Bellingham couple's child custody trial begins

Alison Morrow reports

In a Whatcom County courtroom Tuesday, Erica May Carey was much more calm than she was two weeks ago, arrested for headbutting and kicking officers when they took her three kids in northern California.

"'We're taking custody of these three children. They belong to the state of Washington,'" Carey remembered an officer tell her. "I said, 'My children do not belong to a state."

However, Carey and Cleave Rengo's kids are in state custody for the second time. The first followed the couple's unassisted home birth of twins, refusing a hospital visit when paramedics advised them after someone called 911 to the home.

The couple cited their Christian faith, which they say also prompted a decision to use natural remedies for their toddler's eczema when the state recommended steroid cream.

Also, the state argued the twins were too skinny. Carey was breastfeeding all three children.

"My family - my house - will serve the Lord," Cleave said. "That's a decision we have to live with."

The state's case centers on the couple's loud fighting, prompting multiple police visits. On Tuesday, a prosecutor asked about furniture flying out of their apartment while the kids shrieked and cried.

"It's normal for a household to be loud with three children," Carey said.

After a judge returned the Rengo children, the couple fled to California, defying rules about visits they were required to have with CPS officers. The couple admits they planned to move to California, and knew they were breaking the state's guidelines.

They also knew police would eventually find them, and take the kids again, which was a traumatic moment for Carey and her toddler, Levi.

"He toppled off me onto the middle console," Erica remembered. "He was screaming bloody murder, 'MOM!'"

The Rengo family is confident they'll win back custody and call their unassisted home birth "proof" that they're worthy parents.

"To me that's the opposite of neglect. That's attention," Rengo said. "We're free United States citizens. We take good care of our babies."

There are three possible outcomes. They couple might regain full custody of their children, regain custody with conditions imposed by the state, or it's possible the Rengo kids will remain in state custody for an undetermined amount of time.


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