After giving birth to her third child as a single parent, Carolina Robinson lived a mother’s nightmare.
Hospital and child welfare officials judged that her home could be dangerous for her 2-day-old baby boy and took protective custody of him.
What officials describe as a precautionary measure that could have been resolved with a simple appeal was a frightening threeweek ordeal for Robinson and her family, who officially reclaimed the baby June 21.
One day after undergoing a Cesarean section to deliver Durhan Robinson June 1, Robinson was overheard arguing with her mother on the phone at the CalderónGuardiaHospital in Barrio México, in San José.
A worried nurse sent her to talk to a hospital social worker, and the 20-year-old mother told a story that sent up red flags: she had recently left a women’s shelter she entered after fleeing violence at the hands of a brother and an ex-boyfriend. After leaving the hospital she planned to return to her mother’s home in Moravia, a northeast suburb of San José, where her brother still lived.
Fearing danger for the newborn, officials refused to let him leave the hospital. Then they filed a report that placed him in the custody of the Child Welfare Office (PANI).
Officials at Calderón Guardia and PANI said the case followed policies meant to protect children from harm.
When Robinson spoke to The Tico Times in early June, Durhan was being held at the hospital, where she could visit and feed him during the day. But each night, she had to leave him.
She said she had learned from Calderón Guardia’s office of social work he would be moved to a PANI shelter, but she didn’t know where.
“There aren’t words for the pain I feel, it is so much, for the injustice they are doing me … the harm they are doing to the baby,” she said. “You feel like you are going to go crazy.”
On June 8, with the help of her lawyer, Andrea Hulbert, Robinson filed a lawsuit with the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) demanding Durhan be returned to her.
In the suit, Robinson alleges that though she said her maternal grandparents were ready to help her, Bernadita Zeledón, a social worker at Calderón Guardia, reported to PANI that she did not have the necessary resources to take care of her third child.
Robinson also alleged that restrictions on the times she could visit and breast-feed her son were detrimental to his health.
During the first week Durhan and Robinson were separated, he was fed with milk-based formula and became ill, the mother said. The doctor who treated the baby diagnosed him with lactose intolerance, and the court ordered PANI to allow Robinson to breast-feed her son every three hours, according to court documents.
Separating mother and child during the early stages of breast-feeding can endanger the mother’s milk supply and make breastfeeding more difficult, said Nancy Sabean, a childbirth educator and lactation consultant.
“As a general rule you do everything you can to not separate mother and baby during breast-feeding,” Sabean told The Tico Times.
Zeledón said PANI could not place both Robinson and Durhan in a shelter because the institution deals only with minors.
Responding to Tico Times questions by e-mail, PANI spokeswoman Fanny Cordero said the Child Welfare Office coordinates with the National Institute for Women (INAMU) to offer shelter to mothers and their children.
Robinson claims this option was never offered to her, and PANI officials declined to comment on the matter.
Baby En Trámite
Once news of Robinson’s troubled home life set the Child Welfare bureaucracy in motion, it was difficult to stop.
After interviewing Robinson, Zeledón issued a report to PANI stating that she had not found a satisfactory living situation in the young mother’s family. The report recommended the Child Welfare Office take action to protect the newborn.
It also mentioned other personal problems and recommended that PANI look into the situation of Robinson’s other children – Danneysha, 4, and Kermith, 2 – who were living with one of Robinson’s aunts, Zeledón said. Hulbert said the PANI report focused on Robinson’s living situation and made no criticisms of her as a mother.
Robinson claims in her Sala IV suit she told Zeledón she had the option of living with her grandparents in Moravia, a suburb northeast of San José.
The social worker told The Tico Times she completed an “ample” investigation and found no adequate family resources. She said the option of living with grandparents had not been mentioned when she wrote her report.
When PANI received the report saying Robinson did not have an adequate home for her children, the institution moved her newborn to a shelter to protect him from possible harm. PANI did not intervene with her other children.
Because PANI’s mission is to protect vulnerable children, it is acceptable for the institution to take action based on a report and investigate the situation afterward, said Mario Víquez, executive president of Child Welfare Services.
Víquez said he would not discuss Robinson’s case specifically because instead of appealing the decision made by her local PANI office, Robinson sued. Her case, which seeks damages, has not been resolved.
Officials Defend Actions
During an interview in Calderón Guardia’s office of Social Work, Zeledón told The Tico Times the hospital and PANI acted appropriately in Robinson’s case.
“She was always attended to, always listened to; on the hospital’s part it seems to me that the attention was adequate,” the social worker said.
Cordero said PANI “acted according to the dictates of the law for the protection of children.”
Zeledón, who is named in Robinson’s lawsuit, said the family inflated the drama of the situation because of outside influence.
“What happens in these cases is that a lot of people get involved, you see, and sometimes they give bad advice,” she said.
“Sometimes what happens is they come to the people and start saying ‘look you could lose this child, they are going to take the child away from you’.”
Zeledón, who has 30 years of experience as a social worker, works with the PANI on a daily basis. She said the belief that PANI takes away people’s children is downright wrong.
This belief has a basis in fact, however, according to Juan Carlos Zamora, vice-president of the Costa Rican branch of Defense of Children International, a human rights organization.
“There have been many irregularities with the use of institutionalization in this country,” Zamora said.
If a child can’t be with a parent, he or she is supposed to be placed with another family member, a family friend or a trusted guardian. Placing a child in a shelter should be a last resort, but PANI sometimes puts children in shelters before other options are exhausted, he alleged.
Despite continuing problems, PANI has improved in the last decade, he said. “The image that people have of PANI does not do justice to PANI now.”
PANI President Víquez said a new section of four lawyers is working to ensure mistakes are corrected when people appeal local PANI decisions.
The aim of the new section, he said, is to ensure “there will be real administrative justice where there is the right to a second review, which is the possibility to correct and straighten out the errors of the first review.”
Since 1999, Sala IV has decided at least 23 lawsuits against PANI. The cases alleged a variety of offenses, including inappropriate institutionalization, excessive slowness in responnding to concerns and, in one case, sexual abuse in a PANI shelter.
Frustrations with PANI are also well documented at the Ombudsman’s Office.
In 2005, 115 of the 2,302 formal complaints the office received were related to PANI, according to the office’s annual report.
Created in 1930, PANI made a radical turnabout in 1996, defining children as people with rights rather than as objects of protection, said Kathya Rodríguez, director of the Childhood and Adolescence area of the Ombudsman’s Office.
Positive changes in PANI have included increased coordination with other state institutions to cut back conditions that put children at risk, she said. PANI now works with the Mixed Institute for Social Aid (IMAS), for example, which can help provide economic resources to families whose poverty puts their children in danger.
But putting theory into practice still presents serious challenges.
“The efforts have been made, but they still have a long way to go to get better,” she said. Communication between PANI and parents of children deemed at-risk – the lack of which figured strongly in Robinson’s complaints – needs work, she said, adding that the organization sometimes distances itself from parents whose children it has taken measures to protect.
At home with all three of her children to celebrate Mother’s Day this week, Robinson said she looks back on her ordeal as a bad dream she still can’t understand.
After Durhan’s return, she spent a month and a half in her grandparents’ house and then returned with her children to live with her mother and two brothers in Moravia.
Smiling as she never did in previous interviews, she told The Tico Times Wednesday her family situation is calm now, and PANI has visited and approved the situation.
Things are still hard, though.
She said she earns money as a hairdresser, but since her milk dried up during the ordeal she now has the added expense of buying formula. Because Durhan is lactose intolerant, she is now spending about ¢3,500 ($7) every four days for Enfamil soy-based formula.
“There are lots of expenses I would not have had if none of this had happened,” she concluded.