The Case of the Taken Baby


A few weeks ago, Anna and Alex Nikolayev took their 5-month old son Sammy, who has a heart murmur, to Sutter Memorial Hospital in Sacramento. But the couple has since claimed to any news agency willing to broadcast it, that they were unhappy with the care that their son received so they left Sutter – without taking the time to be officially discharged, and against medical advice – and went to another nearby hospital. The next day Sacramento police showed up at the couple’s home along with CPS officials and took the baby into custody.

And the salacious media have rushed to this case like turkey buzzards to road kill. Mama is a pretty girl. She is white, blond and speaks with an accent. And when she cries over being separated from her baby, well, by golly, that makes for great television.

This story solidifies a lot of preconceived and wrong-headed beliefs we hold dear, harmful beliefs that have helped make us into the nation that we are today. We lead the way in child abuse. The US has the highest child abuse fatality rate of any industrialized nation. Yes. That’s us. We are the country in which five children a day are slain, most often by neglect, most often at the hands of their own mothers.

If you are a parent suspected of abusing your child, it is your right in almost every state in this nation  to take that child to any hospital or doctor of your choosing.

That’s what Karly Sheehan’s mother did. Sarah Sheehan chose the doctor who would evaluate her daughter for abuse. And do you know who she picked?

Her own physician. Someone she’d had a long-time relationship with. Someone who was not trained in the specifics of diagnosing child abuse.

I know what you are thinking. You are thinking that anyone ought to be able to recognize child abuse when they see it, right?


People who abuse children know that it is illegal to do that. So they take great care to abuse children in a way that will always leave that lingering question in another person’s mind — what if I’m wrong?

If only child abusers would only cooperate and abuse their children in public, then we could put a stop to it. But the better educated a child abuser is the more likely they are to find ways to hide the abuse. They know not to mark up the face, so they aim for the legs, the feet. A little redness around a girl’s vagina? No worries. It’s diaper rash. A swollen penis on a boy? No worries. That happens to all little boys at this age. It just needs a more careful cleaning. Dehydrated? Well, she did have a bit of a stomach bug two days ago. Lethargic? Ah, well, he’s been having to sleep on the couch because the slat on his bed broke. Crying more than normal? My grandmother passed away and it’s been a rough time for all of us.

These are just a few of the excuses used everyday in ER rooms all across this nation. It is the job of that ER doctor, of every medical professional, to proceed with highest level of caution whenever a child is brought to them for evaluation.

The doctor Karly Sheehan saw did not do that. She trusted Karly’s mom. After all, why would a mother lie about the welfare of her own child?

Mothers lie every single day with little if any regard for the welfare of their children. 

Sarah Sheehan lied repeatedly. Her lies knew no bounds. She lied to her ex-husband, to cops, to girlfriends, to daycare providers, to social service investigator, and yes, to her physician. The one tasked with evaluating whether Karly Sheehan was being abused. That physician didn’t think so.

She was wrong.

And Karly died an awful, horrible death in a large part because Child Protective Services relied upon the evaluation of  physician who was being heavily manipulated by Sarah Sheehan.

I often wondered who Karly felt more betrayed by — the man who for ten months repeatedly beat her without mercy, or the mother who kept handing her over to that man for that very purpose.

Women choose boyfriends over children every single day in this nation. 

And we do nothing about it.  At the very least, we ought to be charging these mothers with neglect.

The media has it wrong on this story. We need to encourage the sort of caution that we saw out of Sutter Memorial in Sacramento — not make a media circus out of a pretty Russian mama, whose parental history we, the general public, know absolutely NOTHING about.

What if you were to learn today that CPS had received a dozen phone calls about baby Sammy prior to taking him into custody? Would you react differently to the news story? What if you learned that Sammy had bruising on the bottoms of his feet? Or that he had lost three pounds since his last doctor’s visit? Would you worry then? Would you then think CPS acted appropriately?

I’m not saying any of that happened. I don’t know.

But that’s the point: I don’t know. 

And neither do the news anchors rushing to report this story. They haven’t done their homework. They don’t know the history of this young couple. They don’t know Sammy’s medical history. They don’t know why the ER doctors at Sutter called in CPS and neither do we.

Hipaa Laws prevent us from knowing that information. And child abuse cases are not open for public perusing.

But you can bet that if the medical staff called in CPS there was something that alarmed the doctors. Doctors hate getting involved in CPS cases. They abhor the paperwork involved. They fear stories like Sammy’s making all the national headlines, going viral.

What worries me is the long-term affect of these blasted news stories. They scare people off.

We become more wary of reporting abuse, even when that abuse is taking place in aisle 11 at Hell-Mart. We turn away. We tell ourselves it is none of our business. Perhaps that mother was simply exasperated with that six-year old. We don’t blame her for getting in his face and telling him what a little shit he is. We’ve all had days like that ourselves.We wouldn’t want CPS called on us for all our bad parenting, even if we probably deserved it a time or two. Parenting is hard. Somebody pour me a glass of wine, please.

Neglect is the primary form of abuse in this country.

But it wasn’t neglect that led to the death of Karly Sheehan. When 3-year old Karly died her eye was ruptured. It was already ruptured when her mama woke her up that Friday in June. When Karly complained about it, her mama pretended it was just an allergy. When Karly complained of a headache, her mama prayed for Jesus to heal her.

What her mama never did –what nobody did — was take Karly to the emergency room. Because Sarah Sheehan knew that any ER doctor would be calling CPS and that CPS would be calling in the police.

That’s the story I wish these lame-ass news anchors would report. I wish they would get out from behind their prompters and read a dadgum book. I wish they would educate themselves on a topic before they report on it.

Because children are dying.

The lawyer for Sammy’s parent, Joseph Weinberger, told NBC’s TODAY: “A doctor, any doctor, any hospital, anyone, doesn’t have the right to make decisions about a child’s health care.”

Eighty-percent of the children who die from abuse and neglect in this country are ages four and under. These children are most often too young to speak up on their own behalf. They don’t have the vocabulary necessary to tell their abusers: STOP IT! They can’t call 9-11 and report their mamas for scalding them. Or call CPS and tell how their mamas boyfriend put his thingy in theirs.

Too many doctors are already afraid to act on behalf of children where the abuse isn’t clear-cut because of lawyers.

Doctors and hospitals and you and I and CPS and law enforcement have to act on behalf of the welfare of children. We have the right and the obligation to make decisions about the medical care of children because it takes a village to raise a child, and the children in our villages are being raped and pillaged.

Twenty-thousand children have died, DIED, at the hands of abusers on US SOIL in the last ten years. That is four times the number of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Four Times.

Thousands more continue to live in the homes where they are being abused daily. Thousands more will spend a lifetime dealing with the post-traumatic-stress disorder of being a child who survived child abuse. We will consider them the lucky ones.

Child abusers know the law. They work hard at circumventing it.

It is a common practice among those abusing children to take them to a host of different hospitals. The neighborhood hospital for the broken foot. The hospital across town for the black eye. The hospital one town over for the broken rib. It is common for abusers to move children in and out of schools and neighborhoods. All in an effort to stay afoot of police and CPS.

I hope for Sammy’s sake that he does have good parents. I hope they were erring on the side of caution in taking him to another hospital for evaluation.

Seeking a second opinion about a child’s welfare shouldn’t be such a nightmare, and no good parent should ever have their child whisked away by CPS.

But most of the ensuring drama could have been avoided had Sammy’s parents simply followed hospital procedures. Finish the evaluation. Go through the check-out procedures. Then go to a different hospital if the care you received at the first one wasn’t satisfactory.

Why rush off?



Karen Spears Zacharias is author of A SILENCE OF MOCKINGBIRDS: The memoir of a murder. 




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  • PLTK

    I agree — when I read the story I empathized with the parents and thought perhaps CPS over-reacted in taking the child away. But I also I wondered why the parents didn’t just go through a normal check-out procedure. I assume that this was possible and if so, I hold the parents at fault for most of the following events. The hospital was following good procedures.

    • Agreed.

    • sailor1031

      It took me most of a day to get discharged from a Hospital in upstate NewYork last year. If I could have left and still had my insurance pay for the hospitalization I would have done so. Hospital personnel were very bad at explaining requirements and getting anything done in a timely manner. I can imagine that an immigrant couple already upset could easily not have understood the bureaucratic requirements of the hospital.

      As for the thrust of this post – did I miss something? Is there some question of child abuse in the Nikolayev case? In fact if you don’t know, as you say you don’t, then you should remain silent.

  • Well, PLTK, I have helped a Chinese couple out of some really bad jams at their local restaurant, because they could not always sort through the mounds of paperwork. Once, they were almost closed down for misreading the business license renewal as a water bill that they did not owe. Once, the husband was sued by the state for not paying child support to his wife. They didn’t realize they needed a marriage license. We are talking about Russian immigrants, here. So, cut them a little slack.
    As to child abuse, yes, it’s tragic that so many fall victim to it. But it’s also tragic that, more often than not, innocent people (kids included) suffer at the hands of CPS. It is also true that the media just wants a story. There are a lot of tragedies in this story. It is also true that 1.2 million parents kill their babies before they are even born, which, in my mind, is child abuse. Tragedy abounds in life. Perhaps we should look at the problem comprehensively and not be so ready to look at everything from one narrow perspective.

    • Paul,good for you for intervening and helping those who need assistance. That’s what being part of a community ought to be about. But it should also be about raising the alarm bells when we become concerned about the welfare of an infant. I think that the emergency room staff took the appropriate action in this case. To suggest otherwise is irresponsible.

  • Peter Novo

    Karen, you know nothing about the couple but in your story you have done a lot to make us, readers, think, that they are suspected abusers. I doubt it’s a thing you should be proud of.

    • Peter: I clearly state that I don’t know the history of these parents — but neither do you. CPS doesn’t just randomly handpick couples to persecute. In fact, more often than not, CPS doesn’t take action when they should. I’m not saying these aren’t good parents. I’m just saying it is irresponsible journalism to turn them into victims when the real victims in America today are abused children. And that this type of journalism makes us all gun shy of acting on behalf of children who need us to act.

      • V.S

        Cps here in Waco Texas leaves kids with druggies all the time but will take children just because the family is young and poor…..I know multiply mothers who have had their kids ripped away from them that really didnt deserve it compared to those who actually abuse their kid(s) and smoke pot and do other drugs right in front of the child(ren)…..

  • Madame

    CPS also abuses children. Taking a child away from it’s parents should only happen when that child is clearly suffering at their hands. A five-month-old baby needs his mom. If I understood the story correctly, the parents sought a second opinion when the doctor said their baby needed hearth surgery. What parent wouldn’t want a second opinion to that? I would!

    I think there is a balance that needs to be found. Yes, it takes more than just the parents to raise a child, but the parents are usually the ones who love the child more than everyone else put together. Yes, we have to be vigilant, but we also have to build relationships of trust. Why should I trust CPS, doctors, schoolteachers and other professionals that interact with my children if they don’t trust me as their mother? The mistrust goes both ways.

    • While it is true that parents are usually the ones who love the child more than everyone put together, it is also true that the bulk of child abuse is committed by biological parents. So not all parents love their children. We have an epidemic of child abuse in this nation. If you are raising your children in a nurturing, environment you have nothing to fear from CPS, law enforcement, doctors or teachers.

      • Marie

        That last sentence is not always true…

      • Natalia

        The last sentence you said isn’t true. I’m an attachment parent and I was still breastfeeding my daughter when she was 18mo old and got accused of only feeding her breastmilk by a new doctor I took her too (we had moved). It took 8 doctors incl 2 specialists and the new WHO growth charts to get them off my back 10 months later. The services worker told me the only reason she was there was because I had gotten reported by a doctor. It was painfully obvious to everyone incl them that I wasn’t abusing my daughter. The caseworker would come over every day and chill out and shoot the breeze with me about mortgages, her other cases, her kids school etc (I went to high school with her husband). So it was really a big waste of taxpayers money. I’m really lucky tho I never got my daughter taken away from me. I probably would’ve if I were black and poor or they said she was in immediate danger. Anyways my daughters 8 now and completely healthy. A lot of people incl me have reported things to CPS only to watch them do nothing but then have seen them completely overreact when they should’ve just used a little common sense.

        • Natalia: As with any system there are people who do their jobs well and people who don’t. When your caseworker sat around “Shooting the breeze” with you because you knew her husband, did you report her?

          • Natalia

            Oh heck no I didn’t report her I didn’t want to get my daughter taken away. I had already refused to sign the services agreement once then told them I would sign it if they reworded it which they did but barely. They said if I didn’t sign it then they’d remove her. Her pediatrician (not the one that reported me) told them she was a normal weight and height but told me I needed to cooperate with them or else they’d never get off my back. They also found out I had Social Anxiety Disorder (I also have ADD and Aspergers which I didn’t say anything about) and they would mention it every now and then and I had to agree to continue going to my therapist for them to close the case. Everything I have is very controlled, I’m very high functioning. Nobody can tell that I have all of that from talking to me and back then when I got reported I was active in church and I took my daughter to play dates all the time (still do that stuff). They found out because my therapist was the same one they use for their evaluation. So if you can imagine and try to put yourself in my shoes you can see why I didn’t say anything. Oh and I’m not trying to be a pill I do believe CPS has their place I just think they need to be reformed and regulated a lot more.

  • Anon

    Stupid post. I have been in a hospital where the staff purposely delayed my discharge. I have also had a doctor advocate for a speedy release on my behalf. Delaying a discharge in an urgent situation for a second opinion is child abuse. Also, anyone can call CPS – the neighbor who doesn’t like foreigners, the bitter couple down the road who thinks everyone should be miserable, etc. One thing you did get right is that guilty parents evade the system because often they have grown up in the system.

    • Glad you thought I got one thing right. As to your other comments, well, they speak for themselves.

  • Anon

    Also, I have worked in inner city communities where drug dealers keep their kids but immigrant families working 14 hours a day get harassed by CPS only because CPS workers need a certain number of cases in order to stay relevant but don’t want to risk their life in the process.

    • Seriously. Wow. CPS workers do not need to go looking for cases. They have so many caseloads now that they can’t begin to keep up with them. I suggest you do a little bit of research before you make such sweeping statements. CPS is a broken system but it’s because they are federally mandated with tasks that work against one another — a: protect the child b: do everything possible to leave the child with their biological family. Do you think the state wants to take on the expense involved with yet another child? That is part of the problem of the epidemic of child abuse that exists in this nation.

      • Anon

        You are saying they have no use, then.
        One solution we had for CPS doing nothing for the kids who needed help was to lock our bathrooms so that small children would no longer get locked into a bathroom with a parent who had OD’ed. My first duty in the morning was to look for drug addicts that needed emergency care in the abandoned lot adjacent to our building and hope there were no kids there. Where was CPS?
        I don’t need to do “research.” I have years of *actual and direct experience.* And it is true they would pursue perceived easy targets for no reason. There is no oversight, so why not?
        (In case you are not aware, CPS receives federal funding too, so it does not all come out of the state’s budget.)

  • Peter

    Karen – thanks. Enjoyed your book. Appreciate the reminder to stay sharp as I head in to do an overnight shift in the Pedi ED. My experience with CPS is that they are too busy to bother many people unless the concern for the child is grave.

    • Thank you, Peter. Glad you found the book helpful. And yes, I think CPS is far too busy to be randomly targeting individuals.

  • David

    I skimmed through and may have missed it. The police originally showed up at the second hospital and spoke with the parents and doctors there who cleared them to take the child home. Sutter stated that they thought the child wasn’t stable and would not let the parents take the child from the hospital. Your article seems to suggest that the parents had the option of having Sammy discharged. You also failed to mention the police conducting interviews at the second hospital and being satisfied the child was in no danger. While I understand the point you are trying to make, this isn’t a very good case to try and draw a comparison with. It never should have reached the point that it did once the police were satisfied.

  • makesenseplease

    I am an incest parent told me quite early that everything that was happening to me was my fault, and that no one would believe me I can say I’m quite sensitive to the child abuse issue..that being said…I believe that if someone wants to leave a hospital, then they have that is not a prison afterall…doctors really think they control the world, and they have the police to strong arm people who don’t “cooperate” with their demands…I don’t live doctors generally, and I don’t like hospitals even less…these people simply did what they thought was best for their child, and it IS THERE CHILD AFTER EVEYTHINGS SAID AND DONE…if they were “running away” because they were child abusers, then why did they go TO ANOTHER HOSPITAL to SEEK HELP?…because they thought some other doctor wouldn’t catch on to their in paraphased words..”alleged child abuse”…you know to me none of your “explaination” make any sense to me…yoga really helps to ramp down that tight feeling in a particular body part..or try meditation..