Bellingham couple fighting to regain custody of children

A couple whose three young children were taken from their Bellingham home a month ago said they’re being bullied by Child Protective Services for refusing to treat their oldest son’s eczema with a steroid cream, which they believed would harm him, and for deciding to give birth to their twins at home.

A CPS representative said home-birth wasn’t the issue in the case involving parents Cleave Rengo, 23, and Erica May Carey, 29, which has gone viral on social media.

“No policy of the Children’s Administration would allow a child to be taken from his or her parents because he or she was born at home. Home birth is not in any way a child safety risk factor,” said Laurie Alexander, area administrator for Children’s Administration, to which CPS belongs.

In a hearing before Whatcom County Superior Court Commissioner Thomas Verge this week, the state attempted to show an unstable household marked by numerous contacts with law enforcement — 14 in Whatcom County and seven in Vancouver, Wash., when the couple lived there — within the past two years and refusal to provide medical treatment to the children.

The case has generated an immense amount of attention, after their story was posted on the website Medical Kidnap, where it received more than a million page views, and was widely circulated on social media. It sparked outrage among readers with its account of breastfed babies being taken away from parents who had a home-birth and refused to go to the hospital.

Gov. Jay Inslee’s Office has received 8,000 inquiries, many from out of state, from people demanding that he intervene. State Rep. Jason Overstreet, R-Lynden, asked Everett attorney Stephen Pidgeon to help the couple as they try to regain custody of their children Levi, who just had his first birthday, and twins Daniel and Morna Kai, who are two months old.

The couple, who plan to marry soon, said their children were healthy when they were at home but that Levi has developed pneumonia and infections in both ears and Daniel has reflux since in state custody.

“There was no abuse, no neglect,” Rengo said in an interview in the one-bedroom apartment the family shared with his father. “This is a misunderstanding. We just miss them dearly and want them back.”

Pidgeon, meanwhile, is asking the Court of Appeals to order that the children, who were taken from their home in November, be returned to their parents. He’s turning to that court after Whatcom County Superior Court judges declined to consider his petition.

The attorney argued that there was no indication the children were neglected or abused.

“CPS is somehow imposing its medical judgment over the judgment of the parents,” Pidgeon explained in an interview. “Apparently, if you don’t see it the way CPS sees it, then you’re abusing your children.”

Known as a shelter care hearing, the civil process will continue Friday, Dec. 5, before Verge.

The couple said they live a holistic lifestyle based on their Christian belief. So when Carey became pregnant a second time and the midwife they wanted to work with didn’t have an opening, she decided to give birth at home unassisted. She said she believed that “was the direction God was showing us for the birth” and was confident about the decision because she had been born at home herself and her mother was a home-birth educator and leader in La Leche League, a breastfeeding support organization.

Carey said she did the research and prepared for the birth, as well as the post-birth treatment. The twins were born Oct. 2 without no complications, the couple said.

That same day, someone called paramedics and the couple allowed them into their home. The paramedics said everyone was healthy, the couple said, and recommended they go to the hospital for evaluation. The couple declined at that time, saying they didn’t want to expose the newborns to viruses and infections found in hospitals.

CPS showed up at their home Oct. 6, supervisor Julie Turner testified earlier this week before Verne.

Under questioning from Assistant Attorney General Rob Olson, she summarized the police reports involving the couple and the concerns that those contacts with law enforcement indicated a pattern of domestic problems and mental health issues in the home. She also said that in the course of working with the couple, social workers worried that they weren’t following recommended medical care for their children — specifically not treating Levi’s eczema, which had become infected, with a steroid cream as recommended by medical providers — and that the twins were underweight to the extent that they were below 1 percentile for their age.

Carey had been breastfeeding all three children, and CPS recommended that she supplement their feeding with formula.

In an interview, the couple said they had been treating Levi by using calendula salve, probiotics and comfrey tea.

“We were treating him holistically. We were treating him with the best methods, and steroids are not the best method for treating him,” Carey said in an interview.

As for their contacts with law enforcement, the couple attributed that to the stress of being poor, pregnant, and thinking the police were there to help.

Under cross-examination from the couple’s attorneys, Turner acknowledged that the oldest of the police contacts occurred well before the first child was born and that there was no indication that Rengo had ever been violent with Carey. Turner also told the court the twins were cleared as being healthy several times, and Levi’s eczema was getting better because the couple had been applying an antibacterial cream.