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‘Legalized kidnapping’: Family sues after their kids were taken in the middle of the night by state child welfare agents and police

The Sabey family

The Sabey family sits on a couch together. (Pacific Legal Foundation)

A Massachusetts couple have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against state child protective services agents and local police officers over the removal of their children from their home in July 2022.

“Sarah Perkins and Joshua Sabey are the loving parents of two young boys,” the 33-page lawsuit begins. “They have never abused, harmed, or neglected their children, nor have they ever been charged with any civil or criminal offense related to their parenting. Josh and Sarah are devoted parents who are raising their children with a parenting philosophy that emphasizes compassion and trust in the innate goodness of people.”

On July 16, however, “at approximately one o’clock in the morning,” 3-year-old Clarence Sabey and 3-month-old Cal Sabey were taken from their parents’ home, the lawsuit says. Video footage shared by the parents with Boston-based NBC affiliate WBTS appears to depict the older boy screaming at the prospect of leaving with strangers in the middle of the night.

When Waltham Police Department officers and Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF) agents knocked on the door, the lawsuit says, they “demanded” the surrender of the children while threatening to break into their quiet residential home if they did not comply.”

The couple no longer lives in the Bay State.

“The government cannot show up under the cover of night and take your children without a warrant or a reasonable belief a child is in imminent danger,” attorney Joshua Thompson, with the libertarian and conservative-backed Pacific Legal Foundation, told WBTS. “Parents should be able to sleep without wondering if the government is going to take their kids in violation of constitutional guarantees.”

A few days before the children were removed from their home, Perkins took the younger boy to the Newton-Wellesley Emergency Room because he had been vomiting and had a high fever, the lawsuit says. The baby was diagnosed with a respiratory infection and low oxygen levels, and an X-ray was taken to check for possible pneumonia. That exam revealed an almost-healed rib fracture that the infant’s mother was unable to explain.

Perkins told WBTS that a nurse said she wasn’t legally allowed to leave the hospital. She also said she saw a police officer outside the hospital room door.

“I shut the door, I picked up Cal and immediately called Josh,” she told the station in September 2022, recalling what she said on the phone call: “I don’t think we’re going to leave this hospital with our baby.”

The lawsuit says that a report was made to DCF alleging physical abuse of the baby by his parents, noting the rib injury as well as what was described as Perkins’ “flat” affect while speaking and that she “rolled her eyes” while being questioned. A determination was made that the rib fracture — actually two adjacent healing rib fractures, according to the lawsuit — was not consistent with a fall from a bed, as the boy’s parents had suggested as a possible explanation. Nevertheless, DCF agents had “obviously no imminent concern about the health of the two boys,” and Perkins and the baby were allowed to leave the hospital and return home, albeit with a DCF-created “safety plan” that the parents indicated they would sign a few days later during a scheduled DCF visit.

The family told WBTS that thought they were in the clear, shared the ordeal with their extended family over Zoom, and went to sleep.

The next day, however, a DCF program manager ordered agents to conduct an unannounced visit of the Sabeys’ home, the lawsuit says. This visit “failed to raise any concerns,” according to the complaint, and the Sabeys agreed to another visit scheduled for three days later.

Then came the late-night knock on the door.

At around 1:00 a.m., DCF agents and three local police officers arrived at the home, claiming to have an “emergency order” that authorized them to take the children — although according to the complaint, there was no official warrant to do so.

“When informed by their lawyer that the police were prepared to forcibly take their sleeping children, Josh and Sarah woke their children and placed them, crying, into the officials’ vehicles,” the complaint says. “The children were driven away into the night.”

It took two weeks for Perkins and Sabey to get their children back, and even then it was only conditional temporary custody as the DCF investigation continued.

Four months later — after the investigation “failed to uncover any evidence of abuse, neglect, or maltreatment that justified their initial unlawful seizure of the children or their continued denial of full parental rights to the Sabeys,” the complaint says — a juvenile court judge dismissed the DCF case.

The complaint alleges numerous federal civil rights violations including an unreasonable search and seizure of the Sabey house, the unreasonable seizure of both children, and the deprivation of parental rights without due process. The lawsuit additionally includes three similar causes of action based on Massachusetts law.

There are also two separate Monell claims against the City of Waltham – alleging that officials violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments and the parents’ constitutional due process rights.

A Monell claim, so named for the 1978 Supreme Court case of Monell v. Department of Social Services, is based on the idea that a municipality can be held liable for violations of Constitutional rights committed by its agents. Such claims are under-girded by the federal statute allowing any person under the jurisdiction of the U.S. to file a civil lawsuit over an alleged deprivation of their constitutional rights.

“These actions were reprehensible and plainly unconstitutional,” the lawsuit alleges. “The officials had no warrant to enter the Sabeys’ home or seize the young Sabey children, and there was no plausible imminent threat that could justify entering the home and seizing the sleeping toddler and infant from their loving parents and family home in the middle of the night.”

“The Sabeys view themselves as having the opportunity to make a real change,” Thompson told Law&Crime. “They are not in this for the money, and PLF isn’t accepting any fees representing them. DCF needs to stop stealing kids from parents without a hearing, warrant, and adequate justification for doing so. If DCF would come to us apologize and promise to change their procedures and protocols that would go a long way towards making this case go away. Until they do so, however, we are prepared to litigate this case in court for as long as it takes.”

Thompson went on to elaborate at length about the constitutional principles the PLF believes are at stake in the lawsuit.

“[Y]our home is sacrosanct, and everyone knows that the government cannot come into your home without a warrant,” the attorney told Law&Crime in an email. “Here, they demanded entry to the home at 1 in the morning with no warrant.”

Seizing the children, Thompson said, and the harm that it caused the family, was tantamount to “legalized kidnapping.”

“Here the government has no justification for seizing the children and no authority to do so,” the attorney said. “All the information they used to seize the kids, they knew three days prior, but not only did they not get a warrant during that time span, they also refused to get a warrant after they seized the kids on Friday night for nearly an additional three days. ”

The lawsuit was filed on Tuesday.

“The city of Waltham has yet to be formerly served notice of the federal lawsuit,” a statement obtained by Law&Crime says. “The Waltham Police Department only learned of the lawsuit through investigative reporters and other media outlets. In any event, the Waltham Police Department does not comment on on-going litigation and will be referring all media inquiries to the city of Waltham Law Department.”

Law&Crime also reached out to the Massachusetts DCF but no response was received at the time of publication.

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