This hurts every inch of my heart: Black teen mom Johnneisha Kemper, who had her newborn baby taken away just days after she was born, was awarded a $225,000 settlement in a civil rights lawsuit that claimed the removal by San Diego police officers caused her to permanently lose custody of her daughter.
It’s not the payout that has me in a tizzy. It’s the part where a mom—Black, young, single, powerless—has her child literally ripped from her arms by a system that was all-too-quick to judge, ridicule and violate her rights to be a parent to her child.
The details are sketchy, but from what I could gather from news reports and legal documents, here’s what happened: Kemper, then 16-years-old, left a hospital where she’d just given birth and showed up on her mother’s doorstep with her 7-day-old daughter, after which the two got into a big blow-up argument. Kemper’s mom kicked her out of the house, but kept the baby inside. The 16-year-old called the cops thinking they would help her get her kid back. But when the three officers showed up, they instead removed the baby from Kemper’s custody—even though, the lawsuit says, “there was no immediate threat to the child”—and dropped the newborn into an intricate and messy web of foster care homes, court dates and bureaucratic red tape that ended with Kemper losing her daughter “forever.”
Kemper, herself a foster child, lived in and attended school in the Los Angeles area and didn’t have a driver’s license when child welfare official demanded she take parenting classes, go to counseling and submit to drug tests in San Diego. She was allowed to see her daughter only during court-supervised visits on Tuesdays.
Still, the court terminated Kemper’s parental rights, concluding that she couldn’t safely parent or provide proper support for her newborn. Social workers claimed they couldn’t so much as contact the mother let alone count on her to show up for critical court dates and appointments. But Kemper claims in her lawsuit that she never knew about the appointments because no one ever contacted her about them, despite that social workers had her phone number, knew what school she attended and could have reached her at either place.
Kemper’s parental rights were later terminated and Nyhanna, who’d been in custody of maternal relatives, was later adopted. She is now six years old.
“After they did that, that was the end. I lost everything,” Kemper told NBC 7. “I can’t do anything to get her back. I just have to sit and accept the fact that oh, I have a daughter but she’s just somewhere out there.”
Seriously, this made me feel some kind of way—made me conjure up images of young Black slave girls having their babies snatched from their arms and put up on the auction block for massah’s profits, and, weirdly (not weirdly) that scene in “The Color Purple,” when Celie’s babies, the products of incest, were literally pulled from her arms and given away by her father/rapist, never to be seen again until they were good and grown, and, too, of young pups given away in the dead of the night after being weaned from their mama’s teats. Except Kemper is neither a slave nor movie character nor beast: she is a human being, of flesh and blood, with the ability to both reproduce and love and the biological and constitutional right to parent the human she pushed from her own loins. Those rights were taken away from her before the milk could even come in good in her breasts—before her body could heal, even, from the trauma of childbirth.
Without her permission.
Against her will.
And that is a crime and a shame.
This is speculation on my part, but I can only imagine that Kemper’s age played into the rapid-fire decisions that led to the snatching of her baby. No doubt, in one too many eyes, she was just some snot-nosed Black teen mom who whored around and got knocked up and would be a total drain on the system, lazing around, waiting for the first of the month to roll around to collect the welfare while her kid started down that long road of failure and bad statistics—the one that leads to more out-of-wedlock babies stuck in the muck and mire of Black pathology. That’s what we think about Black teen moms, right? Right?
But that’s the danger, that thinking. Because it diminishes that Black teen mom’s choice to be a parent to her own child—colors her as an irresponsible, unintelligent stereotype rather than a woman who planned her parenthood and ushered life into this world. A human she loves. Taking away her very basic right to get pregnant, have a baby, and raise that child the best way she could, not because she did something wrong, but because she did it in a way that’s less than societal ideal, is morally corrupt. No better than taking a dog’s pups and selling them to the highest bidder.
And trust, if it could happen to Kemper, it could happen to any of us. In a post entitled, “Birthing While Black,” I once wrote about my ridiculous experience giving birth to my first daughter—how horrible the nursing staff treated my husband and me on what was one of the most special, blessed days of our lives. I’m often asked in comments both here on MyBrownBaby and other sites where the post was published why I didn’t just complain or tell off the nurses. The simple truth of the matter is that I was too scared of the consequences. Though I had birthed my baby and she was mine, in their eyes, I was some young, poor Black teen mom who deserved neither the benefit of the doubt nor respect (I was almost 30 but looked 17) and they were making clear that they held the power over me—the kind of power that could have easily led to questions about my fitness as a mother, and social worker visits and… God knows what else.
Being quiet was about the preservation of my family.
This is real and necessary for Black mothers. Critical. Because the skepticism, the stereotypes, the assumptions, the ridicule, the we-don’t-give-a-f*cks from law enforcement, social workers and the system can mean the difference between taking your baby home with you and having your parenting reduced to weekly visits in some sterile, supervised room. I was not looking to fight a system. I was concerned only with being a mother to my child and getting her back home, where she would be safe and loved in my arms.
Surely, this was on Kemper’s mind when she called the cops to help her get her baby from the other side of her mother’s locked door. Instead, this mother—young, Black, single, powerless—got her child snatched for her trouble. Forever. No sum of money can ever make up for that.
Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.