by Delores Liesner and Terri LaPoint
Health Impact News
An Alabama couple is afraid that they may never get their children back. All 7 of their children were taken by DHR (the state’s child protective services) after their not-yet diagnosed child with autism began wandering off. It is called “elopement” in the autism community, and is very common in children diagnosed with autism, happening in 49% of these kids , even in the best of homes and the most carefully guarded of situations. It is scary, but experts say that it does not at all reflect poor parenting.
It has now been over a year since Sabrina and Tony Cartee’s children were taken, and the state plans to file to terminate their parental rights for all of their kids, including the baby who was born in September, after the other children were taken by DHR. The breastfeeding newborn was seized at only a day and a half old and placed in a foster home with one of her brothers.
Months after being taken from his home, Kyden, now 6, told his mother:
“Mama, I wanta come home. I promise you I won’t run away no more. It’s my fault we’re not home.”
Sabrina says they never told him that, but obviously somebody did.
Wandering, and Suspicion of Autism
Kyden was 5 at the time when he began wandering off from his home in Wedowee, Alabama. His parents were beginning to suspect autism, because some of his behaviors were similar to those of his older brother. Timothy, now 8, had already been diagnosed with the condition. When the first elopement incident occurred in June 2013, Kyden’s mother found him outside by the fence around 7 am.
The Cartee’s took precautions and installed more locks on the doors. Sabrina’s research after Timothy’s diagnosis had led her to put the family on a gluten-free, casein-free diet, and they saw significant improvements with the kids when they were eating this way. On the night before Kyden’s first escape, he had been with his grandpa, who let him eat food containing gluten. Sabrina wondered if that played a part in his getting out.
Then, it happened again. Their little Houdini managed to open all the locks on the door and neighbors found him in the road. Alarmed, Sabrina immediately loaded all of the kids up in the van and took Kyden to the doctor to request an emergency evaluation.
While they waited for paperwork so that the evaluation could be done, they consulted with their doctor, the local school, and online autism groups, looking for suggestions to keep Kyden from eloping. They even checked with the local DHR office, but they allegedly could offer no suggestions, informing them that a doctor’s suggestion to place a dresser in front of the door was an unacceptable fire hazard.
They learned that many parents of children with autism find their wandering to be one of the most difficult challenges they face. Sabrina and Tony tried every suggestion they could think of and that they were advised to take, up to and including having one of the teenagers sleep in front of the door.
There was a change in routine when black mold was found in the home they were renting. While they were searching for another house, the family stayed with some friends in neighboring Clay county. Despite their best efforts, Kyden got out again, this time taking his 2 year old brother with him. It was around 8:30 in the morning on July 15, 2013, not long after Tony had left for work. They managed to wander down the property where neighbors who didn’t recognize them called the police. When officers arrived, they brought along DHR.
State Takes Custody of All 7 Children
The social worker informed Sabrina that they were taking the two youngest Cartees into custody. Sabrina called her husband and they met at the Clay county DHR office, while a friend was called to stay with the older kids at the house. During the meeting, the Cartees were asked to sign a service plan. The discussion between husband and wife grew heated, as one wanted to sign the papers in hopes of getting the kids back and the other didn’t believe that they should sign. It was a very emotional and stressful time as they faced one of the worst nightmares a parent could face.
Though Sabrina and Tony report that it was just a normal disagreement that any other couple could have in a stressful situation, and there was no hint of violence, a DHR supervisor allegedly called the police and filed a domestic violence charge. Based on that argument, DHR seized the rest of the kids and placed them in foster care.
Since the Cartee kids have been in foster care, Kyden has, in fact, been diagnosed with autism. Sabrina says the social worker said that just about every medication to treat autism has been tried, but nothing seems to be helping. Sabrina firmly believes that getting him back on a gluten and casein-free diet will help, but that has not been done since he has been in foster care.
DHR Demand? Get Divorced if You Want Your Children Back
Life has been a never-ending ride of trying to jump through hoops and satisfy demands, according to the Cartees. They found a house in Wedowee to move into that does not have mold issues. At that point, their case was transferred from Clay county to Randolph county DHR. They have remodeled and placed a 6-foot high chain link fence around the house, per DHR’s request.
A relative moved to Alabama from Georgia and bought a home big enough for all the kids, in the hope that they could stay with them while Sabrina and Tony jumped through all the hoops and requirements, things which allegedly keep changing as time goes on. However, after more than a year, they report that a caseworker has yet to do a home study on them.
Tony and Sabrina were required to take psychological evaluations, as well as attend parenting and domestic violence classes, and participate in counseling. Sabrina tells Health Impact News that, last summer, one of the counselors, Carrie Holiday, told her that their caseworker said that she would have to file for a divorce if she had any hope of getting the kids back, and that DHR wanted Tony out of the picture.
Tony reports that the caseworker denied saying these things when he confronted her, but when Sabrina refused to file for divorce, the counselor stopped the sessions. In December the judge reportedly ordered that counseling be resumed; however, the Cartees say that the caseworker never got them set them up again.
Sabrina and Tony resisted the idea of divorce for a long time, but finally decided last month that they would go through with it, if that is what it took to get the children back home. It was not what they wanted, and there were many tears as Sabrina filed the papers.
Then, at a hearing on February 18, the judge and attorneys told them that they didn’t need to get a divorce and it would be better for them to work together. When Sabrina said that they wanted to cancel divorce proceedings, the caseworker allegedly asked Sabrina if she was bi-polar, and said that she needed to do another psych evaluation because she changed her mind about the divorce. (Previous evaluations requested by the court found only that she was mildly depressed, which was not surprising, after what she has experienced in the past year and a half.)
Homeschooled Children Forced into Public School – Breastmilk Refused for Baby
When the Cartee’s baby was born in September, Sabrina pumped her breastmilk for her new daughter who had been placed into foster care. She kept pumping and supplying it until Thanksgiving, but later found out that they had allegedly placed baby KayLyn on formula from the beginning. Sabrina reports that the baby developed a severe diaper rash that she kept for almost 2 months.
The oldest 2 Cartee kids have been homeschooled since 2008, but they were placed back into public school when they were taken from their home.
Children Suffering in State Custody
Timothy, 8, allegedly kept an ear infection for a number of months before it was treated. It got so bad, according to Sabrina and a family friend, that it stank. He also had a large tick that his mother found during a visit.
Another foster child was allegedly caught fondling the Cartee’s youngest son Keenan in the foster home. He and the baby were removed from that home; however, recently they have been returned to the same home. The Cartees have not been able to find out if the offending child is still there or not.
One of the older children, Leona, had previously been taking allergy medication. After going into state custody, she was subjected to nasal surgery, a surgery that she and her parents did not want. After the procedure which they call “unnecessary,” she is reportedly worse, not better.
Separation From Parents and Siblings is Emotionally Hard
Not only have the kids been separated from their parents, they have also been separated from each other. The 7 kids are in 4 different homes. They miss each other terribly, and they cannot do anything to change their situation.
The children have cried to come home, reporting bad dreams and trouble sleeping. Sabrina writes that Timothy has told her that he “says his prayers asking God to come home and ends up crying himself to sleep.” To which, Sabrina says:
“I just wish there was more I could do, but its in God’s Hands not mine. What can I say to him but I love him always and I want him home too?”
Social Worker Hits Child with Autism
On August 12, 16 year old Leona was visiting with her brothers and mom at the DHR office in Randolph County. She reports that the caseworker, Alesia McFarlin, was “being highly rude towards me and my mama that day.” She describes the events of that day in an email to her child advocate:
“She came in there fussing about a stupid camera say[ing] ‘I hope you know that thing was like $350’ and i turned around and said ‘well our family was more than that’ and she got mad because I started doing her the way she was doing my mama and she turn around and asked if I needed medication. … so while mama was giving bye hugs to Keenan Alicia unplugged the camera and popped Kyden about 3 good times and that really made me mad. So we all went to leave and my little brother wanted to give me a hug bye and at first she wouldn’t let him so he jerked away from her and ran to me anyway. She came up to me and jerked him away from me and I walked away mad. and she turned and looked at mama and asked if I needed counseling!!”
Sabrina describes the spanking that the social worker gave her son in front of her as “3 good open handed licks on top part of leg.”
She also explains that Leona is understandably angry because their family has been torn apart. She believes that “she will be fine” when her family “gets put back together.”
Threats from Caseworker
At one point Sabrina says that she contacted officials in Montgomery, Alabama’s capitol. When word got back to Alesia and her supervisor, she reports that the caseworker threatened her:
“If I called anymore, she would make it hell for me to get my kids back, and it would be a hell of a roller coaster ride.”
When Tony reported the above conversation to me, he said that the process of their family dealing with DHR is causing “a lot of pain,” but,
“What can you do? If we go against DHR, they threaten to keep the kids.”
Termination of Parental Rights – Children Told They will be Adopted
These children who were originally taken because a child on the autism spectrum was eloping now face their parents’ parental rights being severed. During a hearing on February 18, Alesia allegedly told the Cartees that they will file in 30 days for a TPR – termination of parental rights. Even the 18 year old will be included, because in Alabama, kids are not legally adults until they are 19.
Someone has apparently been talking to the kids about that possibility. During a phone call with Timothy that same day, as Sabrina was trying desperately to reassure him that they were working hard to get them back home, 8 year old Timothy (child with autism) told her words that “ripped her heart out”:
“Mama, I don’t want to be put up for adoption.”
Sabrina and Tony told us that attorneys and social workers who work in neighboring counties have said that if their case were in another county, their children would have long since been home. Not only are they not home, but they face the possibility of never coming home, and being adopted out to other families, remaining separate from each other as well as their parents.
How to Help
There is a Facebook page set up to support the Cartees as they try to reunite their family at Bring Back Home The 7 Cartee Kids . They believe that families should not be punished when one of their members is autistic, and needs help, because separation from their family causes more harm than good.
Supporters are requesting that calls be made and letters be sent to the governor and legislators, asking for help in reuniting the Cartee family.
Governor Robert Bentley’s office may be reached at 334-242-7100 or contacted here .
The Cartee’s Senator is Gerald Dial. He may be reached at 334-242-7874 and contacted here .
Representative Bob Fincher is their Congressman, and may be reached at 334-242-7600 and contacted here .
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