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—– By: Ann Costantino —–
Anne Arundel County, Maryland – Child advocate and military mom, Sarah Davis, became the target of a Child Protective Services (CPS) complaint after a story about her special needs daughter, Lillianne, received widespread media attention when it was revealed that Anne Arundel County Public Schools spent $30,754 in legal costs to avoid evaluating her daughter for dyslexia.
Public reaction to The Baltimore Post’s March story on the Davis family’s plight was worldwide and fierce, but it was less than one week after Fox 45’s Project Baltimore aired the first two parts of a three-part story two months later, when Mrs. Davis received a call from CPS, alleging neglect of one of her other children.
The mother of five, whose U.S. Air Force husband deployed to the Middle East in early April, became the focus of a child neglect allegation, six days after Lilli’s story aired on the Fox 45 program.
“On May 23, 2018, I received an unexpected call from (a CPS investigator) notifying me that a complaint had been made against our family. She denied my request to disclose the nature of the complaint, who submitted the complaint, or when it was made. I shared with her I suspected the complaint to be retaliation due to our advocacy for our children, mentioning the recent media coverage.” Mrs. Davis told The Baltimore Post.
It remains unknown, however, who contacted CPS officials – and why.
Mrs. Davis, who was sitting in a waiting room during a physical therapy session for one of her children at the time the call came in, continued, “(The investigator) stated that I must allow her to inspect our home and conduct an interview with my children in the next two days or she would bring the police to my home to conduct the investigation.”
Two days later, CPS conducted its home inspection and interview of the Davis family.
Surrounded by a support system comprised of fellow advocates, a special education interventionist, a member of the Anne Arundel Chapter of the NAACP, friends and other teachers and specialists that work with the Davis family’s children, Mrs. Davis and her five children were interviewed by CPS – both together, as well as separately.
It was then when Mrs. Davis was informed for the first time about the nature of the complaint when the CPS team arrived. CPS stated that it received a report that one of the Davis’ children “had suicidal thoughts and was not receiving mental health treatment.”
The Baltimore Post is intentionally withholding the identity of the child who made the statements.
Upon hearing of the nature of the complaint, Mrs. Davis said she told the lead investigator that she had, in fact, taken the child for help for suicidal statements and doctors determined that her child, who is awaiting an autism evaluation, was having trouble processing feelings after her husband – and the children’s father – deployed for active duty to the Middle East one month before.
The family, who has several children who require special services, engages in at least 17 therapies per week, which include sessions for occupational therapy, speech therapy, physical therapy, psychological therapy and a dyslexia tutor who comes to the family’s home three times per week.
But despite offering a paper trail of doctor visits, letters, emails and school and doctor communications that could refute the neglect allegation, Mrs. Davis, who also advocates on behalf of other families, was interviewed by CPS along with her five children. The family’s home was also inspected and beds counted, to ensure that each child had his or her own place to sleep.
“We received the call from CPS on May 23rd,” Mrs. Davis told The Baltimore Post. “(My child’s) challenges and my communication of these challenges occurred in April. By May 23rd, (the child) had been in treatment and without incident for about a month,” she said.
Prior to CPS’ involvement in May, Mrs. Davis notified several officials at her school district that her child had made statements about suicide. She asked for support from school specialists. And, even before CPS contacted Mrs. Davis about the neglect allegation, the child had been evaluated and doctors had already determined that the child was not actually in danger, but would continue to receive help with processing feelings and thoughts related to difficulties the child was experiencing due to the father’s deployment.
The child is also suspected of falling somewhere on the autism spectrum, like Mrs. Davis’ daughter, Lilli.
Autism is defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as a condition, present from early childhood, characterized by difficulty in communicating and forming relationships with other people, as well as using language and abstract concepts.
And, according to a 2018 report published by the CDC, the CDC’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network estimates that about 1 in 59 children have been diagnosed with the disorder.
A further study conducted by Penn State researchers in 2013 concluded that suicidal attempts and ideation by autistic children happen at a rate of 28 times more than that for children not struggling with the diagnosis.
To complicate matters further for the Davis family, a 2011 study conducted by the California Department of Education – the first study of its kind – found that approximately 25 percent of the school-aged children it surveyed, who have at least one parent deployed for active duty in the military, has either attempted or had thoughts of suicide. In comparison, 18 percent of the depressed school-aged children surveyed, without military or deployed parents, had the same tendencies.
In April, Mrs. Davis notified the school officials and therapy specialists that one of her five children had made a series of suicidal statements, beginning on the day of her husband’s pre-deployment.
Matt Davis, who left for military training in the spring, deployed in the middle of the family’s fight with Anne Arundel Public Schools which had not only denied an evaluation for the couple’s daughter, Lilli, but had taken the family to court to specifically fight it, spending almost $31,000 in court costs to avoid the dyslexia evaluation.
Frustrated due to losing valuable reading intervention time after what had become a four-year battle with the school system, the Davis family elected to pay for the evaluation themselves, at a cost of about $2,800 – or roughly 10 percent of what the school system spent in court and legal fees to fight the family’s request to evaluate Lilli.
Following the denial, Mrs. Davis had requested of the school system, through a Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) request, all costs associated with the due process case brought against her family. The case aimed to fight the school system’s obligation to evaluate Lilli for dyslexia which would require Anne Arundel schools to provide services if the evaluation demonstrated a need. It was through the school system’s response to the the MPIA that Mrs. Davis discovered what Anne Arundel schools had actually paid to avoid evaluating her daughter. The school system won the case against the family.
But while the Anne Arundel schools is funded by tax dollars that pays for such cases, the Davis family – which is on a limited military budget – has had to pay to defend itself. The family has set up a GoFundMe page to help offset costs associated with the legal fees and dyslexia evaluation.
Through the private evaluation, doctors did determine that Lilli was indeed dyslexic, yet Anne Arundel schools continues to disregard the results and, according to Mrs. Davis, refuses to add supportive services to Lilli’s Individualized Education Plan – or IEP.
It was one week after Lilli’s dyslexia story aired on Fox 45 in mid-May that CPS officials were at the Davis’ home. And one month after that, CPS concluded its investigation, sending a letter to the military mother last month that the case against her has been closed. Despite the closure of the compliant, however, Mrs. Davis told The Baltimore Post that the family will remain in CPS’ files for several years and if any additional complaints are made, the case will immediately be escalated to a full investigation, potentially with law enforcement involvement.
“The CPS experience deeply impacted our lives during a very vulnerable time for our family while Matt serves our country in Afghanistan,” Mrs. Davis said. “The terror of receiving the call from CPS is burned into my memory, another formative experience empowering me to speak out and fight for change,” she said. “In the two days leading up to the home inspection, my children felt unsafe and worried that CPS may take them from our home. I repeatedly allayed their worries, letting them know that it was highly unlikely CPS would find anything of concern; but because CPS refused to disclose the nature of the complaint, I could not speak with full certainty and, as we all know, mistakes can and do happen,” she said.
In a letter sent to Mrs. Davis from Anne Arundel Public Schools’ communications director, Bob Mosier, Mr. Mosier would not confirm nor deny whether it was Anne Arundel school officials who made the complaint to CPS. Mrs. Davis had requested, through another MPIA request, all communication between the school system and Child Protective Services, but citing state law, Mr. Mosier stated that records involving social services or CPS are considered confidential.
In what concluded a string of unrelated contentious communications between Mr. Mosier and Mrs. Davis, the director of communications ended his June 18 letter to the child advocate, stating “Therefore, even if documents such as those you request exist, Anne Arundel County Public Schools would not provide them to you.”
In April, Mr. Mosier sent Mrs. Davis an unrelated email, asking for clarification about something she had posted on her personal Facebook page relating to her advocacy for Lilli at a school board meeting. It was a communication from the school system Mrs. Davis found perplexing. Since that time, communications with Mr. Mosier’s department have remained strained. Mr. Mosier could not be reached for comment.
But while Mrs. Davis may have been rattled by the CPS experience, she says she is not backing down.
Asked if this experience will silence her advocacy moving forward, she said, “No.”
“Our stories need to be heard,” she said. “There are too many families experiencing discrimination and bullying by the very institutions entrusted to safeguard and support our children.”
Mrs. Davis continued, “Our communities and our nation need to know what is occurring to our most vulnerable members of society. Discrimination in all of its forms must be brought into the light and denounced. I have faith that as a society we hold ourselves to a higher standard.”
As for advice for others who are advocating on behalf of their children, Mrs. Davis told The Baltimore Post, “Stay strong and trust your sense of right and wrong… Yes, there is risk,” she said. “Yes, if you speak out you will become ‘that parent,’” she cautioned. “But there is strength in numbers and we need to stand up together for what is right…Each of us have the duty to speak out even when it results in personal risk. If not us, then who?” she said. “Who will be our children’s voice and the voice for change?”
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