Court: Return Rengo children to parents, with conditions

Saying he was giving a Bellingham couple a “second chance,” a Whatcom County Superior Court commissioner decided Friday, Dec. 5, to return their three young children, who had been taken into protective custody amid the state’s concerns over a chaotic home life.

But Commissioner Thomas Verge told Cleave Rengo, 23, and Erica Carey, 29, that the children would be removed again if they didn’t follow his conditions as well as cooperate with Child Protective Services.

“This is about second chances because you blew the first one,” Verge told the couple, although he said he recognized the “love you both have for your children.”

“We accept this ruling and will work with the family to provide them with services aimed at helping keep the children safe in their home,” the state Children’s Administration said in a statement. CPS is part of the Children’s Administration.

A court removed their three children — Levi, now 1, and twins Morna Kai and Daniel, now 2 months old — from the one-bedroom apartment they shared with Rengo’s father, Bruce Rengo, on Nov. 5.

The case generated an immense amount of attention, after a story about the family was posted on the website Medical Kidnap, where it received more than a million page views, and went viral 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. In an interview, the couple, who believe in a holistic lifestyle, also said they were being bullied by CPS for refusing to treat their oldest son’s eczema with a steroid cream, which they believed would harm him.

CPS has said the case had nothing to do with home-birth. Carey chose to give birth to the twins at home without medical assistance.

That also wasn’t an issue for Verge, who said home-birth has “no bearing whatsoever on my decision here.”

What did for Verge was essentially the case made by the Attorney General’s Office, which represents the Department of Social and Health Services in such shelter care hearings.

Assistant Attorney General Rob Olson this week laid out a case that detailed the family’s numerous contacts with law enforcement since 2013 — 14 in Whatcom County and seven when the couple lived elsewhere in Washington state; refusal or resistance to providing medical care for the children; concern about the twins being underweight; domestic disputes between the couple; Cleave Rengo being controlling of Carey; and Bruce Rengo’s mental health issues, which had included a two-month hospitalization when he stopped taking his medication for bipolar disorder.

Olson also presented information about Cleave Rengo’s arrest in Battle Ground, when the couple had stayed there and Carey was eight months pregnant with Levi. The original charges included domestic violence and resisting arrest, but the domestic violence charge was dropped in a plea agreement, which included the mandate that Cleave Rengo undergo anger management. But he hadn’t yet completed the anger management requirement and there was a warrant out for his arrest, which concerned the state.

Both parents also testified on Friday as their attorneys sought to show that the parents did provide medical care for their children, including antibiotic ointment to Levi’s leg for his eczema, which had been a matter of contention between both sides, and that they did augment Carey’s breastfeeding with formula to increase the twins’ weight. They said that while there had been numerous contacts with law enforcement, none involved Cleave Rengo physically assaulting Carey.

As for those 21 police calls, Cleave Rengo said that was because they had trusted police and had looked to them to help resolve conflict in the family.

The couple’s attorneys also noted that many of the contacts with law enforcement occurred before the children’s birth.

“Most of the safety risk is primarily speculative,” said Christina Nelson-King, the attorney for Carey.

“Parents have a Constitutional right to parent as they see fit,” Nelson-King said, adding that they also should be able to disagree with CPS.

While Verge was concerned about the children being in what he considered had been an unstable and unsafe household, he said he didn’t see the couple as bad parents and expressed concern there wouldn’t be meaningful bonding between the infants and parents if the children remained in foster care.

In telling the parents about his decision, Verge said to them: “As new parents, you two need help to learn how to parent better.”

He discounted the contention that no domestic violence occurred because there was no physical violence.

“You feel you have the right to control your spouse, you do not,” he said to Cleave Rengo. (The couple see themselves as husband and wife even though they haven’t yet married.)

Verge said they could continue to provide homeopathic care for their children but also must consult a pediatrician. And the twins must continue to gain weight, he said, noting they were in the 1 percentile for their age when they were weighed on Nov. 8.

“That is a big deal. That shows the (twins) are not doing well, are not thriving,” he said.

He said the couple also must move into their own place as soon as possible, saying the one-bedroom space was too small for that many people. He also cited concern over Bruce Rengo’s mental illness even as Verge said he was convinced that Bruce Rengo had been aggressively addressing his mental health issues since leaving the hospital.

Verge also chastised the couple for resisting CPS workers and for their hostility toward them.

“They did exactly what they should do,” he said, adding that they tried everything to help the family and were met by resistance. “Their lives are dedicated to children. They are not the enemy. They are the heroes.”