Family

Fairfax County school board member Karen Keys-Gamarra is under fire again, this time for twice calling a black father “retarded” as she served a court-appointed attorney in his daughter’s contentious child custody hearing in Arlington Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court. 

On Monday, in response to her efforts, Judge Michael Chick ordered the baby removed from the home of her father and grandparents and, in a traumatizing event caught on camera, a Child Protective Services officer can been seen in the family’s home with three sheriff’s deputies in Stafford County, removing the baby and putting her in a stranger’s car for a ride to an unknown location. 

The father, Sean Jackson, 28 and a paramedic in Stafford, filed a motion with the court to have Keys-Gamarra recused from the case, arguing that she has shown bias toward him. Ever since Jackson had learned he was a father seven months ago by a paternity test, he had been navigating the judicial bureaucracy to win visitation rights. Since March, Keys-Gamarra has been the court-appointed attorney for the child, or the guardian ad litem.

This past May 4, according to a complaint Jackson has filed with the Virginia Bar Association, a child custody hearing was interrupted when Arlington police arrived to arrest the baby’s mother for an outstanding warrant for assault and battery. With his baby suddenly in his arm, Jackson asked 

Keys-Gamarra questions about next steps, and she interrupts him to say, “What are you? Retarded?”

At the elevator bank, Jackson’s father, Carlos Makle, born with a cleft palate, quietly seethed, as he heard what Keys-Gamarra had just said. 

What Jackson didn’t know was that on Oct. 20, at a public school board meeting of the Fairfax County Public Schools, Keys-Gamarra blurted out at one point during a dispute, “We cannot be this retarded.” The next day,  school board chair Rachna Sizemore Heizer told a local WUSA9 TV reporter, “That is actually the third time she’s used it.” 

What’s more, according to someone close to Baby Mori’s  mother, Keys-Gamarra refused to give Amoria to Jackson once when the baby was sick, saying, “He is retarded.”  

When asked about the use of slurs against Jackson and other queries, Keys-Gamarra responded, “That did not happen and this is an ongoing case.”  None of the other 11 Fairfax County school board members nor Superintendent Michelle Reid returned a request for comment.

Jackson’s baby, whom we are referring to by her nickname, Mori, was born to a young Virginia mother whom observers say the system failed as she grew up in an unstable family environment in local Fairfax County, is the first victim in this tragedy.

Five years ago, on May 21, 2017, the mother, then 16 and going to Fairfax County Public Schools, gave birth to her first daughter,  whose custody she lost as she struggled with criminal charges in and out of court. On Jan. 4, 2021, the mother, then 20, had a second baby girl  with another father. She was to lose custody of that baby as well. Then, three months pregnant with Baby Mori, she went to jail on July 16, 2021, for felony charges of possession of Schedule 1 or Schedule 2 controlled substances and “gross, wanton or reckless care of a child.” 

When children are exposed to drugs either during pregnancy or in their environments they are at a greater risk of having behavioral, emotional and/or  disabilities. Furthermore, exposure to adverse childhood experiences – called “ACES” by public health experts and psychologists – includes being in an environment with substance abuse, violence and instability, which also increases the risk of numerous negative outcomes and substance abuse later in life.

According to Virginia law, a  guardian ad litem is supposed to be an “investigator for the court,” but the family says Keys-Gamarra entered none of these facts into the record in the custody hearing of  Baby Mori  born on Jan. 27, 2022, while her mother was living in a shelter, Doorways, in Arlington. 

Keys-Gamarra also excluded from her report the fact that Jackson’s parents,  Kimberly Jackson-Makle, a registered nurse, and Carlos Makle, a retired UPS driver, were recognized many times for the love and stable home they gave to foster care children and those they adopted. After one of the news features,  local anchor Lorenzo Hall, concluded the segment with a smile, saying, “So much love. What a beautiful family, right?”

Keys-Gamarra ran her school board campaign on a platform of being a voice for the voiceless,  She promoted herself as not only a child advocate attorney but a black activist at the center of efforts to extend civil rights protections to kids in a post-George Floyd era.

The case took a tragic turn Thanksgiving Day when Jackson says he received a call from an aunt of the baby’s mother, telling him that the mother was high and he needed to pick up the baby. The next day, after a sleepless night in which the baby was restless and agitated, Jackson took his daughter to a local emergency room, where a urine analysis revealed she had cocaine in her urine. 

“In this case, the baby tested positive for cocaine,” said  Kandise Lucas, a special education advocate based in Richmond. “The interest of the institution and the interest of the child are not the same. There should have been immediate wrap-around services for the baby. I have been in so many cases where we have asked for the guardian ad litem removed. The G-A-L is not G-O-D.” 

The elephant in the room is the baby’s positive cocaine test. Typically, the father would be granted full custody under kinship care policies, the mother would be enrolled in a reunification program” with substance abuse treatment and the baby, a “substance abused infant,” would get wrap-around services under federal and state “Child Find” laws, requiring authorities to find and support children with potential disabilities.

Jackson filed a motion Nov. 28 to amend the judge’s order. He also asked the judge and guardian ad litem to recuse themselves for bias.

That night, Keys-Gamarra sent a court filing to the baby’s parents, stating “the child faces imminent harm” –  including from the father and his family. She mentioned the cocaine result once, casting aspersions on the results, “The test revealed a presumptive positive but inconclusive result.”  

The medical records never called the test results “inconclusive.”

Keys-Gamarra spent most of the report painting herself as the victim, quoting a text she received calling her a “MEAN SPIRITED PERSON.”

She signaled her intentions, citing a case, Stanley v. Fairfax, that resulted in the “termination of…parental rights” and the filing of a “foster care plan.”  

Indeed, after missing an appointment with Jackson, an Arlington staffer from the state office of Child Protective Services called him on Dec. 1 and told him Arlington CPS would be issuing a protective order against the mother and him, the father, even though he had never done anything to endanger his daughter’s life. 

Friday afternoon, the Arlington CPS staffer emailed Jackson a new safety plan. He would lose custody of his daughter to his parents, be allowed only supervised visits and be subjected to regular drug screenings, and the family would be subjected to unannounced CPS inspections. The system had criminalized a black man and his family. She told him to immediately sign the document or CPS would start proceedings to put his baby in foster care. 

A spokesman for the Virginia Department of Social Services said, “Due to Virginia Codes [§63.2-104 and §63.2-105] we are however unable to disclose information regarding a CPS matter. “

Jackson remains steadfast in his commitment to parent his daughter. “I’m fighting for my daughter,”  said Jackson, cradling her. “For every father. For every mother. For every kid that is abused and neglected. For every kid with an illegal substance in their body. I want to make sure that every judge and guardian ad litem knows that I’m going to be right there. The safety of the kid always matters.” 

Friends of the baby are holding a rally to bring Amoria home at noon at the courthouse Dec. 6 and Dec. 9 at noon. The judge has scheduled a hearing for 2 p.m. on Dec. 9 on the matter. It is unclear where the baby is right now. 

Asra Q. Nomani is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and senior fellow at Independent Women’s Network. Debra Tisler is the founder of Emergent Literacy, a nonprofit dedicated to advocacy for children and parents. Contact them at asra@asranomani.com or @AsraNomani.

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