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December 28, 2016

CPS Pays $700,000 to Homeschool Mom

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“CPS just took my children,” Vanessa Wilson told us in April of 2013, the day after they had been seized. “She says I am not taking care of my daughter’s diabetes, but she is just wrong.”

Jim Mason by Jim Mason
Vice President of Litigation

Vanessa told us that her four-year-old daughter had been diagnosed with juvenile onset diabetes in January. Riverside County social services learned about it when her daughter was first diagnosed and offered her voluntary services because Vanessa was a single mom with limited resources.

CPS investigator Francisca Russo visited Vanessa and her children. She demanded to see the girl’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, she took the girl into custody.

After learning that Vanessa homeschooled her 7-year-old son, Ms. Russo asked him a few math questions, asked him to recite the ABC’s, and to read from a book—all while the deputy would not let his visibly distraught mom come to him.

She took him too.

It took 50 days of hard work for us to get her children back. With the help of our long-time local counsel, Rex Lowe, the family was finally reunited—but only after a long, traumatizing ordeal.

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.

That’s where your gifts helped Vanessa the most.

Attorneys Rex Lowe and Jim Mason
Attorneys Rex Lowe and Jim Mason during a
deposition break

Thanks to our generous donors, 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. 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.

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.

Interior of Vanessa’s new “van”
Interior of Vanessa’s new “van”

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.

You made this possible.

Thank you for partnering with us to help families like Vanessa’s. 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 wher e or when they arise. And we can’t do that without your help.