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It sounds like a story from Dickens, or at least Jacob Riis: A young immigrant mother, terrified that social workers would snatch away her newborn, found refuge with nuns in a city convent where she hid with her baby until the city backed off.

But as City Limits has learned, this tale of two centuries actually started in June, when the woman’s 5-year-old daughter was diagnosed with genital herpes at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt hospital. Since both the mother and her husband have herpes and the disease frequently spreads from mother to child through the birth canal, it’s not a definite sign of sexual abuse. But based on that possibility, and because of overcrowded conditions in the family’s apartment, the city’s Administration for Children’s Services removed the girl, her brother and her sister after the diagnosis.

Frightened, and unable to speak English or read Spanish, the mother contacted the Mexican consulate for help. Officials there put her in touch with advocates to help with court proceedings, and helped hook her up with a larger apartment. But as in many Family Court cases, many of the fact-finding hearings that are supposed to follow an ACS removal were adjourned or postponed. Her children remained in foster care, and when she gave birth on November 1, ACS got a court order to remove the newborn as well.

Instead, the mother fled to the convent, where the nuns kept her in hiding. After the nuns and the woman’s lawyers both pressured ACS to back off, the agency agreed on November 9 to withdraw the order to remove the child.

Critics say the incident illustrates the agency’s aggressive protective strategy. “We have actually reached the point where ACS has become so oppressive of families and children that a mother has to resort to the medieval solution of seeking refuge in a convent,” said Richard Wexler of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.

In response, ACS spokesperson Leonara Weiner said the agency behaved as even-handedly as possible. “ACS has worked with this family to protect the safety of this child,” she said, adding that once the agency learned the family had moved, “we agreed the child should remain with this family.” ACS is now providing support and preventative services.

The mother is now out of hiding and living in her new apartment. Her three other children were returned to the family after the parents pled guilty to “inadequate guardianship.”

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