Mother sues over seizure of son
A young mother is suing police and the island's child protection agency for allegedly seizing her son unlawfully as she was about to board a flight with him to escape her abusive boyfriend.
The woman, who was heading to a new life in the United States, claims two police officers held her arms at the departure lounge at LF Wade International Airport on February 25 before her three-year-old child was taken from her lap.
The boy was placed into foster care for almost three weeks, during which time she only saw him twice, before being returned to her.
The woman told The Royal Gazette the experience was hugely traumatic for both of them and she regretted ever calling the police to report her boyfriend, because that led to the involvement of the Department of Child and Family Services and the removal of her son from her care.
She said: “I would never call the police again, never. They [police and the DCFS] treated me like a criminal.” Her lawyer, Victoria Greening, said there were never any concerns raised about the woman's parenting and claimed the removal of the boy was a “total abuse of power”.
Ms Greening said: “It is terribly sad that she has actually said she deeply and bitterly regrets phoning the police and believes that was her biggest mistake.
“What does that teach victims of abuse?”
The woman is seeking a judicial review of the actions of police and the department, as well as damages to be assessed.
Ms Greening, of Resolution Chambers, filed the application with the Supreme Court yesterday.
The woman, who cannot be identified for legal reasons, called police to the home she shared with her boyfriend on December 11 last year, after he attacked her son.
She described how the man flung the toddler across the room by his arm and threw an iron chair at him — it narrowly missed and instead dented the refrigerator.
“One of the officers who came was really nice,” the woman said. “The other officer made me feel like a criminal. I quickly regretted calling the police because he used DCFS as a threat.
“He said, ‘why are you in this situation?' It's not that simple to get up and leave. I literally had nowhere to go.”
She said the incident was the only time her boyfriend, who she claimed was emotionally and verbally abusive to her, harmed her son.
“From then on, she said she would lock herself and her child into a room whenever she heard him arrive home and not come out until he had left.
The woman began to plan an escape, securing a job for herself in the US, where she was born, a school place for her son, and safe accommodation with relatives.
In the meantime, police notified the DCFS about the attack, as required by law, and social workers became involved because of the risk to the child from the boyfriend, who is not the boy's father.
The referral was classified as “neglect for exposure to domestic violence” according to court papers.
The department obtained an interim supervision order for the boy in the Family Court on January 30, without the mother present.
Senior magistrate Juan Wolffe ordered that an independent advocate — known as a litigation guardian — be appointed for the child.
After the woman failed to attend a further court hearing and did not respond to calls from social workers, the DCFS applied for an emergency care order to remove the boy from her care. It was granted by magistrate Tyrone Chin on February 13.
The woman said she ignored calls from the department because she was frustrated with how little help she received and was focused on leaving Bermuda.
In an affidavit, she said: “I was never told of the severity of the situation ... I understand where I could have handled this matter differently but I thought ... I was acting in a reasonable manner.
“ ... I was completely overwhelmed and frustrated with the process. Furthermore, I would say that my depression began to affect me and I entered into survival mode. I would have never thought this would have been the consequences of my actions.”
On February 25, she went to the airport with her child and checked in for their flight. But before boarding, she was approached by DCFS employees and police officers and told to hand over her son. When she refused, she claimed the officers restrained her in front of onlookers.
The lawsuit alleges that police “forcefully held [her] hands up and apart against [her] will”.
The woman said: “I couldn't hear my son over all the commotion. I just caught a glimpse of him punching at the ladies when they pulled him from my lap.
“I had never seen my son like that before. It tears me up when I get that image in my head.”
She added: “It was horrible. That's all I can really say about what I felt. That's an understatement.”
She said her son later told her he was hit on the legs with a spoon by his foster carer. She said he still suffered nightmares and was terrified every time he heard a police siren.
The woman obtained a domestic violence protection order against her boyfriend, with the help of the Women's Resource Centre.
The emergency care order was lifted on March 16, as recommended by the litigation guardian, and replaced with a supervision order.
The mother got her son back but the order prevented them from leaving the island, and so they have remained here throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.
The woman said she struggled financially because she left her previous job and had to rely on help from others, including the Centre Against Abuse, to put a roof over their heads.
Laurie Shiell, executive director of the charity, said: “She was a victim of domestic abuse and she has been able to receive help and actually has been very grateful for what we have been able to support her through.”
Throughout, the woman has been terrified of running into her ex-boyfriend or his associates.
Last Thursday, Ms Greening successfully asked Mr Chin to discharge the supervision order, leaving the woman and her son free to leave the island when it is possible to get a flight.
Ms Greening said she told the court the DCFS had no business denying a US citizen her “unrestricted right to return home”.
She said her client took the “courageous step” of calling police on the abuser, only to have it “twisted around” by the department to make out she was the cause of the abuse.
The mother said she hoped her story would “shine more light on what's really going on behind closed doors with DCFS and help children and parents in the near future”.
We asked Bermuda Police Service on what grounds the woman was restrained and the boy taken from her.
Detective Chief Inspector Arthur Glasford, head of the Bermuda Police Service's Vulnerable Persons Unit, referred to the care order issued by the Family Court. “DCFS can comment more on the care order,” he said.
Mr Glasford added: “The woman became obstructive to DCFS and police and was warned several times that she was committing the offence of obstruction under the Summary Offences Act 1926. She was never restrained with handcuffs.”
A 2018 Supreme Court judgment found that police acted outside the law when they seized a three-year-old boy from his parents as he was not in immediate danger. The DCFS and the Family Court were criticised for not exploring options other than an emergency care order.
Assistant Justice David Kessaram said the power of police to take children into protective custody was to be used only in “emergency circumstances” when the child faced a real and immediate threat.
Mr Glasford said yesterday that officers had received training since that ruling.
Questions were put to the Ministry of Legal Affairs, which is responsible for the DCFS, on Sunday. A spokeswoman said a statement would be released on the case yesterday, but it was not.
The ministry has said previously it could not “discuss or disclose any information regarding an individual's case”.
NOTE: This story has been edited to show that it was the Women's Resource Centre which helped the woman obtain a domestic violence protection order.