July 5, 2017 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
On occasion, I’ve written about the extremes to which parents sometimes go when their relationships with their kids are threatened. I’ve written about parents who abduct their children, alienate their children, even kill their children. Horrible as those stories are, they stand as mute testimony to the power of the parent-child bond. That bond of course is what allows us to be the successful species of social mammals that we are, but occasionally, that bond can create tragedy.
But so far, I’ve never seen a parent do what Michael Livingston did in this case (Miami Herald, 7/1/17). Faced with losing his children to the South Carolina Department of Social Services, he falsely confessed to having abused them. He did so in the vain hope that, if he told authorities he’d hurt his infant twin sons, they’d be allowed to return home with their mother. His love was that powerful.
But as much as this is about the power of that parental bond, it’s also about the power of the state in child welfare cases. Michael Livingston “confessed” to something he hadn’t done for one reason; as far as he could tell, the state had left him no alternative.
It all began when a bone scan of one of the twins showed a “mild” skull fracture and broken ribs. The other twin was scanned and he too had fractures to multiple ribs. The two were barely two months old at the time.
The doctor viewing the scan was likely a “mandated reporter,” meaning that, if she saw anything that even faintly suggested child abuse, she was required to report it to the DSS. So she did and, to my mind, appropriately. After all, a skull fracture and broken ribs on both children strongly suggests either a serious accident or abuse.
So the initial report to the DSS appears entirely justified. But what happened afterwards was not.
Both Michael and his wife Heather were arrested and their nine-year-old daughter Hannah was placed in foster care by the DSS. Sheriff’s officers tried to wring a confession out of Heather, but she insisted that she hadn’t harmed the children. So they turned on Michael.
After repeatedly being accused of hurting his sons, Michael Livingston asked for a lawyer, the suit states. Investigators wouldn’t give him back his mobile phone to look up the number of the only attorney he knew in town.
Investigators used an interrogation technique in which they talk about building the case in front of a suspect in hopes of triggering a confession, the judge wrote in the Dec. 29, 2016, order, according to the suit. The investigators discussed questioning Heather Livingston for several days, including subjecting her to a polygraph test and questioning Hannah.
Heavy-handed as those techniques were, things only got worse. Without a lawyer and convinced that the only way he could save his children was by “admitting” his own guilt, Michael told police that perhaps he’d played too roughly with the boys. But, far from solving the problem for his wife and children, the police and DSS doubled down.
The confession, however, had the opposite result. All three children were taken away from the Livingstons.
How authorities justified that, I have no idea. They had no evidence of any wrongdoing against Heather and therefore no probable cause to take the children into care, but that’s what they did – for almost two years.
During that time, Michael wasn’t allowed to have any contact with his children, a fact that terrified nine-year-old Hannah.
“We were a perfectly happy family,” the Livingstons’ then-9-year-old daughter pleads to her father in a wrenching telephone message while the family had been split apart. “And now I’m at some stranger’s house. And I don’t even know her.
“What are we supposed to do now?” Hannah Livingston said, sobbing during an audio recording of the conversation provided to The State newspaper by Columbia attorney Eric Bland, who filed the lawsuit. “And why did this happen? Why? Why? I love you so much. I wish we could see each other right now. I need you. And I need you now.”
But DSS and the Sheriff’s Department were adamant.
Meanwhile, Michael, who’s a nurse anesthetist, started researching the possible cause of the boys’ injuries. And sure enough, a genetic condition called brittle bones can result in bones fracturing easily, including during birth. Heather tested positive for the condition and so were the boys. An expert in the condition analyzed the scans and rendered an opinion that the injuries had been caused when the children were born.
End of story, right? Wrong.
Though the findings were shared with caseworkers and sheriff’s investigators, neither agency relented…
Sheriff’s detectives and caseworkers did not heed the new medical evidence and persisted with their cases, the suit aimed at the doctor who determined abuse, the Sheriff’s Department and the state Department of Social Services states.
Indeed, far from changing their minds, the new evidence seemed to only harden the opinions of caseworkers and police.
Meanwhile, child-protection caseworkers threatened to oppose reunification of the family unless Heather Livingston pleaded guilty to neglect. She refused.
The state’s refusal to look at obvious facts in its zeal to tear apart a family and send the children off into foster care not only drove Michael to extremes, it did the same to his wife.
To appease caseworkers, she told them she would divorce her husband in hopes of regaining custody of the children, according to the lawsuit.
This was a woman who knew to a virtual certainty that her husband hadn’t harmed the children, but, in a desperate attempt to maintain the parent-child bond between them and at least one parent, she was willing to divorce Michael. The power of the state is indeed awesome to behold.
Almost two years after Heather brought the children to the doctor that first time, DSS finally relented and allowed the family to live together. No findings of abuse were ever made against either parent. And in December, 2016, a judge dismissed all criminal charges against Michael, holding that his confession had been coerced, as indeed it had been.
Now the tables have been turned, at least a bit. The Livingstons are suing the DSS and the Sheriff’s Department for a variety of civil rights and common law violations. As one of their attorneys points out, this is a case about abuse of state power. It’s also a case about the power of the parent-child bond.
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