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Police Blotter: Craigslist toddler giveaway ad sparks suit

Homeless mother who posted Craigslist ad to find someone to take her 3-year-old daughter tries to get her back from social services.

Police Blotter is a weekly News.com report on the intersection of technology and the law.

What: California woman who posted Craigslist ad to give away her 3-year-old daughter ends up in multiyear legal battle with social services.

When: California state appeals court, first district, rules on October 17.

Outcome: Appeals court agrees that mother should not have custody of child, but sends back the case to the trial judge for additional proceedings.

What happened, according to court documents and other sources:
Sometime around the spring of 2005, a homeless single mother in Oakland, Calif., posted an advertisement on Craigslist trying to give away her 3-year-old daughter.

The mother, who was living at the time at Oakland's Elizabeth House, is referred to in court documents only as Esperanza F. Her daughter is referred to as A.J.

Esperanza seemed to be at her wits' end at the time. Elizabeth House staff recalled that she would yell and scream at the toddler, ignore A.J. for lengthy periods of time, and talk of getting rid of A.J. and heading to Italy. Esperanza's grandmother, Nona W., was worried enough to repeatedly call the Department of Children and Family Services in Alameda County (which includes Oakland), to no avail.

An evaluation by a child psychologist that year concluded: "Her behaviors suggest that she places her needs before that of her daughter. She expects her daughter's sleep and feeding routine to accommodate to her adult lifestyle. Her disciplining methods appear to be harsh. Also, she expects a level of independence in her daughter which she may be incapable of at her age."

It was the discovery of Esperanza's Craigslist ad that prompted the local government to intervene. The Alameda County Social Services Agency, someone from the emergency response unit of the county's Children's Protective Services agency, and the director of Elizabeth House met with Esperanza, who said she would not change her lifestyle. She failed to return to Elizabeth House the following night and A.J. was taken into protective custody.

That took place in March 2005. By August 31, a judge noted that Esperanza had completed a parenting class and was attending weekly therapy sessions, and agreed that A.J. could return home to Elizabeth House for a month. After that trial period ended, the court set up a schedule for A.J. to return home permanently.

In March 2006, Esperanza gave birth to K.B. No father was listed on the birth certificate. Five days later, Esperanza began trying to dispose of K.B. as well, and signed a notarized letter giving the infant to a neighbor she barely knew. More reports surfaced of A.J. being slapped and being threatened with a return to her foster parents.

After a judge eventually awarded custody of both children to their great aunt, Kathy W., Esperanza tried to get them back by claiming the evidence against her was insufficient and that the children were part Blackfeet Indian and, therefore, the Indian Child Welfare Act applied (the Blackfeet tribe says there's no known relation).

An appeals court ruled that Esperanza was not a safe parent, but sent the case back to the trial judge to make sure the children were not Indian and that the Indian Child Welfare Act--which limits the ability of social workers to break up such a family--was being followed.

Excerpt from appeals court's October 17 opinion:
The record shows that Esperanza suffers from mental illness or disorder that prevents her from being able to safely parent A.J. Esperanza denies her illness and, although having received nearly a year of therapy and other family maintenance services, she still engaged in the same type of behavior (trying to give away her child to people she knew only slightly or not at all) that caused A.J. to become a dependent child in the first place.

There was ample evidence that Esperanza acts rashly with respect to her children when she is under stress, that she lies repeatedly about her behavior to the agency and to others, and that she refuses to acknowledge that she suffers from serious mental illness or mental disorder (for example, eight days after the children were removed, during a visit to Schuman-Liles Clinic, Esperanza reported she was "very happy," and that she had no mental health issues going on).

These circumstances clearly pose a substantial risk of serious physical and emotional harm to the children. Moreover, Esperanza's denial of her mental health issues, and her persistent pattern of misrepresentation to the agency, to mental health professionals, to family, and to others who could assist her, fully supports the finding that there were no reasonable alternative means to protect the children...

Moreover, on this record there is ample evidence that ... Esperanza is unwilling or unable to address her mental health issues in a meaningful way and that she is untruthful with the agency, health care providers, the court, and others seeking to assist her... She did not turn to family who stood willing to help, and it is also the case that she was in a hurry to avoid any interference by the agency. In these circumstances, continued family maintenance services with the children remaining in her home appears to be totally unworkable and insufficient to ameliorate the risk.