by Michelle Chan
The little girl in the photograph is happy. The little girl sitting on Daddy’s lap knows she is loved, knows she is wanted. The same little girl is on the telephone four years later – desperate, terrified, traumatized, begging for help. The little girl is Sophia Grace Hope Merrill, Barry White’s daughter. When Sophia fell into San Mateo County’s child welfare system, Barry thought that maybe everything would be OK because she was placed under the care and supervision of his sister, Ka’misha Crittendon.
Barry White was wrong.
Barry White has turned to music and activism in an effort to expose the misconduct in his case and what he believes to be a systemic issue in child protection agencies and juvenile courts across the nation. He has joined ranks with local activist groups, is working to organize against what he perceives as corruption and dysfunction in San Mateo Child Protective Services, and is the creator, performer, and producer of the rap song that is going viral on the Facebook CPS News Network, titled “ICB Kidnappers 2.”
The “Kidnappers” video uses footage from the March for Family Rights protest on May 8, 2018, in Walnut Creek, California, organized by Parents Against CPS Corruption, and splices random scenes of community unrest. The song describes the abuse and racism that Barry witnessed in the San Mateo child welfare and court systems, discussing with raw candor the trauma his daughter endured being separated from her parents and thrust into an abusive home where she is subsequently alienated from her loving parents, and the “legal kidnapping” perpetrated by the very system designated to protect children. To view Barry’s video, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wdBFTVNgA-o. (It’s posted at the end of this story.)
Double standards: A father reaches his breaking point while abuse is covered up
Barry’s sister was court-ordered to supervise father-daughter visits and to comply with regular telephone calls between the two. Except, Ka’misha has worked to alienate him from his daughter Sophia Grace. Before long, Barry found himself totally absent from his daughter’s life: Ka’misha refused to schedule visits, cut visits short and selected inappropriate locations for visits, even restricting telephone contact.
Feeling a loss of control, feeling his daughter Sophia slipping permanently away, feeling betrayed by someone he had loved and trusted, Barry reached his breaking point and did something he will forever regret. Without thinking, he threatened his sister.
“It all happened so fast. One minute I was texting and calling my sister to set up visits, and before I knew it, I was blowing up inside from being ignored,” said Barry. “First I begged her; then I was texting things like ‘You better let me see my daughter or else,’ but then I started telling Ka’misha that if she continued to ignore me that I’d hurt her. I even threatened to kill her once. But I didn’t mean any of it. I know it was wrong and I didn’t mean it and I’d do anything to take it back,” said Barry.
“But everyone has a limit and she pushed me past that limit. I love my daughter and my daughter loves me. Why would my own sister keep her from me?”
Ka’misha pressed criminal charges and filed for a restraining order. Barry did 17 months in the state prison, California Institution for Men, and is now a convicted felon.
In April 2016, while Barry was behind bars, his little girl Sophia called her mother, Donna Merrill, crying hysterically. Ka’misha had beat her three times with a belt, she said. Please help, she begged.
“But everyone has a limit and she pushed me past that limit. I love my daughter and my daughter loves me. Why would my own sister keep her from me?”
Donna Merrill immediately called the police, who referred her to the child abuse hotline. However, when Donna called the child abuse hotline, they informed her to go through the regular social worker because Sophia was already in the child protection system. Except, when Donna called the social worker who handled the case, the social worker told her that the case was closed and that there was nothing she could do.
Striking a child with a belt is considered child abuse and is a criminal offense if it is excessive and/or if it leaves a mark. Moreover, severe emotional abuse is characterized by symptoms that Sophia exhibited in her secret phone call to her mother, and isolating behavior by a caretaker is also a sign that a child may be abused. How is it that no one – not the police, not San Mateo CPS – investigated this? Who is looking at protecting America’s children, if not the very people charged with protecting them?
Mental health discrimination: A family torn apart and a mother unravels
Donna Merrill was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2000 and at the time that she became pregnant was taking Depakote, which is known to cause birth defects, and Zyprexa, which has yet to have clinical studies performed on its safety during pregnancy. Donna immediately came off her medication to ensure a healthy pregnancy but took great strides to manage and monitor her mental health issues.
In fact, Donna went to such lengths to research and execute a healthy bipolar pregnancy that she even self-published a book on it, “Bipolar and Pregnancy,” which can be purchased on Amazon.
After Sophia was born – healthy and without any complications – Donna honestly thought her life was complete and that she had made it out of the trenches.
However, she soon learned that new motherhood brings forth a new set of challenges, that sleep deprivation and feelings of inadequacy are commonplace, and that mental health symptoms can be exacerbated during this time. According to the Centers for Disease Control, postpartum depression afflicts one in nine woman and according to the study “A Review of Postpartum Psychosis,” postpartum psychosis afflicts one to two in 2,000 women experiencing new motherhood.
Donna Merrill, having had experience managing her mental health issues, recognized the warning signs that an episode was coming on. On her own volition and before her daughter was ever placed at-risk, Donna went to see a doctor and told him about the aura she felt and the inability to sleep. He instructed her to check herself into a hospital. She complied. This is how Sophia first fell into the San Mateo child protection system.
Donna fought to regain custody and won. When Donna had custody of her daughter, Sophia was always well-cared for and nurtured, she always attended the best schools, ate healthy homemade and organic food, was well provided for. Moreover, Donna always strived to manage her mental illness and to pay attention to triggers and warning signs if a bipolar episode was coming.
In total, Donna lost custody three times, each time it was the same story. Donna felt a bipolar episode approaching and left Sophia in the trusted care of her father, then checked herself into the hospital. Each time, the hospital called social services and removed Sophia from Donna’s custody even though no harm had come to the child and Donna had taken steps to ensure the safety and well-being of Sophia.
What happened over the next few years to Donna is offensive. As Donna fought tirelessly for her daughter, the system that in the eyes of many can do no wrong served to destroy any bit of hope and sanity that was left in Donna. Before the intervention of San Mateo CPS, Donna Merrill was a relatively stable woman struggling but maintaining. Then, they took everything she held dear in her life, and Donna found herself tumbling into oblivion.
She lost everything. She lost her child, then her job, then her home, and finally what was left of her sanity. Not only did the interventions of the government do nothing to help her or her daughter, but it totally obliterated any chance this family had at success.
At what point do we hold this multi-billion dollar a year industry accountable? The best possible outcome for this child would have been if San Mateo CPS had helped this mother become stable so that this child could be raised by her loving mother. Instead, the system negatively impacted Donna’s symptoms and then pointed fingers as she deteriorated.
Not only did the interventions of the government do nothing to help her or her daughter, but it totally obliterated any chance this family had at success. At what point do we hold this multi-billion dollar a year industry accountable?
Donna has never given up on Sophia. Although Donna has moved to the East Coast to seek high-quality treatment for her bipolar disorder, she travels by airplane, bus and taxi to make it to the one visit a year she is allowed with Sophia. Donna loves Sophia with a love that is greater than love, with a love so deep and genuine it is almost palpable when one speaks to her.
San Mateo County Child Protective Services – where fathers have no rights
Barry White has always been there for his daughter. After she was born, Donna was the primary caretaker while Barry visited regularly and contributed financially. Although Barry and Donna were no longer romantically involved, the two co-parented successfully and neither felt the need to go into family court for custody or child support.
When Sophia was removed from her mother, Barry fought to have his little girl placed with him. San Mateo County CPS treated him as an outsider and misconstrued and fabricated evidence against him. “They used my previous history of alcohol abuse against me, except the only reason they know this is because I voluntarily attended an alcohol treatment program and because I am actively participating in long-term recovery programs.
“A social worker, Michael Bonner, who was also a participant in these programs used things I shared during this confidential program against me, except his reports weren’t accurate,” said Barry.
What is equally disturbing is that there are laws protecting the safety and confidentiality of those seeking substance abuse treatment. Laws dealing with the confidentiality of drug and alcohol addiction patients trace their origins back to two statutes: the Comprehensive Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Prevention, Treatment, and Rehabilitation Act (1970) and the Drug Abuse Prevention, Treatment, and Rehabilitation Act (1972).
In 1975, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare issued federal regulations in accordance with these two laws, and the Department of Health and Human Services revised them in 1987. Congress recently reaffirmed these statues and reorganized them under the Public Health Service Act.
The laws are based on the idea that an individual suffering from a substance abuse problem is more likely to seek and succeed at treatment if he or she is confident that information about that treatment will not be disclosed to other people unnecessarily. This makes sense, given the stigma that often accompanies drug and alcohol addiction.
Moreover, having previously suffered from alcoholism should not have negated Barry’s right to parent his own child, since he is a model recovery client. He can provide evidence that he has not had a sip of alcohol since he sought treatment three years ago. One of the fundamental principles of our child welfare system, in fact, is the idea that people can be rehabilitated – which is one of the aspects of the Family First Prevention Services Act that was just passed into federal law increasing funding for services such as substance abuse treatment for families with children in the foster care system and with children at risk for removal.
How is it that a father who beat the odds and turned his life around, a father who served this country in the United States Army, a father who has demonstrated the desire and ability to care for and provide for his daughter, how is it that San Mateo county CPS hardly even considered this man for placement of his daughter? The American child welfare system was developed with the purpose for the state to take custody and control over children who have nowhere else to go – not to squander taxpayer money and to deprive a child of her constitutional right to be raised by her own loving father.
The myth of protecting children versus preserving families
The child welfare system, which includes child protection agencies, was designed to promote the well-being of children by ensuring safety, achieving permanency, and strengthening families to successfully care for their children. While the primary responsibility for child welfare services rests on states, the federal government plays a major role in supporting states in the delivery of services through funding of programs and legislative initiatives.
The Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA), enacted in 1997, effectively shifted the focus away from family and towards child safety concerns; this resulted in major expansion of America’s child welfare system and continues to ignite a passionate debate over how to most effectively improve outcomes for at-risk children.
On the one side of the debate are the family preservation advocates who assert that it is in the best interests of children to remain at home with their parents. Opponents of family preservation believe that it leaves the child in danger by leaving them in the home.
They use extreme cases, such as the case with the Turpin family in Perris, California, in an attempt to polarize child safety and family preservation. In this case, police found 13 children who had allegedly been held shackled, beaten and starved for decades.
To properly analyze what is truly in the best interests of children, we must consider how incredibly traumatizing it is for children to suffer the loss of their parents, to suffer the loss of everything they have ever known. As such, child removals must be balanced by the harm created from the removals.
CPS agencies focus almost exclusively on child removals. However, the discussion of child removal versus family preservation only makes sense if we actually work to limit future maltreatment. What happens when the homes we place at-risk children in are just as bad if not worse than the homes they are being removed from?
Sophia was removed from her loving mother’s custody due to mental illness. Sophia was then denied the right to be raised by her father because he was in recovery for alcohol abuse. But then what happened to Sophia in the home where she was placed? Sophia has reported that she was being physically abused and yet this is not at issue?
Who is monitoring our children in state custody? What happens when the very system designation to protect children is causing more harm than good?
Who is monitoring our children in state custody?
Call to action
Please call San Mateo CPS Deputy Director Jennifer Valincia at 650-802-3490, the San Mateo Foster Care Ombudsman at 650-780-5703, and the child’s attorney, Joan Tillman, at 650-678-2677, urging them to open an investigation against Ka’misha Allen White Crittendon for child abuse and to reinstate regular visitation with the possibility for placement with her parents.
Also please contact County Supervisor Don Horsley at DHorsley@smcgov.org or 650-363-4569 and state Sen. Scott Weiner at firstname.lastname@example.org, and Gov. Jerry Brown at 916-445-2841, urging them to support parental rights in child protection cases. You may reference this article when calling.
Michelle Chan is founder and president of Parents Against CPS Corruption. For more information or to find out about reform initiatives, visit ParentsAgainstCPSCorruption.com or email MichelleChan2019@gmail.com. Michelle Chan is interested in hearing from others who have been impacted by California’s child protection system.