The Case of the Taken Baby

The Case of the Taken Baby May 1, 2013


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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