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Lawsuit alleges Indianapolis church day care was motivated by racism when they reported mom for suspected child abuse

The lawsuit claims racism was at the heart of day care employees reporting suspected abuse after seeing a birthmark on a child.

INDIANAPOLIS — An Indianapolis mother has filed a civil rights lawsuit against a local church, claiming racism was at the heart of her twins’ day care reporting her for suspected child abuse.

Attorneys representing Laura Wilkerson filed a 12-page lawsuit last week against Fairview Presbyterian Church.   

The lawsuit alleges racism on the part of the church’s day care employees when they reported Wilkerson for suspected abuse after seeing a birthmark on her then 8-month-old son Nico’s back. 

It’s a birthmark Wilkerson says her son does not share with his fraternal twin sister, Lita. 

“One of the nurses at the NICU explained to me that a 'Mongolian spot' is what they used to call them. Ninety percent of African American and Asian culture children have them on their bodies when they’re born,” Wilkerson explained.

She said no one at the day care ever asked her about the birthmark, but instead asked her and her mom other kinds of questions, like their ethnicity and the race of the twins and their dad. Wilkerson is white. The twins’ dad is Black. 

“I thought that was really weird to be asking,” Wilkerson said, adding the questions started coming in the first few weeks of sending her twins to the day care. 

Three weeks in, on a Monday, Wilkerson said an investigator with Child Protective Services showed up at her door, asking to come in. 

“They showed up in the middle of my work day and said there was a report of abuse for my son, Nico,” Wilkerson recalled. 

“I was destroyed that anybody could think that I would do that,” Wilkerson said. "That was really hard to hear because, first of all, I love my children more than anything in the world, and I would never do anything like that,” the 36-year-old mother explained. 

“(The CPS worker) said that she had just come from the day care and looked at my son and said she knew it was a Mongolian spot, and she didn’t feel like there was any substantiation to the allegations they had, but she did come in, and she had to take pictures of my home and of the food and make sure I had running water — stuff like that,” Wilkerson said. 

“It was very invasive, not something I was expecting,” she added. 

Later that day, when Wilkerson said she went to get the twins, she spoke to the day care’s director. 

“I was clearly upset,” Wilkerson recalled. 

“I said, ‘Before I come back, we’ll need to have a conversation, but right now, I’m too upset to have that conversation,’” Wilkerson said she told the director. 

Those feelings didn’t change as the week went on, said Wilkerson, despite a handful of emails she said the day care sent, saying they were open to having a conversation and having the twins return. 

“I wasn’t quite ready to have that conversation, as I’m sure most people wouldn’t be processing my emotions, my thoughts and trying to figure out what I was going to do,” Wilkerson said.

Credit: Laura Wilkerson
Laura Wilkerson said CPS showed up at her door when a day care reported alleged child abuse after seeing a birthmark on her then 8-month-old son.

That weekend, she said the stress of the situation aggravated her epilepsy, and she had a seizure. 

“It can put you in a fog for days, and that’s really were I was,” she said. 

Monday morning, Wilkerson said she received an email from the day care, telling her the twins were unenrolled, and they would refund what she had already paid to cover the next month’s care. 

Fairview Presbyterian Church sent 13News a statement, saying they had not been served with the lawsuit, but were aware of the allegations and said they were not true. 

The statement said, in part: 

“The teachers and staff at the ECP (Early Childhood Program) are mandatory child abuse reporters under Indiana law, meaning they have a duty to report any reasonable suspicion of child abuse or neglect. When a report is made, Child Protective Services investigates the report and determines whether it is substantiated or unsubstantiated. If the report is unsubstantiated, no further action is taken. That is what happened here.” 

“I do know Indiana’s a mandatory reporting state, and I understand that, but my kids have been there for three weeks, and they’ve been changing their diapers, changing their clothes, and it shouldn’t have been three weeks in that you, you know, that you just saw this,” Wilkerson said. 

“Number two, you’re asking questions up until this point about their ethnicity. That’s not even acceptable,” she said. 

Her attorneys don’t think so, either. 

“We believe that there was an improper and malicious filing of an allegation of abuse without appropriate due diligence,” said attorney S. Todd Yeary, who is co-counsel on the case and who also serves as a pastor in the City of Baltimore. 

“There’s a duty to report, but there’s a duty to properly report,” Yeary said. 

“The duty to report is a duty to properly report. Malicious reporting — there is no duty. As a matter of fact, there is a prohibition to malicious reporting so that you don’t abuse the system that is designed to protect children,” he said, adding that the questions about the children’s race that came before the abuse report show other motivations that had nothing to do with protecting the children. 

“What is the race of the children? What is the race of the mother? Those being asked of the grandmother have nothing to do with whether or not I see indicators of potential abuse. If we are now qualifying our mandatory reporting dependent upon what’s the race of the children, or the race of the mother, then obviously, we’re still not doing mandatory reporting,” Yeary said. “If you could ask about the race of the children, the race of the mother, you could also ask about, ‘What are the spots that we’ve seen on the baby?’”

Co-counsel attorney Hamid Saahir said they brought their concerns to the church before filing the lawsuit and said they were quickly dismissed. 

“It’s subtle racism. It’s not tiki torch racism, but it hurts the same. It’s sophisticated racism,” Saahir said.

In a statement, Fairview Presbyterian denies their day care's report had anything to do with race. 

“The parent was invited to contact ECP (Early Childhood Program) so her children could return to attending ECP. The parent failed to follow up, and now has filed a lawsuit alleging the report to Child Protective Services would not have been made but for the race of the child. That is not true.” 

Wilkerson’s attorney believes how the situation was handled suggests otherwise, and that is why they have filed this lawsuit. 

“It also, for them to look at themselves in the mirror and actually know, be truthful with themselves about what was going on and do better,” Saahir said. 

“Just because you put a Black Lives Matter sign in your yard doesn’t mean you’re doing what needs to be done,” he added.

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