Josh Sabey and Sarah Perkins are haunted by the child abuse investigation against them

Sarah Perkins and Josh Sabey spend time with their sons Cal and Clarence at their home in Waltham, Mass. on Friday, October 28th, 2022.
Sarah Perkins and Josh Sabey enjoy time with their sons Cal & Clarence at their Waltham, Mass. home. Friday, October 28th 2022 (Vanessa Leroy/For The Washington Post


Sarah Perkins, 14 weeks pregnant, noticed that Cal was wailing at her just after 2 AM. Perkins quickly made her way to the emergency department with Cal’s temperature at 103. Josh Sabey stayed at home in Waltham, Mass. with Clarence, their 3-year-old son. In the pre-dawn hours of July 13, the doctors ordered an X-ray to check Cal’s lungs for signs of infection, and that is when the family’s nightmare began.

The imaging revealed a healed fracture on Cal’s rib cage, several weeks old, about the size of a thumbprint. The injury was determined to be the result of nonaccidental trauma — meaning it was now a suspected case of child abuse. Perkins’ infant was being monitored closely by a social worker in the hospital. The woman’s tone, Perkins recalls, was immediately adversarial: This is intentional trauma. How can you explain your child’s injury?

According to data from the Department of Health and Human Services, over 3 million children are subject to child protective services investigations every year. Now, literally overnight, Perkins and Sabey’s sons numbered among them. The months-long saga that followed would inflict a lasting sense of fear, outrage and trauma, heightened by the fact that everything — each parenting choice, any passing comment, even their body language — felt subject to scrutiny by the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families. The family claims that their experience has given them a renewed sense of purpose and inspired them to fight for systemic change. This effort has already led to legislative changes.

In the first days after Cal’s injury was discovered, social workers questioned both parents at length, as well as 3-year-old Clarence. Both parents and Clarence were examined by medical professionals. There were no other concerns. DCF workers surveyed Perkins and Sabey’s apartment; no concerns were found there, either. Cal Perkins and Cal were released from the hospital on July 14, with a DCF-approved safety program. A case worker visited their home the next day, which was comforting. Perkins and Sabey began to believe that this would be the end of an extremely difficult week.

They stayed up until late that night and were awake when they heard a pounding sound at their doors just after 1 AM. This was followed by a bellowing voice. Waltham police

The noise had awakened Josh Sabey’s mother, Lisa Sabey, who was staying with them, and all three adults raced to the door. Josh Sabey looked outside to see what he could see. He was greeted by three police officers as well as two emergency responders from the DCF. They informed him that they had received new information which led them to believe that the children were in imminent danger.

Perkins and Sabey tried to talk with officials while their children slept for an hour. Sabey was convinced that the removal must be illegal; he wouldn’t learn until later that it is within the authority of a child protective agency to take custody of children without documentation on hand. When Perkins asked how they planned to feed their children — Clarence has severe allergies, and Cal, who also has allergies, was still exclusively breastfeeding at the time — she received no clear answer.

“They said, ‘Our food plan is to call the pediatrician in the morning, and we’ll figure it out from there.’ And that was pretty devastating,” Perkins says. She quickly gathered a bottle of breast milk and a bag to give to them.

Sabey, Perkins and others began to record what was going on when they realized that they wouldn’t be able to leave their children home. The parents are able to see their children’s confusion and disorientation as they place the phone on a table. “Clarence, you get to go on a car ride,” Perkins can be heard saying gently in the background. “I don’t want to,” he cries. The sound of screaming is heard, followed by the quiet sobs of his mother.

When she remembers this now, Perkins describes a sense of being trapped, forced to comply — that despite the panic of that moment, “there was this feeling of, ‘We have to be calm or else it’s going to be worse,’” she says. “I was also aware that I wanted to be as calm as I possibly could because I didn’t want to scare Clarence, and he was already pretty terrified.”

It took more than 30 minutes to settle their hysterical 3-year-old into the back of a stranger’s car. Perkins and Sabey still remember the last words that the police officer spoke to them when they were leaving at 2:30 am. The comment wasn’t malicious, Sabey believes, just wholly oblivious to the agony of the moment.

“Calm down,” Sabey remembers the police officer telling them as he prepared to leave, and then, just before their children were driven away into the night: “Sleep well.”

On July 16, Waltham officers and representatives of Massachusetts Department of Children and Families arrived in Waltham to pick up children from the Sabeys home. (Video: Sarah Perkins & Josh Sabey).

Within a matter of hours, tens of thousands of strangers on the internet had learned of the family’s plight: Gabrielle Blair, Sabey’s aunt and the author and writer behind the popular “Design Mom” blog, tweeted a lengthy thread It quickly went viral by detailing the story of her nephew and his family.

Blair described her nephew’s wife and husband as loving parents, who were shocked by the events. The doctors and social workers who immediately started observing the family appeared to see something else, and their perspectives were reflected in the official intake report for Perkins and Sabey’s case.

When Perkins was first told about Cal’s injury, the doctor documented that she didn’t seem very distraught. It was also noted that Perkins also didn’t seem emotional when the social worker questioned her — an encounter that Perkins describes as aggressive and insulting. At one point, the social worker asked Perkins if her husband “regularly ignored his children when they were in the same room,” Perkins recalls, and she rolled her eyes. In the intake report, Perkins’ eye-roll is not explained. The report also notes that “there were not enough follow up questions asked by the parents regarding the injuries to Cal.”

Perkins said she was much more concerned about their emergency than the one that brought them to the hospital. “I felt like — I Know that nobody who has ever held Cal has abused him, so that Is not a concern to me,” she says. “What is a concern is that he’s not breathing well.”

Cal was tired and miserable, Perkins says. His small voice is hoarse from screaming. Perkins wanted to know if legal-mandated tests should be delayed until Cal could rest, nurse, and watch his oxygen levels rise. The doctor advised her that she should have the tests done immediately. As she helped hold down her writhing son for a blood draw — it took multiple attempts, she says, and blood spurted on the crib — she began to weep. This, too, was noted as suspicious: “The DCF worker told us later that they had reported that I was extremely upset,” Perkins says. Now she Was showing emotion, but “their concern was that I seemed upset that they might find something in the test.” The tests results were normal.

DCF officials said that they are unable to confirm or deny any information regarding a specific case when DCF reporters reached them.

When Perkins was first told about Cal’s injury, the doctor documented that she didn’t seem very distraught. It was also noted that Perkins also didn’t seem emotional when the social worker questioned her — an encounter that Perkins describes as aggressive and insulting.

At first, the family was at a loss to account for Cal’s injury. He’d fallen from the bed once, they said, and Clarence was sometimes rough with his baby brother, but the doctors said these were unlikely explanations for the fracture. Both children were not attending daycare.

“It’s hard to underscore just how naive we were,” Perkins says. “I didn’t know the research on infant rib fractures.”

They would soon learn that rib injuries in babies are commonly interpreted as a sign of physical abuse, though experts acknowledge that the research is not conclusive; one study notes that the occurrence of accidental rib fractures in infants is unknown, and so the interpretation of the link between rib fractures and abuse “might be biased by circular reasoning.” According to the intake report for Cal Sabey’s case, the consulting physician stated that Cal’s injuries appeared to be consistent with either blunt force trauma or “someone squeezing the child too tight.”

Neither parent had an explanation, but Cal’s grandmother did: When Lisa Sabey learned of Cal’s injury, she remembered an afternoon when she was babysitting her grandsons, and had lifted Cal from his carseat. Cal’s head started to roll back and she gripped him tightly. She recalls that he shrieked — but he was quickly consoled, she says, and she didn’t think to mention anything to his parents at the time. She later provided an affidavit attesting to the episode, supported by a pediatric radiologist who also submitted an affidavit stating that the incident was a probable explanation for Cal’s injury. However, a thorough investigation was already underway.

Ironically, it was Lisa Sabey, her husband Mark, who took custody of the boys when their parents took them from them in the middle of the evening. After 16 hours spent in foster care, the family was finally able to get grandparents from Colorado approved to take the children. On July 16, Clarence and Cal joined their grandparents in the basement apartment of a nearby family friend’s home in Waltham, and on July 18, the family was able to secure daily visitation and nursing access for Perkins and Sabey. It wasn’t until an Aug. 10 hearing that the parents were granted permission to take their boys home under a conditional custody arrangement.

They say that despite the pain, they are more blessed than most.

“It’s normally a year before parents are united with their kids. I remember reading that, and going outside to my car and just sobbing,” Perkins says. “My dad came out, and hugged me, and I said, ‘Cal’s going to learn to walk before I see him again.’ And thankfully that didn’t happen for us, but it’s what happens for most people.”

The impact of Recent public scrutiny has focused on the child welfare system and its practices. Several cases found to have been mishandled have attracted high-profile media attention. In October, a ProPublica/NBC investigation revealed that child abuse investigators conduct an overwhelming majority (over 90%) of home visits and searches without a warrant.

As White parents in Massachusetts, the Sabeys weren’t exactly outliers in the state’s child welfare system; 36 percent of the children in the system are White, while 33 percent are Latinx and 13 percent are Black. According to DCF records, Black and Latinx children still dominate the state system. To varying degrees from state to state, low-income families, as well as families of color — particularly Black, Hispanic and Native families — are inordinately subjected to child abuse investigations, says Anna Arons, an acting assistant professor at the New York University School of Law and impact project director of the university’s Family Defense Clinic.

“There are statistics from a couple years ago that estimate that 37 percent of all American children will be subjected to one of these investigations before they turn 18,” Arons says. “That is a huge, kind of mind-boggling number that speaks to the scale of the system.”

Arons’s research into child welfare practices in New York City has led her to believe that a vast, invasive surveillance apparatus is not necessary to keep children safe. “That experience is forced on millions of families around the country every year, and fewer than 20 percent of reports end up being substantiated,” she says.

Arons states that in many jurisdictions, child abuse investigation case workers are trained by the police. This influences the way they approach their work.

“It is very much based around the idea of finding out the truth, interrogating parents, interrogating children, and the idea that there has to be Something here, otherwise you wouldn’t be here,” she says. “I do not want to say that there are any individual case workers out here who are doing this for bad reasons,” — but she does think cultural biases and preconceptions can influence the evaluation of families. “There is this idea that… a mother should react in certain ways, a father should react in certain ways.”

Many agencies will consider it a safety risk to the child if a parent objects to the process, she says, “and I think any parent would very fairly voice dissent.”

Charles A. Nelson, a professor of pediatrics and neuroscience at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital who has extensively studied the neurological impact of child-parent separation, says that it is not an easy question to determine a universal standard for intervention by a child protection agency, in part because there are unique variables in every case.

“Where you set the bar is a really tough issue. This is a problem that child protection has faced for years. DCF, Massachusetts, has come under a lot of criticism for setting the bar too high at times. [for intervention] so high that kids were being grievously harmed by their parents,” he says. “On the other hand, if we set the bar very low, we perpetrate a different harm, which is separation. I think it needs to be on a case-by-case basis.”

Nelson states that a sudden, unplanned, late-night separation is an extreme situation for a young child. From the moment of separation, a number of variables will affect a long-term outcome for a child: For children who are put in unsupportive or unsafe foster care environments, who aren’t quickly reunited with their families, who do not receive the care they need for already-existing mental health issues, Nelson says, “that can lead to a terrible long-term outcome.” In a worst-case scenario, he says, “the child isn’t just in one foster care placement, but the child goes from one to another to another — that, we know, is catastrophic.”

His own research has focused on extreme examples of neglect — he is among the principal investigators of the Bucharest Early Intervention Project, a prominent and ongoing study of Romanian orphans — but in a situation like the one experienced by the Sabey and Perkins family, Nelson says, he holds a more optimistic outlook for the children. While an infant may not remember the experience, Clarence, a three-year-old, may experience temporary behavioral changes that will fade over time. He says that adults are more likely to carry a long-lasting emotional burden.

“With proper support, with a family with access to the resources they need, this should all be in the rear view mirror on the part of the child in months,” he says. “But the parents — the parents are going to be traumatized. They’re going to be reviewing this episode forever.”

Weeks after the boys came home, there were nights when Perkins would awaken with her heart racing, so certain that she’d heard a pounding at the door that she would get out of bed and peer through the blinds to see if anyone was outside.

“Every time, nobody is trying to come into our house,” she says, “but I’m so scared, and I can’t sleep for hours after that.”

One day, Clarence tripped on the stairs and scratched his eye, and Perkins felt a surge of anxiety — would the social workers who were observing them believe their account of what had happened? She became anxious and fearful of being misinterpreted. “We can’t get sick, we can’t get hurt,” she says. “Our life has changed. Just being around mandatory reporters feels so much scarier now.”

Clarence began to wake up at night and start screaming in a pitch that his parents hadn’t heard before. He’d been fully potty-trained before he was taken from his parents, but after he was returned to them, he started having accidents. His parents noticed that he had accidents often after his twice-weekly DCF visits.

“Those visits are difficult for us, they’re difficult for Clarence. We understand we’re being surveilled by them,” she says.

Over the course of the investigation, Perkins and Sabey noticed that they were repeatedly asked about their religion — they are Mormon, and attend church with their children regularly.

Over the course of the investigation, Perkins and Sabey noticed that they were repeatedly asked about their religion — they are Mormon, and attend church with their children regularly. At one point in the intake report, a DCF worker made a note that Perkins frequently glanced toward Sabey when the couple was being questioned; the social worker theorized that this might be due to a “possible power dynamic because of religion.” (Perkins says she often found the questions so baffling or insulting that she wasn’t sure how to respond, and looked to her husband to gauge his reaction.)

For many months, their lives were dominated by the investigation. Perkins and Perkins had planned to move to Idaho to finish their doctoral dissertation. Perkins and Perkins would then begin work on a new documentary project. However, the family’s plans were thwarted when Perkins was unable to provide a timeline.

To regain some agency, they decided to talk openly about their experience. They spoke to local journalists and responded to messages from parents in similar situations. Joan Meschino (Massachusetts State Rep.) is currently proposing legislation to require DCF workers get the approval of an On-Call Judge before any emergency removal can be made during hours when courts are closed. This would be a good step, Sabey says, but more is needed: “If you say that a judge has to give approval, that’s great — so long as you can then make that approval process meaningful in some way, that there is actually a standard that is being met and evaluated.”

Josh Sabey claims that for a long time he was almost detached from the grief and pain of the experience. He felt only anger and the need to defend himself and his family. But more recently, there have been quiet moments with his family when he feels intensely moved, a reaction he can’t quite decipher. He saw Clarence play soccer with great skill and he was moved when his son approached bigger children at the park.

“It will be just this tiny little thing that’s happening, and suddenly I’m feeling really choked up,” he says. “That hasn’t really happened until now. I think that’s baggage I carry from all of this, it’s something I’m still working through.”

At a Nov. 15 hearing in Cambridge Juvenile Court, the case worker assigned to Perkins and Sabey’s case submitted her final report. Her endorsement of Sabey and Perkins’s parenting was absolute.

“I have observed no concerns about the children’s safety or well being during any of my weekly home visits with the family, and there have been no further concerns about Mr. Sabey’s and Ms. Perkin’s ability to ensure the children’s safety and well being since the case opened with the Department,” the report read. “They have demonstrated that they are fully able to provide for the children’s safety.”

Sabey says he was gratified to hear the judge criticize DCF, and specifically the way the children were removed from their home “in the most draconian way imaginable,” Sabey says. “That felt really good, to hear him chastising DCF like that.”

The DCF removed the family from their supervision and the case was dismissed. But the matter is still not entirely resolved: In a separate proceeding, Perkins and Sabey will request to have the official record amended so that it no longer includes “a supported allegation of child abuse” against them. Cal’s medical records still reflect that his injury was the result of nonaccidental trauma; changing that record would require yet another legal process. Perkins and Sabey say they have accumulated more than $50,000 in legal bills, a cost that was covered in part by donations from friends and family and from money they’d saved for a down payment on a home.

A few days after Thanksgiving, the family of four arrived at the old farmhouse in rural Idaho where Perkins’s mother grew up, in a small town surrounded by mountains. Clarence raced to discover the sprawling property as well as the tractors in his garage with his father. “My hope for this home is just that it’s going to be a place where Clarence feels totally at peace, and is able to heal a bit,” Perkins says.

The family’s first day in New York ended in a power outage. They were home in darkness that evening when they hear a loud knock at their doors. Perkins and Sabey became frightened immediately by the sudden knocking at their doors. This was their first nighttime knock since the children had been taken.

It was a neighbor who was outside. He offered to give them a gas-powered heater, and a flashlight. He wanted them to be safe.

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