Hasty Accusations

Syesha Mercado and Tyron Deener

I stumbled on a LINK> Change.org petition and thought – there must be a larger story here. Because of her high profile as an American Idol alumus (season 7), her story got more attention nationally than it may have otherwise. Because wrongful child/parent separations concern me, I cared to look further.

Dr Sally Smith is said to have wrongly accused more than a dozen parents of child abuse. There are hundreds of child abuse cases tied to her, where parents were proven innocent but suffered irreparable trauma and harm due too her accusations. This doctor is said to hastily diagnose child abuse which rips families apart. Dr Smith is the medical director for the Pinellas County Child Protective Services team and is a contracted child abuse Pediatrician at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital and Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Syesha’s nightmare started when her 15-month-old son, Amen’Ra, was ripped from his family, and placed in foster care, following a hospital visit. Mercado and her partner, Tyron Deener, had taken their baby boy to Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg on Feb. 26 for a routine check-up. The couple had become concerned about the possibility of malnutrition when Mercado’s breast milk started to run dry. She was pregnant (later delivering her newborn daughter) and her son, Amen’Ra, stopped accepting fluids. I remember the challenges of weaning my own children off breast feeding.

During their legal battle for custody of Amen’Ra, Mercado and Deener were in the car with their 10 day old daughter. They were subjected to a police conducted roadside welfare check in the middle of the highway. The result was their newborn baby was also taken away by Child Protective Services.  The couple said that they directed all communication to their attorney who had not been given a warning about the safety check.  

The Change.org petition has a summary of just a few of the other cases that Smith has been involved in, which pointed to significant inconsistencies in Smith’s medical notes. Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal said as it overturned one such removal – Smith’s conclusions were based “primarily on her assessment of the father’s credibility, not on the available medical reports.” In another case, a wrongfully accused mother committed suicide due to Smith’s trumped-up claims. One Marine Corps veteran spent 300 days in jail on Smith’s allegation that he killed his girlfriend’s son and was freed when a neuropathologist contradicted her findings.

Dr Smith has long been criticized by defense attorneys, parents and child welfare employees for her aggressive way of interrogating parents. Oftentimes, she sees injuries that other doctors do not.

Mercado said, “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. I was met with a lot of judgment and accusations that literally just started to spiral out of control.” Deener noted that every person who has handled his child’s case has been white, from the case manager to the guardian ad litem to the judge. 

Every day in America, parents are separated from their families and mistreated, they are mishandled and they are misquoted, by a very oppressive system. 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 say 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.

In August of 2021, the couple regained custody of their baby daughter after only a few days. It took the couple 7 months to regain custody in October 2021 of their toddler son. At that point, they were still faced with six months of supervision by the state, coming to their home to check their competency and ability to raise their own children. Their children should have never been taken from them in the first place. The couple are vegans who live holistically. They have maintained that the doctors didn’t understand their lifestyle. They also believe there is a racial element to their case. In fact, the children of people of color are more often removed from their families than the children of white people.