In 2014, Vanessa Wilson and her children had been homeschooling for seven years.
“My family is very connected and involved in enrichment and life together,” she told us. “Homeschooling is a part of our lifestyle. It enables us to interact with the world in a way that’s meaningful to us. It helps us grow and
manifest our incredible interests and passions, the things we’re good at.”
“I was homeschooled as a kid and I know the personal value of being homeschooled. . . . After my son was, I decided to stay home because I felt that being a mom was the most important job I had in my life.”
Vanessa told us that her 4-year-old daughter had been diagnosed with juvenile onset diabetes in January 2014. At the hospital, she and her daughter’s doctors worked out a treatment plan that included at-home treatment and subsequent checkups. Riverside County Social Services learned about it and offered her voluntary services because Vanessa was a single mom with limited resources.
Jumping to her own conclusions and making dreadful decisions
In April 2014, CPS investigator Francisca Russo visited Vanessa and her children. She demanded to see the daughter’s glucometer and decided that the readings were either too low or too high or too variable. On her own authority, without asking a doctor about the readings and without seeking a court order, Ms. Russo took the girl into custody.
After learning that Vanessa homeschooled her 7-year-old son, Ms. Russo asked the intimidated child a few math questions and demanded that he read from a book. All during this impromptu examination in front of complete strangers, the sheriff’s deputy Ms. Russo brought along refused to let the boy’s mom come to him.
Ms. Russo took the boy, too.
Calling in HSLDA
That’s when Vanessa called HSLDA. “CPS just took my children,” she told us, the day after they had been seized. “The investigator says I am not taking care of my daughter’s diabetes, but she is just wrong.”
It took 50 days of hard work for us to get Vanessa’s children back. With the help of our longtime local counsel, Rex Lowe, the family was finally reunited—but only after a long, traumatizing ordeal.
Seeking justice—how we gave truth a face
Vanessa’s children were safe and back at home, but we weren’t done. We filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the misbehaving CPS caseworkers. Our goal was simple: hold these workers accountable and get Vanessa the justice that she so clearly needed.
Thanks to HSLDA’s members and donors partnering with us, our legal team could afford to dig deep in the pretrial discovery—including taking precious, expensive videotaped depositions of the main CPS investigator, Ms. Russo.
There was simply no better way to reproduce or accurately represent the investigator’s facial expressions, body language, or pregnant pauses. (Watching her squirm while she tried to explain that a pediatric endocrinologist with 30 years’ experience was wrong—and that she was right—was considerably more effective than reading a transcript.)
Those videos helped us tremendously when we went to our court-ordered mediation in 2016. We had a top-notch mediator, who is a retired Superior Court judge. He asked both sides to submit a mediation brief outlining our positions and our demands.
We wrote a brief, complete with the necessary legal mumbo-jumbo and quotes from the transcript—but we also prepared a 45-minute video essay of Ms. Russo’s top-40 hits from the deposition.
This was the day of decision: entering mediation
When we first met with the mediator, he gave a few of the usual preliminaries (“My job is to make both parties unhappy about the settlement!”). Then he told us that Riverside County had offered $10,000. He harrumphed a bit about how that was insultingly low, but said that he valued the case considerably lower than what we were asking for.
So I asked him what he thought about our video. He admitted that he hadn’t watched it—indeed, he was unaware that we had sent it.
I handed him a spare thumb drive that I just happened to have with me and asked him to review it.
He never told us his impressions of the video. But his enthusiasm appeared to rise for our side, and our impression was that he became an advocate for a higher settlement during his many shuttles back and forth between us and the defendants.
We started the mediation at 9:00 a.m.
That night, we walked home with an agreement to settle for $700,000.
Healing and a new start for Vanessa’s family
That’s a lot of money for anyone. For Vanessa and her children, it was life-changing. Each of the children have an investment of $100,000 that they can start drawing on when they turn 18.
Vanessa invested part of her money in a new traveling home so that she and the kids can cross the country visiting friends and family—learning while on an unforgettable adventure.
Money can’t bring back the lost 50 days, or cure the trauma that all three are still dealing with from the unjustified seizure and separation. But Vanessa is doing her best.
Cases like this do more than just help a single family.
They work to change the way government officials carry out their duties.
We recognize that CPS investigators have an important and difficult job. But there are rules they have to follow for the safety and protection of those they investigate. And sadly, the CPS system is so wrapped in confidentiality that abuses by officials rarely come to light—except in civil-rights lawsuits like this one.
That’s why we need to be ready to file these lawsuits, no matter where or when they arise. And we can’t do that without your help.
Would you consider joining HSLDA today?