Child Abuse Challenges: One local family's epic ordeal - WNEM TV 5

Child Abuse Challenges: One local family's epic ordeal

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The Huggard family. The Huggard family.

The Huggard family cherishes every moment together with 4-year-old Rio and nine-year-old Preston.

Not long ago, they were ripped apart and it was unclear if the kids would ever be a part of their lives again.

"I live a nightmare," said Jenny Carrillo, the boy's mother.

They endured a month of living hell when the kids were removed from their custody – an event they insist was all because of a lie.

"It's still fresh... you know... like it happened yesterday," said Carrillo.

Rewind to fall of 2009 when this story begins.

Child protective services suspected that Rio Huggard, only three-months-old at the time, was abused.  After accidentally bumping the boy's head, Rio's mother, Jenny, says the family rushed him to the hospital to make sure nothing was wrong. That hospital, fearing abuse, alerted Child Protective Services.

According to court records, an x-ray uncovered fractures to Rio's skull and rib cage.

The family quickly found themselves in the offices of CPS in Isabella County defending themselves against what appeared to be criminal allegations.  Jenny's father Mark Huggard stood by his daughter's side through it all.

"I can't tell you the feeling I had for this girl and that guy (husband)... I was so... I was falling apart because they were falling apart," expressed Mark Huggard, Carrillo's father.

To explain a possible cause of the injuries, the family leaned on a birthing video. Still images from that video appear to show bruising on the child as he entered the world, of what the family calls "obvious injuries at birth."

"When you look at the birthing video and the medical reports from the birth... all it talks about is the bruised head...the injured head and the injured body," explained Huggard.

And they also used documents to support their case.  The papers refer to injuries in the exact same location that CPS cited in their original investigation.

The family's defense: how can it be abuse if Rio had these injuries at birth?

It's just unbelievable what they pulled off with so much concrete evidence that this doctor injured this child at birth," Huggard said. "It's probably birthing trauma... that's normal. We didn't have a problem with that the child was healing,"

But the family says their explanation fell on deaf ears. Rio and his older brother were taken from them just before the holidays. For Rio's grandfather it's painful to look back.

"Nobody slept... everybody lost weight. We were so sick. They took them the day before Thanksgiving. We sat in that room we had a big table then... we just sat there and balled. That's all we did," Huggard explained.

The family coughed up tens of thousands of dollars in just a few months to try and get the children back.  Attorney Michael Cronkright, who took on the case, says there were many irregularities in the way CPS handled this case. 

"They actually had photographs of the child right after birth where you could clearly see bruising in the location of the ribs where ultimately the x-rays showed that there was a fracture and nobody was really interested in looking at that as a serious explanation of the injuries," said Michael Cronkright, the family's attorney.

CPS, no doubt, has its critics, Cronkright among them, but no one is saying the agency should let down its guard. After all, according to U.S. Census data, Michigan ranks fifth in the county for the number of child abuse victims.

But some wonder if the agency is often guilty of overstepping its boundaries. TV5's I-TEAM discovered CPS investigations here result in one of the lowest percentages of substantiated claims than anywhere else in the country.

Cronkright says he has a theory as to why there are so many investigations in Michigan.

"Child Protection team, which is going to be the medical doctors and the hospital are often not very open-minded in a situation where there is an unexplained injury of an infant," explained Cronkright.

Even when a claim is substantiated, it's common practice for children to be placed with other family members. But that's not what happened in this case. The Huggard children were placed with foster families.

Cronkright said the worst part is that families have little to no chance of fighting back unless they have money -- and lots of it.

He pointed out that the doctor who testified against the Huggards lacked the proper expertise in this particular case.

"So what happened in this case was that Dr. Simms previously testified in her deposition that she was not an expert on rickets but nonetheless she came to court testified the child didn't have rickets," said Cronkright.

In the end, it wasn't easy but the Huggards got their kids back after a grueling nine-day trial.  

The jury ruled against the Huggards at the end of the trial, but the Judge still decided to return the kids to the family.

"The judge clearly understood the evidence and had a good handle on the medical evidence... and understood that the parents not only had not harmed the child but were not going to harm the children in the future," Cronkright explained. "So very quickly after the jury made its decision, the children were returned home."

The children may be back with the family, but the Huggards say they are scarred emotionally and financially in debt following their legal fight.

Before the trial was done... and everything else was done... it was $60,000," Huggard stated.

They want to be compensated, but for now, they'll settle for an apology.

"You feel like there is never going to be real justice unless everybody knows the truth," said Huggard.

A spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Human Services declined an on camera interview but told TV5 that every case, including the Huggard's, is independently reviewed and they stand behind the investigation and the outcome of this case. 

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