Manatee County authorities take newborn of ‘American Idol’ finalist Syesha Mercado

Jay Handelman Jesse Mendoza
Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Singer and actress Syesha Mercado with her infant son Amen’Ra, who was placed in foster care after she and her partner, Tyron Deener brought him to All Children's Hospital for care.

One-time “American Idol” finalist Syesha Mercado is now fighting for the return of two children removed by Manatee County authorities.

On Wednesday morning, Manatee County sheriff’s deputies surrounded a car carrying Mercado, her 10-day-old baby girl and her partner, Tyron Deener. Authorities then took custody of the baby to bring her to the hospital.

Deener broadcast the nearly hour-long encounter near Whitfield Drive and Lockwood Ridge Road on Instagram Live. The video shows several sheriff’s vehicles nearby with flashing lights, and two deputies providing the couple with a court order to turn over the baby for a checkup at the hospital.

The Background:Syesha Mercado fights for son's custody over claims of malnutrition

Spotlight on Syesha:The career of singer Syesha Mercado

Mercado and Deener told the deputies the baby had been seen by doctors the day before. They also said they were on their way with the baby to the sheriff’s office at 8 a.m. Wednesday and were told no one was available.

After a court hearing Thursday morning, the baby was still in protective custody, according to Donisha Prendergast, a founder of the organization We Have the Right to be Right, which works to support a variety of social justice issues.

For more than three months, the couple has been working for the return of their 15-month-old son, Amen’Ra, who was placed into foster care after what the couple thought was a routine trip to the hospital. The couple was concerned about malnutrition after Mercado’s breast milk supply started to run dry, and the boy would not accept other fluids.

They took him to Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg on Feb. 26. Nearly two weeks later, St. Petersburg Police removed the parents from the hospital for trespassing. When the boy was discharged in late March, he was put in foster care over allegations of malnutrition.

According to the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, medical staff reported that Mercado and Deener turned down a B-12 intramuscular shot, as recommended by the hospital, a claim that Mercado and Deener vehemently deny. 

Previously:Critics say powerful pediatrician too quick to diagnose child abuse, traumatizing families

Read the full foster care investigation:Florida took thousands of kids from families, then failed to keep them safe.

And:Foster kids lived with molesters. No one told their parents.

Mercado said at the time she was never notified that her son had been discharged and child welfare officials did not talk to any family members for possible placement.

While still engaged in a legal battle for custody of her son, Mercado gave birth to a baby girl. Deputies indicated during the recorded confrontation Wednesday that the couple didn’t notify authorities about the child.

Deener is heard on the Instagram video saying that because of past situations, they have asked that all inquiries about Mercado and the baby be directed to their attorney, and “they didn’t do that.” The attorney was seen pacing across the road as the standoff unfolded.

Before caseworkers could take the girl, she began screaming and Mercado breastfed her and provided authorities with a bottle of breast milk. Mercado broke down in tears as she carried the baby to another vehicle.

“You have no heart. My baby is days old,” Mercado screamed as a caseworker repeatedly asks her to put the baby in the car. “My baby is healthy. My baby is happy.”

Syesha Mercado performing in the Sarasota Orchestra’s 2015 Orchestra in the Outfield concert at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota.

Pattern of aggressive removals

Mercado is a 2005 graduate of Booker High School’s Visual and Performing Arts Center, who was the third-place finalist in the seventh season of “American Idol” in 2008 behind David Archuleta and the winner, David Cook. She later toured in the musical “Dreamgirls” and performed in the touring and Broadway companies of “The Book of Mormon.”

She was given a key to the city during a whirlwind hometown tour on May 9, 2008, proclaimed to be Syesha Mercado Day in Sarasota.

Prendergast said she believes the “couple is being targeted.”

“This family has chosen to stand up for their rights,” she said. “They are being targeted as an example.”

Prendergast said that in an open case such as the one involving Mercado, authorities “have a right to her unborn child. If they see fit, they can remove the baby.” Prendergast said she advised Mercado “to stay as firm as possible” despite the high emotions in the situation.

As of Aug. 16, the family has raised nearly $400,000, topping their $200,000 goal on a GoFundMe page to cover legal bills. The total increased significantly after Wednesday’s events.

As the Herald-Tribune reported in May, the Mercado case involves physician Sally Smith, the head of the children protection team for Pinellas County.

Smith oversees nearly every case at All Children’s Hospital involving suspicious injuries. She is considered one of the most powerful figures in the regional child welfare system and has long been criticized by defense attorneys, parents and child welfare employees for her aggressive approach.

In some cases, she saw injuries others doctors did not.

The USA TODAY Network, as part of an investigation of Florida’s child welfare system, previously reviewed hundreds of Smith’s cases and found more than a dozen instances where charges were dropped, parents were acquitted or caregivers had credible claims of innocence yet suffered irredeemable damage to their lives and reputations. Smith previously denied “any problems with my work.”

Prendergast said police brutality has helped to highlight the injustices in the system when it comes to Black people.

“Will Ra ever be able to tell you what he’s experiencing?” she said. “Our children don’t have video cameras to show how they’re being treated.”

Follow Jay Handelman on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Contact him at jay.handelman@heraldtribune.comAnd please support local journalism by subscribing to the Herald-Tribune.