A Michigan family which had dreams of camping during the summer in the great outdoors was horrified when state officials seized their six children simply because they were temporarily living in tents, Off The Grid News has learned.
The nightmare experience for Christopher and Antonia Hernandez began May 19 when Otsego County sheriff deputies and a CPS official took their children, and ended June 10 when their children were returned after the parents won a court ruling based on the fact the mother and children are eligible for enrollment in the Tlingit Native American tribe. The federal Indian Child Welfare Act makes it more difficult for state officials to separate Native American families. Michigan has a similar state law.
If the family had not had the Tlingit link, the case still would be ongoing, with the children still in foster care.
But the removal never should have taken place, Christopher and Antonia told Off The Grid News, which has read the court documents – one of which criticizes the family for not having electricity or a water source. The family was near a state park and had purchased a pass to shower and bathe there. The parents also had a generator.
They had been living in the tents for nine days when police arrived.
“The government has tried to standardize what a home is and what a home must have, without consideration for if the children’s needs are being met or not,” Christopher and Antonia said in a joint statement. “This was not a case of neglect, but a case of the government telling us how we have to raise our children — that we must have running water, we must have electricity and we can’t stay in a tent for the summer. To the government it makes no difference if the children are happy and healthy. We need to conform to their idea of normal or they can take your children away.
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They added, “Taking children from families needs to be limited to clear cases of neglect and abuse. It should be every parent’s right to raise their children as they see fit, unless the government can prove that what the parent is doing is actually harming the child.”
The children, ages seven months, 2, 4, 6, 15 and 17, had been living in the three tents – two of which were large nine-person tents – when the controversy began.
“Our family decided to go camping for the summer to a 10-acre property we are buying,” Antonia said, noting they do own a house. “We had intended to stay the summer while we finalized plans on what we were going to do with our lives. We cannot say we would have stayed the whole summer due to the fact Christopher is donating a kidney to his mother and we may have been called home to do the surgery at any point. If this were to happen we planned to return home for the duration of the surgery and the recovery period however long that was.”
The parents simply “wanted our children to experience the outdoors” – and perhaps see if they wanted to live off-grid permanently.
“We purchased several chickens, a couple of turkey and a couple of ducks so we could try and provide a portion of our food needs,” Antonia said. “… We set up one tent as storage for our tools, as I do a lot of woodworking. Another tent was set up as a closet to house our clothes and diapers, etc. As you can imagine, with six children we have a lot of clothes and other miscellaneous items. Our third tent was set up as a kitchen.”
The family also had:
- A natural gas stove the parents converted to propane for cooking food and heating water.
- Six five-gallon containers of water they refilled at the local Walmart. They also were collecting rainwater.
- Several solar lights.
- A generator.
On May 19, the parents left the property to do laundry at a laundromat, as well as to buy food and some fencing for the animals. The younger children were left in the care of their 15-year-old son, who is nearly 16.
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“When we arrived back, the Otsego County Sheriff’s Department was at the property claiming to have received a report of squatters on the land,” Antonia said. “We provided documentation of our right to be on the land, which was verified the next day by the land owner.”
A CPS representative also was on the property, and had concerns about the living conditions. CPS made four allegations, according to the official court document:
- The family was not in a “stable living environment.”
- The family had no electricity or water source, and was using kerosene as a means of heat.
- The children were playing in the woods, cared for by a 15 year old.
- The youngest child had a diaper rash.
- The 17-year-old girl, who has Cerebral Palsy, was cold.
Antonia told Off The Grid News she knew of the diaper rash and it had been healing. The 17-year-old girl had a temperature of 96, but Antonia said this was after sheriff deputies and CPS “had the tent flap completely open for at least an hour and a half.” When she was admitted to the hospital it was 97.7.
“I witnessed her without covers for at least part of that time,” Antonia said. “I was told by her case worker that the doctor who examined her said she was very well taken care of.”
As for the children playing outside in the cold, “none of the children were displaying any signs of being cold — shivering or teeth chattering. As a matter of fact, they kept taking off their coats, which to me indicates that they were not cold.”
None of the allegations, he said, warranted removal of the children.
“We were given no other option to either return to the house we own or to obtain a hotel room until we could go to court,” she said. “By law, they are required to a reasonable effort to prevent or eliminate the need for removal as required by law.”
The case is now closed, and with their children back in their care, the parents have decided not to return to the property.
“It is a sad that they were out of our care for 21 days because we were camping,” she said.