'American Idol' star Syesha Mercado fights for son's custody over claims of malnutrition
For two months, former "American Idol" finalist and Broadway performer Syesha Mercado has fought to get back her baby boy after the child was placed into foster care during what she thought was a routine trip to the hospital.
Mercado and her partner, Tyron Deener, took their 13-month-old son into Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg on Feb. 26. The couple said their son, Amen'Ra, was still breastfeeding when Mercado’s milk supply had started to run dry. The child would not accept other fluids — and they were having trouble feeding him.
What happened next took the Manatee County couple by surprise.
Nearly two weeks after Amen’Ra had been hospitalized, the St. Petersburg Police Department removed the parents from All Children's Hospital for trespassing. The couple says the hospital kept their baby even after he successfully weaned off breast milk — and upon his discharge in late March, officials put the boy in foster care over allegations of malnutrition. Mercado said she was never notified that her son had been discharged, and child welfare officials never talked to any other relatives for possible family placement.
The case involves physician Sally Smith, the head of the children protection team for Pinellas County who oversees nearly every case at All Children’s Hospital with suspicious injuries and is considered one of the most powerful figures in the child welfare system along Florida's Gulf Coast. She has long been criticized by defense attorneys, parents and child welfare employees for her aggressive way of interrogating parents. Oftentimes, she saw injuries that other doctors did not.
As part of an investigation into Florida’s child welfare system, USA TODAY Network reviewed hundreds of Smith’s cases and found more than a dozen instances where charges were dropped, parents were acquitted or caregivers had credible claims of innocence yet suffered irredeemable damage to their lives and reputations.
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Smith could not be reached for this story. She previously has denied "any problems with my work" when questioned by USA TODAY Network.
On Mother’s Day, Mercado took her efforts public and hosted an online press conference to air her grievances about the removal of her son. Mercado said she went to the hospital as a concerned parent seeking assistance, but instead faced questions from hospital staff that eventually led to the removal of Amen'Ra from her custody by Child Protective Services on March 11.
"We were treated like criminals just basically for going in the hospital and doing what a lot of parents do — seek medical assistance," said Mercado, a 2005 graduate of Booker High School’s Visual and Performing Arts Center, who gained national fame as the third place finalist in the seventh season of "American Idol” in 2008.
"Never could I have imagined going to that specific hospital to get help for my child, but walking away without my child."
‘Treated like a criminal’
Mercado said the reason she took Amen'Ra to the hospital was her own concern as a parent for his nutrition, citing the difficulty she’d been having during the weaning process.
Medical experts at the hospital alleged that the child was dehydrated, malnourished and in dire need of a regimen of intravenous feeding, said Randy Warren, a spokesman for the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, which investigated the case.
"He wanted mama's breast milk, like a lot of breastfeeding babies do, and I went to the hospital in the middle of this entire process, in the middle of the weaning process, which I know a lot of mothers out there experience all the time," Mercado said. "I was met with a lot of judgment and accusations that literally just started to spiral out of control.”
According to the Manatee County Sheriff’s office, medical staff reported that Mercado and Deener turned down a B-12 intramuscular shot, as recommended by the hospital, a claim that Mercado and Deener vehemently deny.
Deener, a Black man, added that even if they had refused the vitamins, he belives "that's no reason to separate a child from his parents" and noted that every person who has handled his child's case has been white, from the case manager to the guardian ad litem and the judge.
"It wasn’t a welcoming experience or a good experience to witness how Sy was treated as a mother," Deener said.
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A judge cited the information provided by medical experts from the hospital when ruling in March that Amen'Ra would need specialized care from a medical foster home.
Besides seeking the return of their son, Mercado and Deener argue that no one in their extended families, including Deener’s mother, who is one of their emergency contacts, was allowed to care for Amen‘Ra. Mercado also is pregnant with the couple’s second child.
Mercado has launched a Go Fund Me page, which has raised nearly half of a $50,000 goal as of Monday afternoon to help cover the costs of getting their child back.
The couple has partnered with the organization "We Have the Right to be Right," which was created as a platform to create change, educate, inspire, motivate and generate emotional insight into hard conversations.
"We are told that children are taken away from bad parents, but my question for you all today is, who is exactly setting that standard for treatment for parents?" Mercado said. "Every day in America parents are separated from their families and mistreated, they are mishandled, they are misquoted by a very oppressive system."
"I do know that my family is an example of that,” she said. “I went to the hospital for help. I went to the hospital for support, and instead I was treated like a criminal. My family was treated like criminals for seeking medical assistance."
Smith has worked at All Children's Hospital since the 1990s, and since 2002, she has served as medical director of the Pinellas County child protection team.
In 2019, USA TODAY Network published an investigation into years of complaints about Smith’s aggressive way of interrogating parents and how she saw injuries that other doctors did not.
Those cases included the story of John Stewart, a Marine Corps veteran who spent 300 days in jail on Smith’s allegation that he killed his girlfriend’s son by throwing him repeatedly against a soft surface. Prosecutors dropped the charges after a neuropathologist contradicted Smith’s findings, according to internal memos.
Tara Brown — who said she underwent three grueling rounds of in vitro fertilization to conceive twins with her physician husband — was accused of inflicting fractures on her 6-week-old infants. Those charges were later expunged after another doctor diagnosed the twins with a rare bone disorder.
Ashley Finnegan and her fiance George Gluschenko were accused of hitting their infant daughter so hard they dented her skull. At one point, Finnegan said Smith was yelling "two inches from my face." Finnegan and her fiancé were arrested, but months later, prosecutors reversed course and declined to pursue charges against Finnegan and offered her fiancé 25 days in jail plus probation if he pleaded no contest to child abuse.
Since 2004, there have been 7,425 claims of medical neglect reported in Pinellas County. Of those,1,490 were verified, representing about 20 percent, according to the Florida Department of Children and Families.
The agency verified 16% of medical neglect claims statewide in that time frame, with 14% of claims verified in the Suncoast Region, an area that covers Pinellas, Hillsborough, Manatee and Sarasota, among other counties.
Experts said parents like Mercado and Deener are often confused about their rights when dealing with pediatricians in cases of alleged child abuse.
"They are talking to the equivalent of the police without knowing their rights,” said attorney Diane Redleaf, head of the Family Defense Center in Chicago. "They’re completely blindsided."