by holding a series of meetings, called “ISP meetings,” in which the children, parents, caseworkers, counselors, attorneys, and other professionals meet to identify parenting problems, set goals for solving those problems, and provide resources to help the parents meet those goals.
For example, parents who lack a stable home environment will be given a goal to obtain safe, permanent housing, and will be provided with contacts to help them find steady jobs and housing. Parents struggling with drugs will be offered access to rehabilitation programs and counseling.
If, and only if, reasonable efforts fail to resolve the problems, DHR will seek a permanent change in custody.
So why did DHR take the Holms baby?
One of the most important things to understand about dependency is that, to protect children from stigma, Alabama law requires these cases to remain confidential.
That means the lawyers, judges, and DHR officials involved are legally prohibited from spreading information about the case.
This is why they refuse to comment to the media (contrary to the internet experts who declare their silence to be proof of a shadowy conspiracy).
We do know that a website called “medicalkidnap.com” published a detailed account of that day on Mount Cheaha, apparently from the perspective of the Holmses.
According to the article’s reporting, after Ms. Holms went into labor, she attempted to prevent a nurse from examining her to determine the baby’s health.
The author ominously labels the person an “alleged nurse” and advises us that unwanted medical procedures are legally considered assault, before detailing what is apparently a massive conspiracy involving DHR, the judge, the hospital, and the employees of Cheaha State Park.
Under Alabama law, a parent’s refusal “to provide or allow medical, surgical, or other care necessary for the health or well-being of the child” is specifically identified as grounds for dependency.
When this refusal arises from a parent’s religious beliefs, there is a direct conflict between the parent’s constitutional freedoms of religion and expression and the State’s interest in protecting children from harm.
For judges especially, cases like these can present some of the most difficult decisions in an already difficult job.
All of this should give us pause before we rush to condemn either the Holmses or the authorities.
You and I will probably never know all the facts of this case, and that’s alright.
When it comes to confusing, emotional situations like this, empathy and humility are never a bad place to start.
Outrage may be more likely to trend on Twitter, but sometimes the right answer can’t be reduced to a hashtag.