Former American Idol contestant Syesha Mercado is using her voice to fight for her children.
Florida authorities took her newborn baby from her care last week, after removing her firstborn son in March because he was "suffering from severe malnutrition," an officer with the Manatee County Sheriff's Office said in a statement to E! News on Aug. 13.
Mercado denies the abuse and alleges racial discrimination, writing on her online fundraiser that son Amen'Ra and daughter Ast were "kidnapped" due to "corruption" and "injustice" within Child Protective Services.
Over the past week, Mercado's custody battle has inspired a wave of support, with her GoFundMe skyrocketing from $250,000 raised to more than $400,000, ever since she filmed officers taking her nine-day-old daughter from her car on Aug. 11. The Instagram video has three million views.
Mercado, 34, spoke out in a press conference on Aug. 17 to say she's been "deprived" of motherhood. Through tears, the musician shared, "This is my first time being a mom. And I've been deprived of holding my babies and feeding my babies."
As she explained in the video obtained by TMZ, "I didn't get to see Ra say 'mama' for the first time. And I didn't get to see my babies meet for the first time. I didn't get to see that, and I can't go back and redo that moment. I'll never be able to go back and redo that moment. And I'm just missing out on so many precious moments."
The Broadway performer said she wants to be there to console her daughter when she's hungry or crying. "I'm supposed to be comforting her. I'm supposed to be loving my babies," Mercado said. "Ra is supposed to be playing his drum with us and I've been deprived of that... It hurts so bad."
Her partner, Tyron Deener, said the couple are "law-abiding citizens" and have contributed positively to their community through service. (Per the fundraiser, Deener is an educator and youth service professional working in foster care.)
"So, the fact that we have no criminal background, we have no history with the Department of Children and Families, the way that they have been attacking us, judging us and critiquing us, that's outside of their job," Deener stated during the press conference.
"They're supposed to be working hand-in-hand with families, not destroying families. Every single day we gotta wake up, we have to look at our babies' set up, and look at their swings, and look at their bedding and they're not here," he added. "We have not committed any crime. We have not abused our babies. We have not done anything that is irresponsible as parents."
Public information officer Randy Warren told E! News last week that the parents have "refused to cooperate" and said a family court judge ordered authorities to "pick-up" Ast.
Captain Dennis E. Romano Jr., the commander of the Child Protection Investigation Division at the Manatee County Sheriff's Office, told E! News in a statement that they "understand that from the outside looking in" that their division's actions may "seem uncaring."
Romano said, "But let me assure you we have the best interest of children and families in mind at all times," adding, "The last thing anyone in this business wants to do is shelter children from their parents, but sometimes it is the only direction we are forced to take."
Mercado, who finished third on the ABC competition in 2008, wrote on GoFundMe that she took Ra to Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital in March for help after her milk supply "was low." She said CPS took her baby, who was 15 months old at the time, after claiming "we refused a B12 shot that was a matter of life and death, which is an absolute lie. We never refused a B12 shot, and at no point was he on the verge of death."
Per the press conference, the children are currently in an estranged relative's care and the parents are allowed to visit once a week.
E! News reached out to the Manatee County Sheriff's Office for any updates on the case or response to the press conference, but we have not heard back.