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Authorities take 2nd child from ‘American Idol’ contestant, prompting outrage

Syesha Mercado, a former “American Idol” finalist embroiled in a battle with authorities to regain custody of her toddler son after he was unexpectedly placed in foster care earlier this year, has now had her newborn daughter taken away from her, too.

On Wednesday, Mercado broadcast an Instagram Live video showing Manatee County, Florida, sheriff’s deputies surrounding her car and insisting that she surrender her days-old baby in a surprise welfare check off to the side of a road.

In the video, Mercado holds the infant in a fluffy pink blanket and begs deputies not to take her, explaining the baby is breastfed.

After pumping a couple ounces of breast milk in the back of her car into a bottle to go with her daughter, Mercado starts to slowly carry her over to deputies.

“How could you guys do this? Do you not feel anything?” she asks at one point before starting to sob. “My baby is days old and you’re taking my baby away from me. You’re taking my baby away from me. You have no heart. This is so wrong.”

The video, which lasts for over an hour, has been viewed more than 1.3 million times and has prompted outrage among Mercado’s supporters, who feel racism has played a part in her case, along with other injustices. Mercado and her partner, Tyron Deener, who was also in the car during the confrontation, are both Black.

The couple’s nightmare initially began in late February when they took their one-year-old son, Amen’Ra, to Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida, for dehydration when he was struggling with the transition from breast milk to solid foods, according to We Have the Right to Be Right, an activist group campaigning for Mercado.

While there, the group says, Amen’Ra was assessed by Dr. Sally Smith, a physician who was the subject of a USA Today Network investigation for being accused by critics of being too quick to conclude caregivers are abusing children, something Smith denied to USA Today Network. The investigation reviewed hundreds of Smith’s cases and found more than a dozen instances in which charges were dropped or parents were acquitted, but their reputations forever tarnished.

In Mercado’s case, instead of Amen’Ra being released to his parents at the end of his hospital stay, he was put into the hands of the Manatee Child Protective Services.

In a statement to NBC News on Friday, the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office said it had received information from the hospital’s child abuse line that a boy was “severely malnourished,” which Mercado disputes. Mercado says a child protective officer also accused her of denying her son a B12 shot that the hospital recommended.

“Amen’Ra was forcefully and legally kidnapped from us by CPS, who claim 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,” Mercado wrote in a GoFundMe account she created to cover legal fees; it has received more than $230,000 in donations.

The boy was discharged to a foster family without anyone consulting Mercado first on whether there were any family or friends qualified to house him, Mercado said. The foster family is white, she said, adding that she felt racial discrimination against parents of color and their children was pervasive and something that Amen’Ra’s case would shine a light on.

Mercado, who is an actor and a Broadway performer in addition to being a former “American Idol” contestant,” did not immediately reply to a request for comment from NBC News.

Her baby was still in protective custody after a hearing Thursday, according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, and Mercado continues to fight for custody of her son.

Authorities always try to place children with another family member prior to any other placement, Capt. Dennis Romano Jr., commander of the child protection investigation division of the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, said in a statement Friday, without commenting specifically on Mercado’s children’s cases.

When asked on Mercado’s Instagram Live video why they were taking her newborn, sheriff’s deputies said it was because the couple did not inform authorities that Mercado had given birth while she was in the midst of a legal battle over custody of her first child. In response, Deener tells the authorities that they had requested that all questions about them go through their attorney, something he said had not happened. The baby had just gone for a checkup the day before, the couple explains in the video, and received a clean bill of health.

Before handing over her daughter, Mercado questions again why she is being forced to give up her child.

“My baby is healthy and happy,” she said. “All you had to do was call the attorney. We have all the paperwork.”

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Minnesota wildfire doubles in size, creates its own weather

A wildfire in northeastern Minnesota more than doubled in size Tuesday, growing to more than 19,000 acres, after it produced pyrocumulous clouds that generated lightning and even raindrops, fire officials said.

The Greenwood Fire’s growth, most of which happened Monday afternoon, prompted firefighters to leave McDougal Lake, about 80 miles south-southwest of Duluth, officials said. Authorities fear that structures might have been destroyed or damaged.

“We had crews embedded, and as this fire took off, it was quite an effort to communicate with forces on the ground so they could get out,” said federal fire incident spokesman Clark McCreedy.

The pullout was a success, and no injuries were reported. However, downed trees and necessary cleanup mean crews have been unable to assess damage around the lake, McCreedy said.

In addition to the firefighter pullout, 159 dwellings were evacuated Monday, according to an update from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Cabins, homes and recreational sites remain under threat, the group said.

Patrick Prochaska, a Minneapolis resident who built a cabin near McDougal Lake in 2012, told NBC affiliate KARE that he watched via security camera as flames mostly bypassed his property Monday, causing minor damage.

“I was feeling very scared,” he said. “At the same time, I could see that it was not doing anything to the house, and it was kind of reassuring.”

The fire in and north of Superior National Forest has mostly performed according to the weather, fire officials said. On Monday, with dry fuel on the ground and temperatures in the high 80s, it was an expanding inferno punctuated by strobes of lightning.

“The winds were drawn into the fire from all directions,” the incident’s fire behavior analyst, Michael Locke, said in a video update Tuesday. “It created what we call pyrocumulous clouds. And really high in the atmosphere … you’d see a thunderstorm, and in fact they went high enough to produce a few sprinkles of rain and even some lightning.”

Temperatures dipped into the mid-70s Tuesday, and the blaze mellowed. “The real story was cloud cover and cooler temperatures,” McCreedy said.

More of the same, and possibly rain, was in the forecast, giving officials hope that they might be able to close the book on an unusually active and dry fire season in Minnesota.

Experts have said climate change has set the stage for extreme weather, including an increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere.

Firefighters — 426 were assigned to the Greenwood event — have been confronted with “prolonged, severe drought,” making parts of Minnesota look like the fire-prone West this summer, McCreedy said.

The Greenwood Fire, which was detected Aug. 15, is believed to have been sparked by lightning.

So far, firefighters have scored no containment, and areas including McDougal Lake, Sand Lake and the Highway 2 corridor have been under mandatory evacuation orders. The federal Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was closed Saturday “due to active and increasing fire activity, extreme drought, limited resources,” the National Forest Service said in a notice.

Officials set a goal of Sept. 1 for full containment.

“We’re probably going to get more of that moderating weather for the rest of the week,” McCreedy said. “That opens the door for fire crews to make progress on the ground.”

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Hiker survives grizzly bear attack at Denali National Park

A tourist from Indiana was attacked and injured by a grizzly bear at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska on Monday night, park officials said.

The 55-year-old tourist, whose name was not released, was hiking alone in dense fog in the Thoroughfare Pass area when a mother bear and multiple cubs charged him from nearby bushes, the National Park Service said in a statement Tuesday.

He had puncture wounds to a calf, his left ribs and his left shoulder, the agency said.

The victim used bear spray that might have cut the attack short, the park service indicated. He walked 1.5 miles to a visitor’s center where “medical personnel” vacationing at Denali treated him as a park bus driver called 911, it said.

The hiker was taken to a medical center near the park before he was transferred to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, about 120 miles away, park officials said. He was stabilized at the Fairbanks hospital, they said.

“Due to the apparent defensive nature of this attack, there are no plans to locate the bear involved,” the park service said. “Female bears with cubs are naturally defensive of their young, especially when surprised. There is no indication that this bear is unusually dangerous.”

Grizzly bears are federally protected as a threatened species in the lower 48 states. According to the National Wildlife Federation, fewer than 1,500 grizzlies are left in the lower 48, but they thrive, comparatively, in Alaska, where they have a population of about 31,000.

The backcountry area of the attack is closed for one week as a precaution, the park service said.

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House passes John Lewis voting rights bill, sends measure to Senate for tougher fight

House Democrats on Tuesday passed a sweeping voting rights bill named after Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the late civil rights icon.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was approved 219-212. All Republicans voted against the legislation.

The bill is part of congressional Democrats’ broader campaign to strengthen voting laws at the federal level to fight restrictive voting laws passed in Republican-led states, such as Texas and Georgia. However, it faces steep opposition in the Senate, where Democrats hold a wafer-thin majority.

The House returned from its recess this week to take up the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a resolution for Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget package, which includes funding for much of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. The procedural motion used to pass the multitrillion-dollar resolution paved the way for the House to vote on the voting rights bill, which was re-introduced last week by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala.

The legislation would require states with recent histories of discrimination to get federal “preclearance” to change their voting laws, which directly addresses the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling gutted the preclearance system in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which civil rights advocates argue was successful in blocking proposed voting restrictions in states and localities with histories of racial discrimination.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement last week that Congress had “not only an ironclad Constitutional mandate, but a moral responsibility” to pass the bill.

Shortly before its passage, Pelosi said on the House floor that the bill would honor Lewis’ legacy.

“We should have the right to vote and shouldn’t be diminished by anyone. It is unpatriotic to undermine the ability of people who have a right to vote, who have access to the polls,” she said. “As John knew, this precious pillar of our democracy is under attack from one of the worst voter suppression campaigns since Jim Crow.”

It isn’t the first time House Democrats have tackled election law. In March, House Democrats passed the For the People Act, a sweeping bill that seeks to change campaign finance, voting and ethics laws.

The bill would expand access to the ballot box by creating automatic voter registration across the country by registering eligible voters whenever they interact with government agencies, restoring the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated, expanding early voting and modernizing the country’s voting systems.

However, Senate Republicans filibustered the voting rights legislation in June, and the vote to advance an amended version of the For the People Act split along party lines 50-50, short of the 60 votes needed. All Democratic-aligned senators voted to begin debate, and Republicans unanimously voted to block the bill.

Passage of the voting measure was the final vote of the week for the House, whose members are leaving Washington and won’t return until Sept. 20.

Haley Talbot contributed.

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