Jessica Weisberg believes that narrative journalism is heading toward a post-platform world where reporters pick the right medium for each story. If that’s the case, she’s been training for the role of Renaissance woman.
After starting out as a fact checker at The New Yorker, she wrote print stories for The New York Times and Elle and was briefly a features editor for Al Jazeera America’s website. She then moved to radio, working as a producer and story editor with Page1, a production company that helped make the second season of the Serial podcast. Earlier this year she jumped to video, joining Vice News Tonight on HBO as a supervising producer. She’s also working on her first book, “American Guru,” which profiles famous American advice-givers across history.
With the stories that are in newspapers, you often you hear about the inciting incident but not so much the aftermath. I wanted to understand what it takes to recover from something like this. I felt like to really get at that it was a much longer reporting process than simply getting all the facts straight.
While Weisberg was working full time for Page1 last year, her friend Katia Bachko, then editor of The Atavist Magazine, sent her a news story about a lawyer who had taken on Child Protective Services in Southern California. He was scoring victories on behalf of parents whose children were being taken away, even when there were no clear signs of danger. Weisberg spent nights and weekends reporting on the case of one such family — the Brannings — and the parents’ fight to get their kids back.
It was the perfect story for The Atavist Magazine, which launched in 2011 with the goal of making longform sing online. Since then it has earned eight National Magazine Award nominations and became the first digital-only publication to win for feature writing.
For Weisberg, it was the best platform for reconstructing intimate family scenes and parsing the nuances of the child welfare system, a topic that typically only gets the newspaper treatment. Most of those reports tend to focus on what goes wrong when caseworkers fail to act; Weisberg looked at the other side of the coin and took an ambitious approach to understanding one family’s place in a complex system.
How did you choose to focus on the Brannings’ case as your window into an arguably overzealous child welfare system?
Stories like this are just hard to believe, so the existence of hard evidence enhanced my ability to tell the story. Tapes [from the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department], in a very practical way, made it make sense. I was struck by the fact that the Brannings were very open about why parenting was hard and never tried to cast themselves as perfect. The fact that they had been through Child Protective Services before from the opposite perspective — where they felt Amber was not in a safe situation and wanted to adopt her — allowed me to write about it from all angles. You had a sense of just how fragmented CPS was. It was a local story and national story at the same time, and I felt their experience lent itself to that very well.
You were exploring sensitive territory with the Brannings, while trying to get deep into their heads. What was your reporting process like with them?
We had structured sit-down interviews at various points, but it was a lot of me tagging along. I went to football practice and cheerleading practice with their kids, I had dinner with them a fair amount; I just hung out a lot. We also had a text-messaging relationship. Partly that was because I wanted them to feel comfortable. I was asking them to talk about such incredibly intimate things—not only reliving trauma, but opening themselves up to a stranger to essentially judge them as parents. I also wanted to understand how they worked as a family. With the stories that are in newspapers, you often you hear about the inciting incident but not so much the aftermath. I wanted to understand what it takes to recover from something like this. I felt like to really get at that it was a much longer reporting process than simply getting all the facts straight.
What did you say to prepare them for that kind of immersive reporting?
At the beginning, I said, “I’m going to ask you a lot of questions, and some of them are going to seem incredibly silly, like what you were wearing that day. That’s because I feel the best way to tell the story is to tell it as if you were there.” I told them that there were going to be times they wondered, “Why is she asking that? Why does this detail matter?” But it takes a lot of time and detailed questions to re-create the 360-degree feel of what it looked and smelled like.
A number of investigative stories about CPS have focused on the opposite problem than the one you explore — on children being injured or dying even after coming to the attention of caseworkers. While winning victories for parents such as the Brannings, the lawyer in your story is also drawing resources away from a widely underfunded social service agency. How did you approach that other side of the coin?
I really wanted to be fair, and I was nervous about it. That also gets at the local-national challenge of this story, which is that CPS is very different in every place that it exists. That’s why I wanted to take a step back to make the story about the fact that the federal standard is nonexistent, so you can have a situation in Riverside County that’s one way and in Iowa that’s another. In the literature about CPS you hear about a “pendulum”: An agency is on one extreme for a while, an incident gets negative attention, and the pendulum swings to the other side. What does it mean that there’s a government agency that operates on these extremes? Why isn’t there more oversight to prevent that?
You’ve worked across many different platforms. What are the advantages and drawbacks of longform journalism compared to video and radio storytelling?
At the beginning, I said, “I’m going to ask you a lot of questions, and some of them are going to seem incredibly silly, like what you were wearing that day. That’s because I feel the best way to tell the story is to tell it as if you were there.”
The nice thing about this form is that it’s just so intimate. In my current job at Vice, there are just so many people around — often a producer and second cameraman, sometimes another correspondent and sound person — that negotiating intimate access is harder. For this story, I could just hang out at the Brannings’ house with my notebook and iPhone. Something about the ability to be quiet physically while you’re reporting can be a real privilege. Another big advantage of longform, in radio too, is there’s a lot of space for complexity. Even though this story mainly focused on the perspective of when CPS takes kids when maybe they shouldn’t, it’s a complicated subject. It was just this interesting confluence of good people doing bad things, and I wanted to get at the complexity of that. With video, you have the opportunity for full immersion if you’re there at the right time. If you’re not, it’s complicated. You can’t reconstruct something that happened in the past and have it feel very narrative and present.
My questions are in red, her responses in blue. To read the story without annotations first, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button.
A Family Matter
By Jessica Weisberg
Published in The Atavist Magazine on August 15, 2016
August 29, 2013 was Danyelle Branning’s day off. She worked as a nurse in a hospital intensive-care unit and was reading in bed at her home in Eastvale, California, a small city some 50 miles inland of Los Angeles. Around 3 p.m., she heard a knock on the door and opened it to find a policeman on the front step. He introduced himself as Deputy Taroo Curry from the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department. He was short, with a boyish face and curly hair, and he had a small microphone pinned to his jacket that recorded his conversations.
Why was he recording? Is that standard procedure in this department or for this type of case?
It’s definitely not standard procedure — it’s quite rare, in fact. The existence of these recordings was one of the reasons I focused on the Brannings’ story.
“Was there an incident or something that happened or occurred yesterday?” Curry said.
“Well, yes,” said Danyelle, shaking her head. She told Curry that she had caught her 16-year-old stepdaughter, Amber, smoking pot at an older boy’s house. That evening, Danyelle and her husband, Randy, called the sheriff’s non-emergency line for help. Amber was Randy’s daughter from a previous relationship, and she was failing out of school and getting into trouble. “She manipulates, and she lies and lies and lies. I can’t trust anything she says,” Danyelle told Curry. The operator had suggested a boot camp.
What went into re-creating this opening scene in such length and detail? I gather that you got the tape – was it easy to get access? What else did you do?
I relied heavily on the recordings, but I also talked with Danyelle at length. A source – I can’t say who – gave me the recordings, and the Brannings said I could quote from them.
At 37, Danyelle resembled a grown-up version of a cheer captain from an eighties movie, with straight, dyed blond hair, bold blue eyes, and a blunt manner that exuded competence. Grounding Amber wasn’t working, so that night Danyelle and Randy had decided to try something harsher. The family had plans to go to Hawaii, but as punishment Amber would have to stay behind with her grandparents.
Over the years, Danyelle and Randy had hired therapists and tutors to help Amber, but nothing seemed to work. Neither of Danyelle’s or Randy’s parents would have been able to afford such things. Randy was raised by his dad, a psychiatric nurse who supported six boys; he was one of two brothers to graduate from high school. Danyelle was mostly raised by her single father. In addition to Amber, the couple had two young kids of their own, a ten-year-old daughter and a six-year-old son; I’ll call them Kelly and Cory. The Brannings had worked hard to give their children a stable life, but Amber’s behavior was pushing them to their limit.
Why did you decide to put this backstory up here, in the lede? Why did you think readers needed to know this now?
I felt that it was important for the reader to relate and empathize with the Brannings before they’re leveled with such intense accusations, a few paragraphs later.
“There was no sense of abuse or grabbing, or any physical abuse or anything back here at the house?” Curry said.
This surprised Danyelle. “No,” she said. “She was yelled at.”
As they stood in the doorway of the Brannings’ two-story stucco home, Curry explained to Danyelle that he had been dispatched to the house because earlier in the day, Amber had told her school counselor that during the argument her father had pushed her against the wall and head-butted her. He said there was some bruising on Amber’s arm. This also surprised Danyelle; she hadn’t noticed it.
A few minutes later, a white van pulled up in front of the house. Two women stepped out and walked toward Danyelle’s house, joining Curry.
Their names were Pamela Thompson-Dunn and Monique Jefferson, and they had been sent by Riverside County’s Department of Public Social Services. Thompson-Dunn said that she was following up on comments that Amber had made to her school guidance counselor about a violent incident the night before. How long had Amber been living with them? Thompson-Dunn wanted to know.
“Well, we didn’t find that she existed until she was five,” Danyelle said. She gave them the short version: In 2001, a short while before they got married, Randy received a notice in the mail asking him to submit to a paternity test. When he was 16, he’d had a one-night stand with a friend of a friend named Cassandra, and it turned out that he had a daughter named Amber in Iowa. In 2004, Cassandra was arrested on drug charges and stripped of custody, and shortly after, the Brannings filed to adopt Amber. The girl was 11 when she moved in.
“Is there any substance abuse between yourselves, with you or your husband?” Thompson-Dunn asked.
“No. I drink in the evening,” Danyelle said. Her days at the ICU were stressful, and she drank tequila to unwind.
“And what about your husband?” Thompson-Dunn said.
“My husband has a medical-marijuana card,” she said.
“What about domestic violence?” Thompson-Dunn said.
Danyelle was stunned. “We’re a team,” she said.
The four of them were still standing in the doorway when Kelly and Cory arrived home from school. Kelly looked young for her age, with plump cheeks and shiny, corn-colored hair; she spoke with the brisk efficiency of an executive hurrying off a phone call. “We met earlier,” she said to Thompson-Dunn, who had pulled her out of class that afternoon to talk about Amber. The conversation had upset Kelly. She didn’t like when her dad got angry, and she didn’t like talking to a stranger about it. Her meeting with Pam was the kind of thing she might have called her mom about if she had a cell phone, but her mom refused to let her have one. Danyelle was certain that cell phones were ruining this generation’s manners, and her kids were certain that this constituted a crime against humanity.
This is the kind of sentence that makes it feel like you’re in their heads. How did you get this kind of detail?
Danyelle and I had a lot of conversations about kids and technology. It’s a topic she feels strongly about and speaks to her caring and disciplined parenting style, which I wanted to get across early on.
Cory, a string bean with messy red hair, was eager to go inside; he had just gotten a PlayStation.
I love your descriptions of people, including of Danyelle as “a grown-up version of a cheer captain from an eighties movie” and Cory as a “string bean.” How do you do this well – avoiding clichés, generic traits or bizarre comparisons?
I say them aloud and see how they sound/feel. I try to do that with everything I write, but it’s especially helpful with physical descriptions which are so often overwrought.
Curry asked if he could speak with Kelly alone. While the two of them headed to the living room, Danyelle texted Randy: “Call me. ASAP.” He worked as a concrete-pump operator and had left the house at 4:30 that morning for a job in San Diego. Randy called a few minutes later.
“CPS and the cops are here,” Danyelle told him.
She sounded nervous. “Tell them exactly what happened,” Randy said. “Relax, babe.”
“I don’t know,” Danyelle said. “There’s something funny.”
They hung up, and Danyelle walked into the living room looking for Thompson-Dunn. About ten minutes after she’d arrived, she told Danyelle that she felt it was too dangerous for the kids to be around Randy, so she was putting them in foster care.
What happened next was a blur. Danyelle asked Thompson-Dunn to wait until Randy got home, so she could hear his side of the story, but recalls that Thompson-Dunn said they needed to get going. Danyelle asked if the kids could stay with her if Randy moved out—after all, he was the only one who’d been accused of abuse. Thompson-Dunn told Danyelle that she was no different than her husband: In California, failing to report an act of child abuse was in itself an act of child abuse. “Battered women often protect their abusers,” Danyelle remembers her saying. Danyelle asked if she could bring the kids to her mother’s one-bedroom condo, 30 minutes away. The kids needed their own rooms, Thompson-Dunn said.
Was this part on the tape? I thought perhaps not since you flagged that it’s Danyelle’s memory. If not, were you able to verify it, or did you have to go with Danyelle’s version?
This was not on the tape, which is why I attributed it to Danyelle. Neither Thompson-Dunn nor CPS agreed to speak with me for this story, so I was relying on Danyelle’s recollections here.
While Danyelle and Thompson-Dunn were talking, Curry asked Kelly to describe what happened the night before. Kelly had always idolized Amber. When Amber said her favorite pattern was zebra and her favorite color was blue, Kelly decided that hers were, too. When Amber decided that she wanted to become a vet, Kelly decided that she did, too.
Kelly told Curry that she had been in her room doing homework. She heard a lot of yelling, Amber crying, and three loud bangs that seemed to come from downstairs.
“My main concern was just, basically, with your sister and you seeing any physical violence between your dad and your sister,” Curry said.
“Never,” Kelly said. “He’s never showed any violence toward any of the kids; not my mom.”
That morning, Amber had told Kelly that their father had shoved her into a wall the night before. Kelly didn’t know what to think. Their dad was scary when he was angry—he got loud, and his face turned red—but she’d never seen him hurt anyone.
As Kelly was talking, Danyelle came into the living room. “I was told to pack you a bag,” she said, her voice low, almost calm. She sounded like she was in a daze.
How did you know that’s what she sounded like?
Because it was on the recording.
“They’re taking you guys. Just so you know, honey, they are not our friends. They’re not. These are not our friends.”
Kelly shrieked. Her breath became heavy and fast. “No!” she shouted.
Curry walked into the foyer, where Thompson-Dunn and Jefferson sat with Cory, who was crying into a pillow.
“I don’t want to leave,” he said.
“Amber told us that your dad… he’s not a nice person,” Thompson-Dunn said.
“Well, he is,” Cory shouted. He gasped for air between sobs.
“Can he be mean?” Thompson-Dunn said.
“No,” Cory said. “He’s frustrated.”
On the tape, you can hear Kelly in the background yelling, “Amber’s a liar! Amber’s a liar!”
Danyelle called Randy to tell him what was happening, but she was hardly able to form sentences. In the Brannings’ 12 years of marriage, Randy had never seen his wife panic. Danyelle was the calm one. It was Randy who lost his temper sometimes, who’d get upset and curse in front of the kids.
At 34, Randy had an auburn goatee, a sturdy, linebacker’s build, and portraits of his children tattooed on his right forearm in gray ink. He was working at a construction site, but he stopped what he was doing, latched his 800-pound cement mixer to the back of his truck, and drove off, the mixer swinging out behind him.
Traffic was bad, so he drove along the shoulder of the highway with his flashers on, pushing down on the horn. Drivers flipped him off as he passed.
I love this detail. How did it come up?
I was at the Brannings’ house — I think we had just finished dinner and the kids had gone to bed — and I asked Randy to tell me what happened that day at length.
He tugged the steering wheel so hard he thought it might bend in half. He made the 100-mile drive in less than an hour, arriving home just after five.
When Randy walked through the front door, he found Danyelle lying on the living room floor in a fetal position. He lay down beside his wife, and they stayed there awhile, holding each other, sobbing. They couldn’t understand how a stranger could take their kids after just ten minutes in their home, no warrant, no formal review, no time to tell their side of the story. Randy hugged his wife close and whispered, “When this is over, we’re going to sue the shit out of these people.”
This is a rather long opening. Is that because The Atavist is a place that encourages you to be expansive? Or did you think this sequence needed to be relayed in minute detail to make the reader understand and care about the rest of the story?
It’s certainly not an opening that one could get away with in many publications! I wanted to signal the importance of this scene to the rest of the story. Also, I think stories can feel flat if all of its scenes or sections are the same length, so I like interspersing extra-long and extra-short sections.
The lawyer they needed was Shawn McMillan, a San Diego–based attorney whose practice focuses on cases against California’s child protective services agencies. Ten years ago, McMillan was running a firm specializing in commercial and antitrust law. He liked the fight of a trial. “Bullets are flying. Nothing else in the world like it,” he told me. Then, in April 2005, McMillan’s dad told him about a woman he’d met who was looking for a lawyer. Her name was Deanna Fogarty-Hardwick. In the winter of 1999, her ex-husband was accused of sexually abusing one of their daughters. He lost custody but was granted monitored visits. When their daughters refused to see their dad, a social worker accused Fogarty-Hardwick of being uncooperative, and she also lost custody of the girls, who were placed in foster care. After almost six years, she had been reunited with her children and wanted to sue CPS for damages.
McMillan told me that at first he didn’t trust her. “I thought, These social workers are good people, out there for all the right reasons, doing a really tough job.” He would have turned down the case, but his dad had been moved by the woman’s story and pressured him into taking it. “I do what my dad says,” McMillan said.
McMillan argued the case, showing that the social worker had misrepresented Fogarty-Hardwick and had committed “judicial deception”—legalese for lying. The judge agreed and awarded Fogarty-Hardwick a $9.6 million settlement, the largest judgment against CPS in California history.
When McMillan returned to San Diego after a five-week trial, he sat in his living room and started crying. His son and daughter were six and nine, the same ages Fogarty-Hardwick’s children had been when they were taken. “I just start thinking how would that be? To be away from your kids?” A few months later, he shifted the focus of his practice from commercial law to suing CPS full-time.
Was it difficult to convince him to introduce you to clients?
We spoke a few times before he started making introductions.
Late last year, I went to visit McMillan’s office, which occupies the first floor of his house just outside San Diego. At 49, he has broad shoulders, a square jaw, and a preference for Hawaiian-print shorts when he’s not in court. Dozens of tae kwon do trophies line the windowsills and bookshelves; he still competes. There are three other lawyers who work at his firm, and on late nights McMillan’s wife invites everyone upstairs for dinner.
The firm handles about 15 cases at a time and turns down up to 200 a week.
How many other clients of his did you talk to before settling on the Brannings?
McMillan originally put me in touch with three clients, and I grabbed a meal with each of them. I met Danyelle for the first time over lunch at Chili’s in October 2015.
“I don’t reject them because they’re bad cases. I reject them because we can’t handle everything,” he said. “We have to do much better work than our opponents do to develop our case and develop credibility with the court.” After a decade, he’s so steeped in the material that he refers to precedents in the same way that sports fans refer to their favorite players. Troxel. Humphries.
In most parts of the U.S., child welfare is the responsibility of county government, with special agencies that investigate allegations of child abuse and ensure the safety of children. Caseworkers make the hard but often necessary decision to remove a child from a threatening situation before it becomes dangerous. They then place that child with extended family or in foster care and offer parents therapeutic services so that they might regain custody.
Why did you decide this was the right place to zoom out and explain the fundamentals of CPS?
I thought it made sense to introduce McMillan and then give readers context for what he does.
When an agency steps in, it challenges parents’ constitutional right to raise their own children. In 2000, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in a majority opinion that the parental right to make decisions for a child rested in the due-process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. “The interest of parents in the care, custody, and control of their children,” O’Connor wrote, “is perhaps the oldest of the fundamental liberty interests recognized by this Court.”
In California, caseworkers are required to obtain a warrant from a juvenile-court judge in order to remove a child from a home. The state allows that when a child is in “imminent danger,” there’s no time for paperwork, and caseworkers can remove children without obtaining a warrant. But without a clear definition of imminent danger, caseworkers often bypass the warrant process even when there’s no obvious physical risk.
Yet, despite the apparent need for guidelines, the federal government has never issued a clear definition of child abuse. “Nowhere in the federal government could we find one official assigned full-time to the prevention, identification, and treatment of child abuse and neglect,” wrote Walter Mondale, a senator from Minnesota, in 1973. The following year, Mondale pushed through the passage of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), which offered grants and funding to support state and community programs but did not provide direction as to how those programs should function. The law, which has since gone through many revisions, never defined what constituted an emergency or offered standards for when a child’s living situation should be deemed unsafe.
State lawmakers, too, are reluctant to restrict social workers with narrow definitions or to mandate a specific approach to child-rearing. The California statute defines abuse, in part, as “when the parent or guardian knew or reasonably should have known that the child was in danger of being subjected to an act or acts of cruelty.” Minnesota considers drug use during pregnancy a form of child abuse, but New York does not.
Was your intention with this piece to advocate for clearer guidelines or to show why it’s impossible to set them?
My goal was to write a piece that showed the consequences of these imprecise, ambiguous guidelines.
Child abuse is an exceptionally complicated thing to define. Spanking can be outright abusive or perfectly legal. Even less clear is the shift from mean-spirited to emotionally abusive, or the moment when an overworked parent becomes a neglectful one. Likewise, there’s no universal definition of risk—one person’s nightmare is another person’s Tuesday. Are three children, all under the age of eight, left alone in a motel room while their mother goes on a job interview at risk of “serious harm”? Yes, according to a CPS social worker in Orange County, California, who had those children placed in foster care. What if a parent has a criminal record or a drug problem, or dates someone who does, or smokes indoors with the windows closed, or has a mental illness?
In most cases, counties are left to decide when poor parenting becomes maltreatment. CPS workers are empowered to intervene based on their own criteria, quickly assessing a situation with as little as a brief interview. “Social workers are essentially asked to read tea leaves,” said Jennifer Reich, a professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Denver and the author of Fixing Families: Parents, Power, and the Child Welfare System. “They have a limited amount of information with which to try and predict which kids are unsafe.”
As a result, social workers are often entitled to enter a home without a warrant, based on nothing but an anonymous tip, and in most states subsequent hearings and records are never released to the public. Richard Wexler, the executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, told me that “all over the country, social workers take children entirely on their own authority.” According to a report from Wexler’s organization, caseworkers in most states have “unlimited power and no accountability.”
There’s a lot out there about child protective services – newspaper articles, books, academic research, advocacy reports. What was your strategy for not getting overwhelmed — learning just enough but not too much? And what fraction of what you learned made it into the piece?
I started off with a very long reading list. Probably too long. I got recommendations from McMillan and other child welfare lawyers. It was when I read Jennifer Reich’s book that things clicked for me.
Inevitably, this lack of standards and high degree of autonomy can result in costly errors in judgment. Without guidelines, caseworkers’ field assessments can run afoul of the courts’ interpretations of the statute and result in expensive litigation. Federal courts have consistently found that without hard evidence of imminent risk, a parent and child have a constitutional right to continue living together. In 2001, a federal court ruled that a county social worker had violated the law when she removed a girl from her home without a warrant in response to allegations that the child had been sexually abused by her stepfather. In the court’s view, the social worker did not have reason to believe that the child was in danger of imminent harm. In 2007, the same court ruled, in Rogers v. County of San Joaquin, that a social worker who removed two young children from their home without a warrant after observing their rotted teeth, soiled diapers, and a loaded gun in their parents’ dresser was wrong to assess the situation as an “emergency” and should have obtained a court order. Yes, their health and living situation were worrisome, but there was no indication of imminent danger. The judge determined that taking a child from the home when there was no clear emergency violated the child’s Fourth Amendment rights and constituted an “unreasonable search and seizure.” These were 3 California precedents that came up.
Why did you decide to call out these cases out of what I assume was a mountain of litigation?
These were the California cases that helped me make sense of the legalese, so I thought they’d be the most helpful for readers.
McMillan’s cases alone have cost California CPS agencies more than $20 million since 2005. When I went to his office last year, his caseload included a father who’d temporarily lost custody for using an illegal substance, marijuana, around his child even though he had a license for medicinal use, a black family whose kids were taken away after the grandfather called the white social worker a racist, and two teenage boys from San Diego who had been removed from their home after their mother was caught writing a false check. The boys had been placed in a foster home run by a man who then molested them both repeatedly, filmed himself doing so, and posted the videos online. “How much money is enough to settle that?” McMillan said.
Pamela Thompson-Dunn, the social worker from CPS, drove Kelly and Cory to pick up Amber at her school, then took the kids for burgers at Carl’s Jr. After dinner, she drove them to her office at the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services, a stout white building with a zigzagging ramp out front. It reminded Kelly of an amusement-park entrance.
Did you literally ask her: What were you thinking when you approached the building?
Something along those lines — what she remembered, what she was feeling.
Inside, Thompson-Dunn started making calls to find them a place to sleep that night. When children are removed from their home, and there’s no extended family able to care for them, they are placed in a foster home. In 1986, California started outsourcing the recruitment and training of foster families to private agencies and charities, hoping that such groups would better convince community members to open up their homes to local children in need. Now California spends $400 million a year on private foster care; it’s the largest such system in the country. In Los Angeles County alone, 80 percent of children placed in foster homes go to privately run facilities.
By 11 p.m., Thompson-Dunn had found foster-care placements for all three of the children through two private agencies—a bed for Amber in a Fred Jefferson home, and beds for Kelly and Cory through Avant-Garde Foster Agency. Around midnight, they pulled up in front of a compact, two-story house with a row of palm trees in the front yard. Thompson-Dunn told Kelly and Cory to gather their things. They hugged Amber and told her they loved her before climbing out of the car.
They were greeted by a round, soft-spoken woman, whom I’ll call Ellen, with two barking black Labs at her heels. Her husband, whom I’ll call Jake, was shorter than she was and wore a baseball cap with fish on it.
Why didn’t you use their names?
I didn’t think it was appropriate to use their names because they are not named in the lawsuit – the foster agency is.
Cory thought his hat was funny.
Ellen asked right away if there were any foods they didn’t like and promised not to make them. She pointed out the pool in the backyard and showed them to their beds—Cory’s was in a room with two other boys around his age. Kelly had a private room on the second floor.
Shortly after he settled in for the night, Cory woke up with a start. He felt something squeezing his scrotum, hard. He opened his eyes and saw one of the other foster children hovering over him. He kissed Cory on the lips, then the neck, before Cory yelled and shoved him away. His yelling woke up Ellen, who moved Cory into a private room that shared a wall with her and Jake’s bedroom. The door didn’t lock, so they told Cory to place a chair against it and came up with a secret knock so he could let them know through the wall if anything happened.
I was curious about how you looked at writing about this incident from an ethical perspective. Cory’s identity could be pretty easily traced, since you name his parents. Was this already public because of the court records? In what circumstances would you or would you not write about the sexual assault of a child?
It was important to me to anonymize the children involved as much as possible. (Cory is not his real name, as I mention in the lead. The other child is not named at all.). Yes, all of these details are in the court documents. I would not feel comfortable writing about the sexual assault of a child without legal documentation and without discussing it with the parents/guardians.
The next day, Kelly remembers that Ellen discouraged them from reporting the incident to Thompson-Dunn. I was unable to reach Ellen and Jake for comment; Avant-Garde, which arranged the placement, does not share the personal details of its foster families.
Do you approach interviewing children any differently from interviewing adults? Do you see them as equally reliable sources?
I think it’s necessary to signal to a reader when information comes from a child. I don’t know if I have any hard and fast rules when it comes to interviewing kids or trusting them as sources. I did instinctively trust Kelly, more than I do many adults! (Kelly is not her real name.) She’s sharp and thoughtful.
Cory’s experience wasn’t unusual. A 2013 study by the Los Angeles Times found that children placed in homes run by private agencies were about a third more likely to be the victims of serious physical, emotional, or sexual abuse while living there than children in state-supervised foster-family homes. Roughly two months earlier, the L.A. County Department of Family Services had completed a review of the 60 homes run by the Fred Jefferson agency, which had handled Amber’s placement, and found that children at several of them had not been properly supervised—kids had been injured on the premises or were permitted to drink alcohol—and two of the homes had permanent residents with criminal records.
Ellen said they could skip school that day, since they’d slept so little the night before. That morning, Danyelle called the school to make sure the kids were there and panicked when she found out that they weren’t. It was Labor Day weekend, so they would have Monday off, too. The children spent the weekend swimming, watching TV, and playing with the dogs, trying to keep to themselves.
“The other kids had real problems, like psychological problems,” Kelly said when I spoke with her this past winter. Cory kept getting in trouble all weekend—for making a mess or playing too rough—but he didn’t mind. “I liked time out, because I could stay away from people,” he told me.
Ellen dropped them off at school on Tuesday. It was comforting to see familiar faces, eat familiar foods, walk familiar hallways. But it was impossible to concentrate in class. Kelly couldn’t go ten minutes without crying.
The Brannings were banned from seeing their kids without a government-approved escort, but they were so desperate that on Tuesday, they snuck into the school and waited for them in the cafeteria. When Cory saw his parents, he darted over and plopped into his mom’s lap. Kelly arrived shortly after and threw her arms around her dad’s neck.
Do you think that working in TV gives you a different perspective when you write? Do you think cinematically?
I think television forces you to think about scenes and how to construct them.
Kelly decided not to tell her parents about what had happened to Cory—her mom already seemed so upset. Instead, Kelly asked if they knew how Amber was doing. They didn’t. They were still angry and hadn’t tried to see her.
Shawn McMillan is one of eight lawyers in California who focus on civil cases against CPS; four of them work in his office. In 2014, after filing more than 30 cases in California, and settling all but two, he began noticing a trend: CPS workers were removing kids from their homes without a warrant even when there was no indication of an emergency.
McMillan started collecting data from around California about the incidence of warrantless removals. He discovered that since 1996, Orange and Riverside Counties had seized more than 80,000 children without a warrant. When he saw the numbers, he decided he had to bring class-action lawsuits against both counties.
In some ways, Riverside and Orange Counties are odd choices for a class-action suit; these are predominantly middle-class exurbs of Los Angeles, more than 70 percent white, and often associated with beach towns, Land Rovers, and MTV reality shows. Overall, white children represent less than 25 percent of children in California foster homes, and studies consistently show that CPS is more likely to remove children from families of color, especially African Americans. Data on warrantless removals for every county in the state isn’t readily available, but California’s average rate of removal, according to a 2015 study by the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, is 3.3 for every 1,000 children. Riverside and Orange actually have lower removal rates than many other parts of the state. The rate is 3.7 in Riverside County and 1.6 in Orange County; in some counties, the rate is as high as 15.8. McMillan told me that eventually he hopes to “bring all 58 counties in the state kicking and screaming into compliance with the law.”
Do you have any rules of thumb about how to weave in statistics without overwhelming the reader?
John Bennet, an editor at the New Yorker, once told me that that there are two kinds of numbers: big ones and small ones. It’s great advice. Whenever I have a statistic, I try to signal to the reader when it’s a big number or a small number.
Amber’s own childhood in Iowa offers the perfect illustration of just how varied CPS caseworkers can be in their response to allegations of abuse. The agency had been a fixture in her life since the year 2000, when Amber was three years old. At the time, she was living with her mom, Cassandra, and her three half-siblings in a mobile home in Allerton, Iowa. An anonymous caller told CPS that the kids weren’t being fed. A CPS worker visited the house, noting in the report, “children are believed to be safe in the mother’s home.”
How did you get this record? I assume it was confidential.
The Brannings provided it to me.
In 2001, Cassandra moved her family to Missouri, where both she and Randy grew up. She was living on government assistance, and her caseworker sent DNA tests to Amber’s possible fathers—Randy told me that he was among four men who received the test. When the results came back positive, Randy started visiting Amber once or twice a year and calling a few times a month.
By 2002, Cassandra and her children had returned to Iowa, and another anonymous caller reported that Cassandra used meth in the children’s presence. The CPS worker who visited the home wrote in a report that “there is not a preponderance of evidence that Cassandra Davis, the biological mother of these children, possessed or used methamphetamine.”
In the spring of 2004, a few months after Cassandra gave birth to her fifth child, she was charged with methamphetamine possession and fled Iowa. Some weeks later, CPS discovered that Cassandra had left her children with her sister, who had a meth lab in her basement, according to an agency report from the time. Cassandra temporarily lost custody of her children and was only permitted to see them during monitored visits.
Amber was seven at the time, and Randy wanted to formally adopt her. In early 2005, Amber came to California and lived with the Brannings for almost a year. But then, according to Randy, CPS decided that Cassandra, who had just completed a rehab program, deserved another chance to raise her children, and Amber was sent back to Iowa. For Randy, it was awful to part with his daughter after he’d just gotten to know her. “The whole process was hard and heartbreaking,” he told me. Within a year Cassandra had relapsed, and her children were sent to live with her parents in a small town north of Des Moines.
Randy still wanted full custody, but Amber’s caseworker was reluctant to separate her from her siblings. Randy missed his Amber, but he was hopeful about her new living situation with her grandfather, Michael, who was a preacher.
For her ninth birthday, Randy and Danyelle sent Amber two Harry Potter books. When they called Amber to see how she was enjoying them, they found out that her grandfather had burned them. That’s when Randy decided that Amber belonged with him and Danyelle. The process took almost two years, but eventually a judge decided that, as the biological father, Randy’s rights trumped those of Amber’s grandparents. “We felt very confident that Amber should stay with us. We felt that given how much change she’d gone through, moving wasn’t a good thing for her,” Michael recently told me. “I think Randy’s a great guy and that he could be a top-notch father, I just happen to disagree with them on the concept of God and spiritual matters.” Michael also worried about Amber’s transition from homeschooling to a large public school.
On the afternoon Randy came to pick her up, in early 2008, Amber was hysterical: She didn’t want to leave her youngest brother. To help her adjust to life in California, he and Danyelle quickly found Amber a therapist. “We expected there to be some difficulties,” Danyelle told me. But Amber seemed to thrive. She was behind in school—Michael’s homeschool curriculum hadn’t covered much science or math—but she worked hard and caught up, and she completed sixth grade with mostly B’s and A’s. She joined the ice-skating team. She was a talented, fearless skater, with her dad’s short, muscular legs, eager to try flips and aerials. As she twirled, Randy told me, her thick, curly ponytail would lasso through the air.
This is a great detail. Can you remember what you asked to elicit such a specific memory?
I can’t remember what I asked. It came up when he was gushing about his daughter. A lot of my time with the Brannings was pretty unstructured.
When Amber started high school, things began to change. She skipped school more often than she went and threw house parties whenever Danyelle and Randy went out, drinking their liquor and then filling the bottles with water. She hid report cards and forged Danyelle’s signature so her stepmother wouldn’t know she was failing most of her classes. She got kicked off the ice-skating team. Randy found a dildo and condoms in her room. She promised that they were a joke, but Randy didn’t believe her. “You’re not a whore, so quit acting like one,” he told her.
Randy and Danyelle grounded her. They “double grounded” her, which meant she was confined to her room. They took away her cell phone. They shouted at her.
Amber missed Iowa, missed her siblings, missed her mother. Cassandra wasn’t supposed to have unmonitored contact with her kids, but Amber would secretly chat with her mom on Facebook. Kelly told me that Amber used to fantasize aloud about how she was going to call CPS, get their dad arrested, and return to Iowa. Kelly never thought Amber would actually go through with it.
CPS fieldwork is complicated and requires sensitivity to varying parenting styles across different ethnic and class backgrounds.
Why did you decide to put this particular explanatory section here?
I try to alternate between more narrative and more expository sections. The first expository section, earlier in the piece, gives the legal and historical context for what happened to the Brannings. This expository section looks at why it happened.
In California, caseworkers complete a nine-week course mandated by all CPS agencies across the state; for those without a professional degree in social work, it’s the only formal training they receive. Caseworkers for Riverside County go to the Public Child Welfare Training Academy at the San Diego State University School of Social Work. A representative refused to speak with me and referred me to a website about the California Common Core that outlines the major bullet points of the curriculum.
The curriculum tries to formalize the process of responding to allegations of child abuse. First, social workers are supposed to “engage the parents,” to help them find ways to mitigate their children’s feeling of danger. If the kids are afraid of Dad, then the social worker should encourage Mom to make him leave. If staying at home isn’t an option, the next best thing is to place the children with an extended-family member. If there’s no family nearby, then the social worker should take the children into government custody, but only after a warrant has been obtained.
As I read through these recommendations, I struggled to understand why Cory and Kelly were taken from their home.
Why did you bring in the first person here?
This is dense and complicated material and I think it can be helpful for readers to have a human presence wade through it with them.
Danyelle told me that she had offered to ask Randy to leave, but Thompson-Dunn said that wasn’t an option. She had also suggested her mother’s condo, but Thompson-Dunn said that it was too cramped.
Jennifer Reich, the sociologist, told me that the assessment process can’t be routinized and that removing a child from their home is always a gut decision. Some counties have tried checklists, but that approach hasn’t worked. “I’m not sure if there’s a bureaucratic process that gets you out of a subjective decision,” Reich said. Thompson-Dunn felt that the Brannings were dangerous and acted accordingly.
California state law gives caseworkers qualified immunity from civil rights violations. They cannot go to jail or lose their job for a needless removal, as long as they acted in “good faith.” The same applies if a child they’ve investigated is injured or dies in the care of their biological family. But the latter scenario will put the social worker on the front page of the local paper and may lead to criminal charges. In April, four Los Angeles County social workers were charged with felony child abuse for failing to appropriately respond to numerous allegations of abuse in the case of an eight-year-old boy who was later killed. Given such high stakes, Forrest Mosten, a family-law specialist and a professor at UCLA, told me that social workers would “rather be safe than sorry. If [CPS is] wrong, they figure the family will heal again.”
Ruth Supranovich, a professor of social work at the University of Southern California, worked in San Diego County’s CPS office on and off for 14 years. After about two years as a protective-services worker and near constant exposure to abusive households, she said that she “got burned out to the point that I didn’t trust people.” Supranovich likened being a caseworker to being a police officer. “You have to remind yourself that we deal with 1 percent of the population, and it can skew the way you look at the world,” she said. As a result, the turnover rate is high. In Sacramento County, CPS hired 106 social workers between July 1, 2015, and May 31, 2016; by August of this year, 83 of them had already resigned.
In 2009, when California was facing a $40 billion deficit, administrators made $121 million in cuts to its child-welfare and foster-care services. When agencies are underfunded, caseworkers are forced to rush through cases. Social workers in Riverside County have a starting a salary of $47,860. Their hours are long, and hardly anyone stays long enough to receive a pension.
Why did you think it was important to give some context for what the job of a caseworker is like?
I was important to me to keep the story balanced. I did not want to vilify caseworkers.
Before she left with the Branning kids, Thompson-Dunn gave Danyelle a sheet of flimsy yellow paper—it looked like a diner receipt—with a court date written on it. The Brannings had a hearing at the Riverside County Juvenile Court the following week.
A few days later, Deputy Curry returned to the house. His findings would determine whether the Brannings would face criminal charges. Randy told me that Curry examined the house closely, looking for dents in the walls or other evidence of an altercation. He interviewed Randy and Danyelle; he taped that interview as well. (These tapes, as well as those from August 29, were provided to me by someone close to the case.)
Randy explained to Curry that on the night of the incident, he had told Amber to go to her room. Instead, she plopped down on the stairs and refused to budge. Randy grabbed her by the arm and walked her to her room. He was angry that night, with himself and with Amber—nothing seemed to be working with her. At one point, he was so furious that he punched a wastepaper basket and threw it down the stairs. Those were the thumps Kelly mentioned to Curry.
At the end of the interview, Curry told them, “You guys are good people from what I can see, and you guys are doing what you can for your kids.” Curry’s remarks left them with a sense of relief and the impression that they would avoid criminal charges. But to get their kids back, they still had to go through family court.
The family-court system was established in the early 20th century as one of the country’s first experiments in rehabilitative justice. Instead of imposing a punishment, its goal is to address the underlying problem that led an offender to commit a crime. If a crime was committed under the influence of alcohol, for instance, the sentence would be an addiction program. Parents accused of abuse are often required to complete therapeutic courses—like anger management or Narcotics Anonymous—in order to be reunited with their children. In some cases, the court can provide expensive services that might not otherwise be accessible to families. But other times, parents can feel patronized, compelled to complete unnecessary programs for the sake of complying with their caseworker and getting their children back. “Of course, voluntary participation in therapeutic processes is quite different than coerced participation in services,” writes Reich in her book Fixing Families, where she describes CPS’s social-welfare programs as both “a blessing and a curse.” As she writes, “While it provides much needed support for poor women and their children, it has also been a means for the state to evaluate and police individual families.”
It’s difficult to accurately portray what happens inside family-court hearings, because most proceedings are closed to the public; according to the National Coalition for Child Protection, only 15 states allow public access to court hearings in child-abuse cases. The measure is intended to protect the child’s privacy, but it also means that the press is typically banned from courtrooms. Throughout most of California, case files are accessible only to the family, lawyers, law enforcement, the child’s caseworker, and school representatives. The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges has called for “lifting the veil of secrecy” that surrounds the system. “Open court proceedings will increase public awareness of the critical problems faced by juvenile and family courts and by child welfare agencies in matters involving child protection, [and] may enhance accountability in the conduct of these proceedings,” a council bulletin argued.
The first hearing in child-abuse cases, often known as the detention hearing, is similar to an arraignment. The judge reviews a social worker’s petition, which explains her reasoning for removing a child, and decides whether to continue the proceedings or send the kid back home. While researching her book, Reich observed more than 200 detention hearings in an unnamed county in Northern California and witnessed a judge dismiss a social worker’s petition only a few times. She said that most of these detention hearings lasted between three and ten minutes. “Because it’s a confidential system, it’s hard to talk about the issues that come with it publicly,” Reich said.
To prepare for the detention hearing, Randy and Danyelle collected letters of support from friends, employers, and neighbors. They wanted to make a strong first impression on their court-appointed lawyers. But when they met their attorneys at the Riverside Juvenile Court, they got the sense that the only way forward was to agree with the social worker’s assessment and comply with CPS’s recommendations, no matter what. Danyelle’s lawyer had seen the CPS petition that suggested Danyelle was a heavy drinker and recommended that she accept a kind of plea bargain—11 weeks of alcohol-addictio