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Parents cry foul after state takes son

Christopher Parker, a bouncy 18-month-old, was taken to the emergency room Saturday morning, where his fractured elbow was diagnosed.

Margaret and Walter Douglass Parker couldn't explain their son's injury, saying only that it might have happened two days earlier while he was playing with his 9-year-old sister. His regular pediatrician wasn't overly concerned and the family had never been investigated before for child abuse.

But coming after last week's death of a 2-year-old and the ensuing shakeup at the state Department of Children and Families, authorities weren't taking any chances.

Christopher was taken from his family.

"The emergency room doctor said the injuries are inconsistent with the explanation or lack of explanation of the parents," said Tom Jones, spokesman for the department. "When that category hits the child will be sheltered and referred before the court."

Christopher's parents say they are the victims of a witch hunt.

"We're still being treated like criminals," Margaret Parker, 37, said in a tearful telephone interview Monday night. "We didn't do anything."

The department is on the defensive, Jones said, since the recent deaths of six children. In the last case, authorities said, Jonathan Flam was badly beaten by his mother's boyfriend three months before the man killed him. Caseworkers were criticized for taking the mother's word that she was keeping her toddler away from Jose Antonio Cortez.

That won't happen again, Jones said. Now, when a child under 5 years has unexplained injuries, the department will take custody automatically, and refer the case to the court.

"We'll take the outrage of the parents as opposed to the silence of a dead child," he said.

Christopher Parker's pediatrician since birth, Robert Pelaez, saw the child Saturday morning when his mother brought him in after she noticed Friday night that he whimpered when she tried to lift his arm to put on a shirt.

Pelaez said he did not suspect abuse when he referred Parker to the hospital's emergency room to have Christopher's arm X-rayed.

"I really feel bad for these people," Pelaez said. After learning from Margaret Parker that her son was taken, Pelaez said he contacted the Department of Children and Families. "I told them this is a good family. The child has never had any unexplained injuries."

A few hours after Christopher and his mother returned Saturday from Columbia Brandon Regional Medical Center to their Plant City home, a police officer drove up with a Department of Children and Families caseworker and took custody of the boy, who spent the next two nights in state care.

On Monday, the boy was placed with a relative in east Hillsborough, Margaret Parker said. Still, she said, she worries for his welfare.

"When a child is hurt or sick, he just wants his mom. And I can't be with him," she said.

Jones said that the Parkers applied two years ago to house foster children but were denied, "for many reasons." One, Jones said, was that Walter Parker admitted he had a bad temper.

"They came into my house like the gestapo and took my son," said Walter Parker, 67, owner of a construction equipment business. "The only thing we're guilty of is I got a speeding ticket once."

It could take up to 45 days for the department to decide if Christopher Parker was the victim of abuse, Jones said. Until that time, the boy will likely remain out of the home, he said.

The Parkers have hired an attorney, Ginger DeGroff, who said she will try to get Christopher home sooner.

Jones said the emergency room doctor was suspicious of the circumstances surrounding Christopher's injury.

"The child was supposedly by himself when this occurred but the doctor said it couldn't have happened by the child, by himself," Jones said. "It was really bad fall, but you'd think there'd be other injuries involved."