Syesha Mercado, a former American Idol contestant and Broadway performer, has now had two of her young children taken from her by authorities in Florida within the past six months.
Mercado and her partner, Tyron Deener, who are Black, have been working for months for the return of their 15-month-old son, Amen'Ra, who was placed into foster care after what the couple thought was a routine visit to the hospital.
Then on Wednesday, Mercado and Deener were driving with their newborn daughter when authorities stopped the couple's car and insisted on conducting a roadside welfare check that ultimately led to them taking the baby away, sparking outrage on social media.
The couple was given no warning of the safety check, and their lawyer was not contacted beforehand, according to an Instagram Live video Deener posted at the scene during the encounter. The cellphone video, roughly an hour long, amassed over 600,000 views and nearly 7,000 comments within a day.
"We're currently detained by the Manatee County Sheriff's Department," Deener says, adding that an "unmarked" law enforcement vehicle had been waiting outside their home and followed the family. "We're surrounded. ... They're warning us to turn over our newborn."
"Whatever you do, they're just gonna do what they want," Mercado says.
In the video, Mercado and Deener sit in their car on the side of the road; he is in the driver's seat, and she is in the backseat, cradling the baby. They tell officials they want to be the ones to take the baby to the hospital. They also reiterate they had just taken their daughter to the doctor and that she was deemed perfectly healthy, but the officials interview Mercado and Deener and insist on taking the baby to the hospital for their own review.
A child protective services case management team had previously tried to conduct a welfare check upon learning of the newborn, but Mercado and Deener referred them to their attorney before they could visit. The agency then got orders signed by a judge to conduct a welfare investigation and secure possession of the child, according to audio from the video.
"My baby is days old, and you're taking my baby away from me," Mercado says in the video. "You have no heart. This is so wrong."
"All you had to do was call the attorney. We have all the paperwork," Mercado goes on to say. "You guys have created so much trauma. You just expect me to come outside and be like, hi, guys, you're my friends. You're not my friends."
Meanwhile, Mercado's fight continues to regain custody of her son Amen'Ra from the child protective services agency of Manatee County in Florida. The boy was removed from his parents at 13 months old when they took him to the hospital because they were struggling to get him to accept fluids, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported. When Mercado became pregnant with her daughter, her breast milk supply started to run out, and Amen'Ra would not accept other fluids.
But officials accused the couple of malnutrition and put Amen'Ra in foster care. Critics of that decision have pointed out that Sally Smith, the pediatrician at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida, who examined Amen'Ra, has been investigated in the past for being too quick to diagnose child abuse.
BuzzFeed News has reached out to Mercado, her attorney, and Manatee County's child protective services agency for comment.
Mercado's situation has sparked outcry on social media, with many people pointing to her race as playing a huge factor. Dana Sussman, the deputy executive director at National Advocates for Pregnant Women, said many advocates refer to CPS as a "family policing system" and that control over Black families can be exerted anywhere from the delivery room to a pediatrician appointment.
"This system is rooted in our country's history of slavery and regulating the reproduction of Black mothers and Black families," Sussman said. "It is rooted in the country's belief they can judge who and when people can become parents ... and it's inextricably linked with the racist systems of policing, violence, and poverty."
She said watching the video of Mercado lose her child was "incredibly disorienting" and that it revealed an invisible system that incriminates Black families. She added that typically when a child is taken by CPS, a family is often "flagged" in the agency's system, sometimes for years.
"If that mom gets pregnant again, the fetus essentially is already in the system to then be evaluated and the family to be surveilled," Sussman said. "What I saw was that sort of suspicion ... continuing with [Mercado's] family. They've already been through so much. ... It's just another traumatic interaction with the system."
The video of Mercado and Deener losing their daughter also garnered social media reactions from fellow parents and supporters.
"Their beautiful new baby was taken from them as well without their attorney being contacted. No warning. Nothing," Bekah Martinez, a former Bachelor contestant and a parent of two children, reacted in her Instagram story. "Ambushed and their baby stolen from them. ... The system has failed them."
Martinez posted an email template and the email addresses of local Florida officials, urging her more than 750,000 followers to write in and demand an investigation.
Another parent, Jenny Tamas, also weighed in on Instagram, where she frequently posts about breastfeeding.
"I need you to come together with me, and I need us to rally, and I need to support this, and I need us to change some shit today," Tamas called to her over 100,000 followers.
Tamas grew up in the foster care system and has recently sued the state of Washington for the negligence she experienced, she said.
"The state makes mistakes all the time," she added. "My lawsuit is not the first, and it will not be the last. ... There has been ample evidence showing that these kids were not only safe and loved and nurtured but were extremely cared for."
Tamas went on to explain that because Mercado and Deener already have one child in CPS custody, the agency tracked them down for the welfare check.
"They were probably scared shitless," Tamas said, adding that, unlike the time Amen'Ra was taken, the couple now had some "tools," namely an attorney who can advocate for their rights.