Brenda Burns with Naomi. Photos courtesy of Burns Family/TornFamily.com.
The mother at the center of a year-long child abuse case in Michigan is now being petitioned by the court to provide information on her whereabouts, despite charges against her being dropped. “It’s a bogus, coercive petition” that amounts to “social-worker terrorism,” Elizabeth Warner, attorney for mom Brenda Burns, tells Yahoo Parenting. “CPS does this — holds a child hostage — in order to get parents to comply with their wishes.”
The petition, which will have Burns back in court next week, is just the latest in a long and harrowing struggle for the mother to retain custody of her infant. It all began in March 2014, when baby Naomi, then two months old, allegedly fell off her father Josh’s knee, hitting her head on the floor. The fall resulted in a bruised cheek, but when Naomi began projectile vomiting the next day, her parents took her to the emergency room. That began a near two-week stay in the hospital during which time doctors witnessed seizures, retinal hemorrhaging, and ran a battery of tests on Naomi, according to a timeline of events on the Burns’s website, TornFamily.com. It also kicked off a CPS abuse and neglect investigation into the parenting skills of Brenda, a registered nurse and stay-at-home mom, and Josh, a commercial airline pilot.
As a result, Naomi was placed into foster care and there were two trials — a family court trial, which found that Brenda was not responsible for Naomi’s injuries but that Josh was, and a separate criminal trial, in which a jury convicted Josh of abuse. The dad says he’s not seen his daughter for a year and now faces up to 10 years in prison; he will be sentenced on March 19. In the meantime, CPS is demanding that Brenda tell them where she and Naomi are living.
The entire saga, as Brenda told WXYZ news, has been “devastating, humiliating, and terrifying.”
Josh and Brenda.
Bob Wheaton, spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Human Services, tells Yahoo Parenting, “The top priority of Children’s Protective Services is to look after the safety and well-being of children.” He notes that he is not able to comment specifically on the Burns’s case, but explains, “If there is substantiated child abuse or neglect, we must keep the child safe, reduce the risk of further abuse and provide services to the child and family. The only way we can do that is to stay in contact with the child and the caregiver.”
Further, Livingston County prosecutor Bill Vailliencourt told WXYZ this week, “It is not our desire to keep a child from her mother. We want to make sure that the child is protected from the man who abused her. To the extent there is a dispute over what the court can order the mother to do, that is a matter that will be litigated and ultimately decided by the courts.” He added, “There is no vendetta here.”
But Warner believes the Burns’s case is emblematic of a nationwide problem with agents of the child welfare system. “They go to extremes to do their jobs, and they do it badly,” she says. “CPS is clueless to the fact that the Constitution applies to them — they just believe that they can do anything they want.” A spate of similarly-themed stories that have grabbed headlines recently include that of the Meitivs in Maryland, who were found responsible for “unsubstantiated child neglect” after allowing their children to walk unaccompanied to nearby playgrounds, and the Smartwoods of California, who won $1.1 million after an investigation found CPS workers removed their two children from the home without just cause.
Josh and Naomi.
Neither Brenda nor Josh could be reached by Yahoo Parenting for comment, but Josh told the news station that he and his wife were blindsided by the initial allegations. “We were shocked. We had been in the hospital for 10 days, trusting these people with our daughter’s life… It was like somebody threw a hand grenade into our room and walked away,” he said. “It’s like living a nightmare. And you wake up every day and you’re still there. And you just think, what do I have to do to prove to these people that I’m not the man I say I am?”
For the criminal trial, various experts testified on behalf of the Burns’s that the bleeding inside Naomi’s head happened at birth and was caused by trauma during what had been difficult cesarean-section delivery. Josh also passed a polygraph test regarding the allegations, administered in his attorney’s office.
But, according to the prosecution’s expert testimony, Dr. Bethany Mohr of C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital of the University of Michigan Health System disagreed, noting that “Naomi’s hemorrhages are most suspicious for physical abuse” in a medical document posted on the Burns family website. Mohr concluded, in another posted document, that “Naomi is at risk of further harm, possibly more serious harm, in the environment in which the abuse occurred.” Warner believes that Mohr is part of a recent national trend that has pediatricians working closely with CPS to provide expert testimony in abuse cases, and that many are “unethical, incompetent, and overzealous, but very credible to juries.”
While a spokesperson for the University of Michigan Health System would not comment on the case directly because of privacy issues, she offered the following statement from the hospital: “Our hospital has board-certified child abuse pediatricians who are devoted to keeping children safe and who are consulted on cases at our hospital when abuse or neglect is suspected.”
Recently, Brenda moved with Naomi out of the family home in Brighton, prompting WXYZ to report that the mother has gone “into hiding” with her child. But, Warner tells Yahoo Parenting, “I call it downsizing,” as Josh has lost his job. She says there’s no reason for CPS to demand Brenda provide them with her current address — especially since she did so recently, when she and Naomi were staying with friends, and CPS social workers allegedly showed up unannounced and demanding entry, but without a search warrant, and were turned away by the friend.
“She’s been exonerated,” Warner says about her client. “If she is a fit parent, then she has full control.” But this latest petition, she believes, is evidence that CPS has no intention of giving up the situation, as Brenda has made it clear she believes her husband is innocent. “They believe,” Warner says about the motives of CPS, “that there’s something unfit about a mother who stands by her husband.”