Bronx Father Whose Partner Amber Isaac Died in Childbirth Endures 3-Year Struggle for Right to Son
Bruce McIntyre, who became an advocate for preventing maternal mortality following Isaac’s death, is still fighting for legal rights to their child due to The Bronx’s clogged Surrogate’s Court.
When Bruce McIntyre’s longtime partner Amber Isaac died while giving birth to their son after an emergency C-section, he was overcome with grief and wanted to be legally listed as the child’s father.
But McIntyre had no idea it would take more than a year — with the help of behind-the-scenes advocacy from multiple elected officials — to be named legal guardian of his biological son, Elias, as he dealt with the notorious slowness of New York’s surrogate courts.
And he’s still waiting for an updated birth certificate listing him as the father.
As THE CITY reported at the time, Isaac, 26, died shortly after delivering Elias via an emergency cesarian section at Montefiore Medical Center in The Bronx in late April 2020 — just days after she had tweeted that she had “incompetent doctors” at the hospital.
Since the couple was unmarried at the time of Elias’s birth, the hospital would have needed Isaac’s consent to include both in the birth certificate.
Hospital officials claimed she hadn’t listed him as the father before she died, according to McIntyre’s lawyer Josh Kelner. McIntyre took a DNA test on March 1, 2021 to prove he was the biological father.
“It felt like a slap in my face,” McIntyre told THE CITY. “I already knew what they were trying to do, especially being a Black man in America. I see this happening to us quite a bit to where we’re being questioned about our fatherhood.”
No one was initially given formal custody of Elias.
But the hospital allowed McIntyre and Remita Issac, Amber’s mother, to take him home while his petition for legal guardianship made its way through the backlogged system.
Remita already had been living with the couple in their Riverdale apartment and planned to assist them after the child was born.
“So my son was able to come home anyways,” McIntyre said. “We are all living together going on three years.”
But he was worried about taking his boy on trips outside of New York without being listed on the birth certificate and needed his mother-in-law’s signoff on all medical decisions. He has also been excluded from receiving federal stimulus money, the child tax care credit and social security.
It also delayed his ability to sue Montefiore. On March 15, 2021, Bronx Surrogate Court Judge Nelida Malave-Gonzalez appointed McIntyre and Remita Isaac co-guardians of Elias.
Last April, the father and grandmother filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the hospital and several specific doctors.
While the guardianship case was stalled, McIntyre noted, he leaned on several elected officials to push it along, including Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, state Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn (D-Brooklyn), former Manhattan Assemblymember Richard Gottfried, and Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson.
He believes it might still be pending if he didn’t get that outside assistance.
“They were able to expedite some of my stuff,” McIntyre said.
As THE CITY has repeatedly documented, some cases in Surrogate Court drag out for years with judge-appointed administrators taking control of estates and collecting thousands in fees.
For example, the cousin of a Bronx woman who died in 2018 has waited for more than five years to receive any inheritance from the late 88-year-old, including a large two-bedroom condo and the family’s jewelry collection, THE CITY reported last month.
In her case, Rose Montague is due to receive just $394,026 of an inheritance initially valued at $762,775 — in large part due to fees taken by the public administrator.
In another case, the family of Rikers detainee Joseph Foster, who died due to botched medical care, agreed to settle their lawsuit against the city for $2.1 million last March.
But nearly a year later, Foster’s relatives haven’t gotten a penny because of the backlogged Surrogate Court system.
After THE CITY highlighted the family’s plight, the Bronx Surrogate’s Court’s clerk picked up and reviewed the petition — the first step to move it forward, according to Kelner, who is also representing the Foster family.
As for Amber Isaac and her estate, Lucian Chalfen, a spokesperson for the state Office of Court Administration, said the case was “expedited” in Surrogate Court after it was initially resolved in family court.
Chalfen declined to detail how many cases are currently pending before Judge Malave-Gonzalez.
The pandemic has also led to multiple court delays throughout the entire state court system, according to reports.
Nationally, academics who focus on surrogate courts have struggled to figure out how long the cases take on average to adjudicate, said Reid Weisbord, a law professor at Rutgers Law School.
“The procedures vary quite a bit from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and it’s actually really hard to get probate files,” Weisbord said. “It’s really unknown.”
McIntyre said several other people in Brooklyn and beyond New York who are dealing with similar issues in surrogate court have reached out to him for assistance.
“I know a couple people that were in Brooklyn who were dealing with that situation,” he said, “and there’s other people in Washington and from Virginia.”
In the nearly three years since Isaac’s death, he has become a full-time activist fighting to bring attention to maternal mortality, especially as it concerns Black women, who have a much higher incidence of dying in childbirth. He’s created Save A Rose Foundation, a birth equity advocacy group. The nonprofit is working to open a freestanding birthing center in The Bronx.
In New York City, Black women are eight times more likely to die due to pregnancy complications than white women, according to city data from 2019, the latest available data. That figure is significantly higher than the disparity seen at the national level.
And The Bronx has the highest rate of severe maternal morbidity of the five boroughs, with 337.1 deaths per 10,000 live births, according to a 2019 report filed by the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. That report, the most recently available, covers incidents in 2016.
As for the most updated figures, according to a 2023 report: “In 2019, there were 106,097 live births and 57 pregnancy-associated deaths” experienced by women in New York City.
Isaac’s death quickly garnered national attention. Even then-U.S. Senator Kamala Harris commented, tweeting, “We need to speak truth that this pandemic is highlighting deep racial disparities in our health care system.”
More recently, Isaac and McIntyre’s ordeal was the focus of an award-winning documentary, “Aftershock.”
Montefiore spokesperson Alex Gomez declined to comment for this article, citing federal patient privacy laws and the pending litigation. Court records show the hospital’s lawyers have sought to have the lawsuit filed against them dismissed, arguing there is no proof of any medical malpractice.
Remita Issac was recently deposed and McIntyre is scheduled for a similar court interview in two weeks, according to Kelner, the lawyer representing the family. He decried how long it took for the issue to be resolved in Surrogate Court.
“What happened to him was really unfortunate and is a good illustration of how families are put through a procedural wringer,” Kelner said.
McIntyre is hopeful the case will be resolved soon — though he’s been told it will likely take several more years.
“I’m hearing we are not going to start the trial for another two or three years,” he said. “That’s ridiculous to have to wait so long.”