NEW MARKET, Iowa -- Henrietta was nine days old when a woman showed up at her family's house unannounced. The baby’s father, Brian Spooner, said the woman was “trying to look through the windows and she was pounding on the windows.”
Henrietta’s mother, Rachel Cox, said the woman never showed identification. Cox said the woman claimed to be from the Iowa Department of Human Services.
“She said that she wanted to see the baby, and I said, ‘Well, maybe we need to get an attorney.’ And she said, ‘No. You don't need an attorney.’ I said, ‘Well, I don't feel right answering your questions.’ I said, ‘Maybe you should just leave.’ And Brian said, ‘You need to leave now and we're not going to answer questions.’ And she said she was going to call the sheriff and they'd take the baby.”
Spooner admits he made things worse when he jumped on the hood of the woman's car, and even threatened to kill her. He said those were his fatherly instincts kicking in.
“What do you do?” he asked. “I reacted.”
The woman left. The family went to the sheriff's office where Spooner was promptly arrested. That night, the DHS worker took Henrietta and placed her with a relative. It was the same night the couple learned why the state authority came to their home in the first place: DHS claimed Cox was abusing drugs.
“They labeled me a child abuser, drug user. And I've never drank alcohol. I've never smoked cigarettes. I've never done an illegal drug in my life.”
You don't have to take her word for it. It is well documented that the baby was born perfectly healthy at Des Moines Methodist Medical Center. Henrietta had no withdrawal symptoms. There were no drugs in the baby's urine. Rachel's urine and her hair have since tested negative for drugs. The state's case against Cox hinges on one document: the hospital ordered a drug test on the umbilical cord tissue, and it came back positive for morphine.
“It's not me at all,” said Cox. “And I don't know how to combat it. How do you respond to a lie?”
Channel 13 showed the test results to a pharmacy expert. Right away, something seemed odd--why only morphine? More common, more available opioids, and even legal drugs were reported as negative.
The expert said there are substances that change to morphine when the body metabolizes them. None of those showed up positive. The expert questioned the possibility of a false positive, whether a follow-up test was conducted to confirm the results, or the possibility of human error.
A local child welfare attorney explained to Channel 13, “I think there's always the potential for there to be a mistake.”
Brent Pattison leads Drake University Law School’s Middleton Center for Children’s Rights. He said recent high-profile cases involving children who slipped through the cracks have led to more calls to DHS, higher caseloads for workers, and more pressure for those workers to get it right.
“Is it better to be safe than sorry? That's the critical question that's confronting child welfare workers, especially in Iowa right now."
Cox and Spooner wonder if the DHS worker showed up at their house with a bad assumption. The night she took Henrietta, the case worker sat with Rachel to write up a safety plan moving forward. It starts out reading, “Rachel Cox said she took morphine when she was pregnant.” Cox said she corrected the woman, who crossed out the admission and wrote about the umbilical cord test, instead.
Pattison won't talk about this specific case. “But there is the risk that if we start with bad information, we can get a bad result,” he said.
Henrietta was gone for 10 days before the family could receive a court hearing. Cox and Spooner passed new drug tests. The judge ruled Spooner’s outburst was in defense of Henrietta, and ordered the baby be returned immediately. Pattison pointed to a recent study that shows 10% of American children removed from homes were put back into the homes or placed with a relative within 30 days. He added, “Out of those kids, about 50% were returned within five days, and so I think (the researchers') point…which is an important point, is that we really have to make sure we get these decisions right. Because if we're pulling kids and we're returning them so quickly, maybe we're not operating on the best data, and we're hurting families in some ways."
Cox and Spooner are thrilled to have Henrietta back at home. The baby's court-appointed attorney motioned the court to dismiss all of the actions against the family, but their ordeal is far from over.
A judge in a different county refused to throw out the case. Cox was automatically placed on Iowa's child abuse registry, and she will be subjected to more drug screenings and made to enter drug rehab. The couple is getting ready to appeal those decisions. Cox and Spooner said they feel they’ve been labeled “guilty” until proven innocent.
“'Cause we weren't hurting our child,” said Cox. “We didn't do anything wrong.”