Syesha Mercado and partner Tyron Deener lost custody of both their children based on claims of neglect. The public case has shined light on the historic racism of child protective services and tells a larger story about the criminalization of Black families, particularly Black mothers.

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An image of a mother holding her child's hand.
Credit: Getty Images.

Some may know Syesha Mercado as an American Idol season 7 finalist or for her role as Deena in the Broadway hit Dreamgirls, but now, she's making headlines for a very different story—child protective services (CPS) taking her children away from her.

Florida CPS took Mercado and her partner Tyron Deener's 18-month-old son, Amen'Ra, on March 11. Then on August 11, Mercado posted a video on Instagram that has garnered almost 2 million views with the caption, "They took our baby again!" Their days-old daughter, Ast, was taken into custody by Florida authorities during a roadside welfare check.

The couple has since been reunited with their daughter, but they continue to fight to get their son back. Their story has gained a lot of attention and is shining light on the longtime bias that exists in CPS and how Black families are unjustly separated at higher rates than white families—even when in similar situations.

Syesha Mercado's Fight to Regain Custody

Mercado says she had been successfully breastfeeding her son for months when he suddenly began rejecting her breast milk and she had to transition to bottle feeding. However, Amen'Ra wasn't taking in enough fluids, as Mercado says she was experiencing difficulties producing milk to pump while also pregnant with her daughter.

In hopes of getting their son the fluids he needs, Mercado and Deener took Amen'Ra to Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida on February 26. The situation took a turn when Mercado was accused of malnourishing her son in an act of neglect rather than being a mother responsibly seeking medical care for her child.

The hospital described the infant as "severely malnourished" and claimed Mercado and Deener refused to give him a B12 shot. The physician on this case, Sally Smith, M.D., who handles most of the All Children's Hospital cases, has been involved in other controversial cases that led to abuse accusations and custody investigations. A USA Today investigation found more than a dozen cases under this doctor's care had been dropped. The parents or caregivers were acquitted after suffering "irredeemable damage to their lives and reputations," stated the report.

In a statement, the hospital tells Parents.com, "Our first priority at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital is always the safety and privacy of our patients and their families. Therefore, we strictly follow privacy laws that limit the amount of information we can release regarding this particular case. However, we can say that our first responsibility is always to the child brought to us for care, and we are legally obligated to notify the Department of Children and Families (DCF) when we detect signs of possible abuse or neglect. It is DCF that investigates the situation and makes the ultimate decision about what course of action is in the best interests of the child."

The couple says they never refused the B12 shot. But as Mercado explained on Instagram, they were forced to leave their son in protective custody where he currently remains.

Following the traumatic separation, Mercado's 10-day-old daughter was taken into custody after the family was pulled over by Manatee County Sheriff deputies that presented a court order to take the infant for immediate medical attention. "You have no heart. My baby is days old," Mercado shouted during the video of the incident she posted to Instagram. "My baby is healthy. My baby is happy."

Despite explaining to the deputies that they had taken their daughter to see a doctor earlier that week and showed the baby's bottle, the deputies took the infant. The Manatee County Sheriff's office didn't respond when Parents.com reached out to the public information officer for a statement.

After her son was taken, Mercado started a website and a GoFundMe page called "Bring Ra Home," later adding her daughter to the fundraiser description. While Mercado asked for $200,000 to help with legal fees and other costs, supporters helped raise more than $435,000.

Along with monetary support, the couple is also asking followers to raise awareness for their story. It's caught the attention of public figures, including Kim Kardashian West, actor Lesley-Ann Brandt, parenting journalist Jenny Taylor, Honor Black Birth founder Brittany Ferrell, and professor and activist Dorothy Roberts, who have stepped up to advocate for the return of Mercado's children.

Civil Rights attorney Ben Crump has also come to the couple's defense. "Syesha and Tyron are being deprived of formative moments of their children's lives—moments that they will never be able to get back, like witnessing their two children meet for the first time," Crump tells Parents.com. "There is no doubt in my mind that if this were a white family, DCF employees would have never questioned them or intervened. The cruelty, inhumanity, and bias that this family is suffering at the hands of DCF—the state agency in charge of children's welfare—is beyond alarming. We will continue to elevate this family's story and put pressure on DCF to reunite those precious babies with their loving parents."

Systemic Racism in the Child Welfare System

On August 20, Mercado and Deener announced during an Instagram live that newborn Ast has been returned to them. But the couple's story brings attention to the racism that has long plagued CPS.

"Child Protective Service organizations are institutions, and we know for a fact that American institutions are racist and typically do not treat Black people as fairly as they treats their white counterparts. That said, if you are Black and you are a mother, you have an inherent understanding that should your household fall under investigation for evaluation, that you are more likely to have a case founded against you than that of a white counterpart family," says Ayana A. Ali, a licensed clinical social worker based in Brooklyn, New York, wife, and mom.

Joyce McMillan, activist, educator, and founder of JMacForFamilies, agrees, calling the taking of Mercado's children "outrageous" and "would be unheard of in a white community." She continues, "It's reasonable for any sane person to believe that if you are struggling with transitioning your baby from breast milk to eating something to nurture their body, to take them to the hospital—are we not allowed to use the hospital as Black people? Does utilizing the hospital speak to our ability to parent?"

Research shows that Black parents are often held to different standards. According to a Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America's 2021 study, "Risks of having a CPS investigation were highest for Black children (43.2 to 72.0 percent). Black children also experienced high rates of later-stage CPS contact, with rates often above 20 percent for confirmed maltreatment, 10 percent for foster care placement, and 2 percent for termination of parental rights (TPR)."

The study concluded that Black families across the United States have a higher likelihood of being investigated for neglect, especially if they come from economically marginalized communities.

Many institutions in the U.S. express dedication to protecting families, but for people of color and, particularly for Black people, "protection" continues cyclical punishment and discrimination. From mandated reporting to Black infant-mother mortality rates, both systemically and socially, the odds are not in a Black mother's favor.

When it comes to CPS cases, the psychological impacts of infants being separated from their mother can be devastating, and for Black people, it often means a predisposition to generational trauma. "When mother and child are separated, there is a loss for both parties. Confusion, helplessness, vulnerability, worry, and doubt are only a few of the results of the psychological as well as physical trauma that can impact both baby and mother when separated," explains Ali.

McMillan says the entire foster care system is part of the New Jim Crow, or the "rebirth of a caste-like system" in America, pointing to an inherent link between Black children in foster care and mass incarceration. Statistics show Black children are more likely to be placed in foster care than get in-home services "even when they have the same problems and characteristics as white children."

Having Black children removed from their homes and handed over to an anti-Black institution with no regard for their worth renders the children disposable and desperate to find ways to survive, often leading to illegal acts with hopes of social mobility and humanity. The cycle of mass incarceration often begins with the destruction of Black families at its core.

Along with Mercado and Deener, the list goes on as cases pile up and more Black families are torn apart and fed to the system. As Deener explained during the August 20 Instagram video, "we got a lot of babies to get home—the work don't stop."