Massachusetts took their kids. Now they are fighting to protect parents’ rights

May 11, 2023 | By BRITTANY HUNTER
Sabey parents reading to children

Josh Sabey and Sarah Perkins are that rare kind of people who, despite our less-than-perfect world, have chosen to see the good in all that surrounds them. The couple lives by the creed, “most people are good and are doing their best most of the time.” And within just a few minutes of speaking to them, you know they believe it wholeheartedly, even after everything they have gone through.

In July 2022, Josh and Sarah found themselves living out every parent’s worst nightmare. Strangers barged into their home at 1:00 am, took their two children, and drove off into the night. The parents were left stunned and completely helpless. Worse still, they had no idea where their sons were taken or when they would see them again.

This scene easily could have been a part of some sort of twisted movie plot—except in the movies, parents find some hope in knowing they can call the police for help. This wasn’t an option for the Sabey family. The police were in on it: Police officers had stood at the door and aided the intruders in the abduction of the two Sabey children. When it was over, an officer casually told Josh and Sarah to “get a good night’s sleep,” as he walked back to his patrol car.

It was hard to wrap their heads around why the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families was able to take their children so quickly—and without a legal warrant. The only information they knew for sure was that Sarah had taken their infant son to the emergency room for a fever and three days later, their children were gone.

Most people are good

Sarah and Josh met in college and were married in 2014. They knew that when they became parents, they wanted to teach their children to view the world and its imperfect people with optimism and love.

In 2018, they welcomed their first son and named him Clarence after the goofy angel with the heart of gold from It’s a Wonderful Life. Clarence the angel was a bit of a bumbling fool, but he was kind, which in the Sabeys’ view is more important than intellect.

As Josh likes to say, “Ideally you can be both, but it’s better to be good than smart.”

In 2022, Sarah gave birth to their second son, Cal.

To say that Josh and Sarah are hands-on parents would be an understatement. When their first son was born, they committed themselves to doing whatever they needed to do to avoid putting their children in daycare. That meant arranging their schedules to ensure that someone was always home with the children.

Parenting time is sacred in their household. Whether Sarah is taking them to the library and playdates or Josh is taking them on a bike ride, there is always a parent with the boys and they are always doing an activity together. Their favorite family activity is story time. Every night they sit and read children’s classics like Mr. Popper’s Penguins and Charlotte’s Web together. Josh says he can’t wait to share the magic of Harry Potter with the boys when they are old enough.

Watching Josh and Sarah interact with their children, it’s clear how much parenthood means to them, which makes it all the more concerning that the government would strip the couple of their parental rights, and their due process, over unfounded claims.

Parenting on trial

At 2 a.m. on July 13, 2022, the sound of baby Cal’s cries could be heard throughout Josh and Sarah’s home in Waltham, Massachusetts.

Cal had been sick earlier in the evening, and the Sabeys’ pediatrician had advised Josh and Sarah to take the baby to the ER if his temperature rose above 103. When Sarah lifted the crying infant from his crib, he was hot to the touch. His temperature was 103.5 degrees. As any good mother would do, Sarah immediately took her son to the emergency room while Josh kept watch over their sleeping three-year-old, Clarence.

That was when all the trouble began.

When Sarah arrived at the local emergency room, the medical staff began running all sorts of tests to figure out what was wrong with Cal. They catharized him to get a urine sample, took blood samples, and checked his oxygen levels, which were lower than they should have been. They even insisted on an X-ray to make sure there wasn’t any fluid in his lungs.

Cal was only three months old, and Sarah had concerns about subjecting such a small baby to radiation, but the medical staff insisted. Her heart broke as she was forced to hold her infant in several uncomfortable positions in the X-ray machine while he screamed so loudly, he lost his voice.

Hours later, Sarah still had no clear answers about Cal, but she was told that doctors wanted to keep him overnight until they could stabilize his blood oxygen levels.

At some point, Sarah was told by medical staff that Cal’s X-rays had shown a healed rib fracture. While the doctor stated that they had no concerns over Sarah’s parenting skills, when something like this happens, hospital protocol requires a social worker to come question the parents and make sure the child was not being abused.

While Cal was taken away for an MRI, a social worker, Jill Saks, came to speak to Sarah.

From the moment Ms. Saks walked in, she was hostile and began an aggressive line of questioning. Sarah’s stomach began to turn as she realized that this woman thought Cal was being hurt at home.

Ms. Saks continued to ask leading questions like, “Does your husband usually ignore the children when he’s in the same room as them?”

Sarah’s first thought was, “What kind of question is that?”

Ms. Saks was evaluating Sarah’s every move.

As Sarah recalls, “So, then I rolled my eyes and I remember her saying, ‘I caught your eye roll.’ I realized how much of my body language was being policed.”

Sarah tried to think of ways in which Cal could have gotten hurt. The only thing that came to mind was when he scooted himself off the bed.

But the social worker didn’t believe her. “So that’s the only thing you want to go on record saying? That’s the only explanation you want to give here?”

That was the only possible explanation Sarah had. and it wasn’t good enough for Ms. Saks.

The social worker looked off in the corner of the room and said, “Okay, well if that’s all you want to say.’”

The interrogation went on for hours. Sarah felt like she was fighting a losing battle.

“The vibe I got was that she didn’t like me and wasn’t going to like me, and it didn’t matter what I had to say because that was all that mattered.”

The gravity of the situation was starting to sink in, and Sarah began to worry that Cal would be taken from her. Her anxiety was exacerbated by the police officer who had been placed outside of the hospital door to ensure that she did not leave.

Sarah had all but lost the right to determine what was best for her son, and to make matters worse, while the hospital was preoccupied accusing Sarah of child abuse, they were ignoring the reasons Cal was there in the first place. The baby was still sick, and the doctors had completely stopped coming by to check on him.

That night, social workers went to the home to make sure there was food in the cupboards and that Cal’s crib was safe.

Sarah brought her newborn son to the hospital because she was worried about his health and safety and now her parenting skills were being put on trial. Concerned that Sarah might be arrested at the hospital, Josh stayed home with Clarence so that at least one parent could be available to the children should the worst happen.

On the afternoon of July 14, nearly two days later, Sarah was finally given permission to leave the hospital with Cal, whose condition had improved, but not without a caveat. Social workers would visit the home in a few days to check on the family.

It wasn’t ideal, but Sarah was relieved to take her baby home.

They celebrated being reunited, but there was an air of unease lingering over the family. Josh’s parents flew in from Colorado just in case the matter escalated, a decision that later proved to be for the best.

Ripped from their beds

A day after Cal and Sarah got home, a social worker was sent to the home to “get eyes” on the kids. The parents had nothing to hide and welcomed him into their home to take a look around. The social worker had no concerns and told them he would be by again in a few days.

The parents breathed a sigh of relief, but the feeling would be short-lived.

That night, around 1:00 a.m., there was a knock at the door.

Their stomachs dropped as they peeked outside and heard the words, “We’re here with the Department of Children and Families. You need to let us into your home.” Josh immediately asked if they had a warrant, to which he was told, “We are not required to have paperwork for the removal of the children. It’s an emergency removal; no paperwork required.”

Every individual has the right to privacy in their own home. If any government official wants to enter a home, they must present a warrant. Without adhering to the Fourth Amendment’s right to privacy and protection against unlawful searches and seizures, the right to due process is also violated. The government is not allowed to strip you of that right whenever it feels it is necessary—and especially when there is no evidence to justify it.

Yet, two social workers were standing on the family’s doorstep without documentation of any kind, demanding that they hand over their children.

For what felt like an eternity, Sarah, Josh, and Josh’s mother went back and forth with the authorities trying to figure out why this was happening.

The social workers kept saying they had new information to justify the removal of the children but had no evidence to present. The officers kept saying that they had orders from a superior, but no warrant to back up this claim.

The whole thing felt shady.

Josh called a lawyer, who called the police station looking for answers. It was a game of telephone that yielded no clear answers.

As a documentary filmmaker, Josh understood the importance of capturing the entire altercation on camera. He calmly instructed Sarah and his mother to get their phones out and start filming.

Eventually, their lawyer delivered the heartbreaking news, “If you don’t open the door now, they’re going to kick it down, and it’s going to be way more traumatizing for your kids. You have to let them in or they’re going to use force.”

There was a feeling of utter defeat. Their boys—their flesh and blood—were going to be taken from them over completely bogus claims and there was nothing they could do about it. It was a Saturday night, and they were told that they would have more information on Monday, two days after their children were taken into state custody.

If all this wasn’t bad enough, the parents now had to wake up their children and find a way to tell them they had to get in the car with strangers.

Sarah tried to keep a brave face:

“I had to go wake up Clarence, and I didn’t want to scare him. In the midst of everything, you still want the boys to think that the world is mostly safe. I couldn’t bring myself to call these strangers our friends, which normally I automatically do, but I rubbed his back and I said, ‘My boy, you get to go on a car ride, and you’ll meet new people, and then Mom and Dad are going to find you as soon as we can. And we’ll come and be with you as soon as we can.’”

Even as government officials stripped her of her parental rights, Sarah still wanted her kids to see the world as mostly good.

Clarence began screaming and thrashing and could not be consoled. In the footage captured that night. you can hear the young boy crying out for his parents as the social workers attempted to put him in their car.

Josh and Sarah were not allowed to know where their children were taken or how they would be cared for. All they could do was watch as strangers drove away with their children in the backseat.

The aftermath

The family wasn’t going to sit idly by and wait until Monday for answers.

Josh’s father, who (like Sarah’s dad) is a lawyer, immediately called social services.

“Just so you know, both of these parents, their parents are lawyers and are going to make sure that the law was followed to every iota.”

State law allows for family members to take custody in situations like this, and Josh’s father told the social workers, “Kinship placement needs to happen today.”

With pressure from the family, the boys were placed with their grandparents within 24 hours of being taken from their home. Yet Josh and Sarah were not allowed to visit or stay with their children.

Social services continued to paint the Sabeys as child abusers, recommending to the court that the children not be returned to their parents. They continued to build their case against the couple, even sending representatives to interrogate three-and-a-half-year-old Clarence.

Sarah remembers:

“They came to interview Clarence, and Josh’s parents said that they’re not allowed to interview him without his lawyer present. That’s not ethical or constitutional. So they left, and then they came back when Clarence’s [court-appointed] lawyer could come.”

She continued:

“They told my mom and my in-laws that nobody was allowed to be with Clarence while they talked to him. And so they stayed with him alone, two total strangers, for an hour interviewing him, interrogating this little three-year-old.”

The trauma inflicted by the government on this poor little boy was overwhelming for Clarence.

“By the time my mother-in-law got down, he was the most hyperactive, stressed, running around, screaming with cars that she’s ever seen. And the social worker just said, ‘Oh, by the way, he’s wet himself.’”

While the state built its case against Sarah and Josh, their own representatives demonstrated their incompetence to care for the small boy.

The family was able to record the interview, and what they heard was concerning.

“She keeps asking who hit Cal and Clarence or if anybody hurt Cal, and Clarence said, ‘Well, Roman hurt Cal.’ Roman was his best friend. And she said, ‘Oh, Mom hurt Cal? Mom hit Cal?’ And I don’t think it was malicious. It’s just these are people who were trained to find guilt and to find evidence of guilt, and so I think that’s just what she heard.”

Again, Sarah was determined to sustain her optimistic outlook about people being mostly good, but, in this case, the social workers were being forced to operate within a broken system.

Four weeks later, Josh and Sarah finally regained custody of their children, but they still had to fight in court for three more months until the judge dismissed the case and they were finally given full and unrestricted custody.

The family was so shaken by the incident, they moved out of the state as soon as they could.

As for the rib injury, Josh’s mother had a plausible explanation.

A few weeks before the emergency room visit, she was getting Cal out of his car seat when his head began to roll back. To protect the newborn, she squeezed him tightly. A physician had already gone on record saying that the injury could have been from someone squeezing the infant, which backs up the grandmother’s story.

The responsibility to fight back

Josh and Sarah were not going to let this matter go. What happened to the family was not an isolated incident. Across the country, three million children are taken from their families each year by child protective services.

But unlike Josh and Sarah, most lack the resources to fight back.

What floored the parents most was how easy it was for the government to bypass due process and strip parents of their rights without any immediate recourse. And at what cost?  The Sabey children were never in any danger but were then traumatized from the ordeal.

Josh and Sarah were lucky. They had family members, some of whom were lawyers, and a support system to help them. They were able to get a hearing within 72 hours, which rarely ever happens.

The system needs to change.

“I’ve always had an overdeveloped sense of justice. It just felt unconstitutional, and you have to do something about that. It’s the Constitution, right? You have to defend the Constitution,” Josh said.

Sarah added, “I feel a real responsibility to do something. It was never, and still is not, my dream to be famous for being accused of child abuse…but somebody has to do something.”

The parents began to speak out, and their story was featured in The Washington Post last summer.

Eventually, they came in contact with Pacific Legal Foundation, who is helping the family challenge the government’s disregard not only for the right of due process but also for its violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments which protect individuals from warrantless searches and seizures.

Josh and Sarah want to make sure what happened to them can’t happen to other families.

As Josh said:

“We’re an outlier in the sense that we could fight back, but we’re not an outlier in the sense that our kids were taken without a warrant. We’re not an outlier that there’s government overreach going on all the time, that there’s a surveillance economy out there that’s huge and that damages families, millions of families, and doesn’t help them or their kids. We’re an outlier in the sense that we got our kids back.”

Since the Sabeys started speaking out, dozens of families have contacted them to share their own horrific stories.

There are most certainly situations where children need to be protected, and sometimes even removed from their homes, but due process must be followed, and parental rights respected.

The government mustn’t be allowed to take shortcuts, and further safeguards need to be in place to ensure compelling evidence is presented before children are taken from their families. The Sabeys hope that their lawsuit will help make that happen.