Mother Fighting to Regain Custody of Her Seven Children Speaks with The Post & Email

THE JUDGE SAID, “GET OUT!”

by Sharon Rondeau

Erica Henderson and her then-five-week-old infant, who has been placed in foster care without a charge against the parents

(Sep. 11, 2012) — The Post & Email has spoken with Erica Henderson, the mother of seven whose infant was seized by Los Angeles authorities on Friday, August 31, allegedly because there was an “open case” with the remaining six children.

We told Mrs. Henderson that we had spoken with Regina Marquez, an assistant in the County Board of Supervisors’ office and Ms. Rice, who handles telephone calls to DCFS Director Philip Browning’s office.

We also called the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, whose female representative told us, “You’re going to find it difficult to get information” on the Henderson case.  We have located the address of the Pasadena Police Department to request a copy of the police report from May 25, 2010, when police officers used a battering ram to enter the Hendersons’ home after an anonymous neighbor called in a report of child abuse which Mrs. Henderson said was unfounded.

Mrs. Henderson was calm and collected in speaking with us and after about 45 minutes, had to break away in order to bring milk to her six-week-old infant currently being cared for by a homosexual couple.

“Everybody wants to know what they can do,” Mrs. Henderson said.  “It’s so out-of-control.”  Referring to an emergency hearing last Thursday, she said,  ” The judge kicked us out of the court, held the hearing without us, and changed my visitation to ‘monitored.’  In their own report, which they finally filed the day of the court hearing, it said I should continue to have unmonitored access to the child.  I’ve never heard a judge say something worse than what is recommended.”

The judge’s name is Marguerite Downing.  “Personally, I think the issue is that she has an idea of what we’re trying to do.   I think she believes that if we are allowed to speak, these things will be put on the record in her courtroom, and once that happens, it’s going to mean problems for her.  If I go in there and say that she said, ‘You can’t represent yourself,’ and I say, ‘California Code 317.1 clearly states that I can choose to represent myself at any time…’ but the attorney they appoint me won’t do that.  When she kicked us out on Thursday, all we had done is state our appearances.  She said, ‘State your appearance;’ my husband stated his appearance; she kicked him out. I stated mine; she kicked me out. What I said was, “I am Erica Michelle Henderson, one of the people of California, specially appearing in this court of record to prosecute habeas corpus and demurrer to the complaint.  Those are the two documents I had filed for the day, and she said, “Get out.  Get out!!”

Mrs. Henderson continued:

I’ve legally filed these documents; they’ve been served; they’re before the court; I have every right to do so. and it’s amazing to me.  Then on top of that, to go ahead and hold the hearing without the parents…if you want to go further into CA code, it says that the parents have to be there.  It’s not so specific about other hearings, but at the detention hearing, it’s a very big deal that the parents be there.  Part of the law is that once the case is brought before us, we should be able to cross-examine witnesses and confront our accuser and that we’re able to address each and every one of the issues in the petition, and we weren’t able to do that.

Another thing, too, is if we’re in front of the court and we begin to argue, for instance, the time frame, then she’s stuck in a position of either having to back way off, which is going to be really hard for her to do, or her solution, I believe, is to continue to railroad us and hope that we will lay down, adopt our kids out, and get out of the system.  Then she can say “Those annoying Hendersons…”

The sentiment that I repeatedly hear is “Why didn’t you just…”  For instance, why didn’t I just sign the Voluntary Case Plan which the social worker threatened me with or else they were going to take the child?  That seems as if that might have been a good idea and perhaps I wouldn’t have lost the baby, but I would have been signing away guilt to abusing my child!

This child was lovingly birthed into my own arms in front of my midwife; he has his little cloth diapers and was so loved and surrounded by friends and family for those six weeks…Not a hair of his head was harmed.  He was loved so much!  How can I sign away that I physically, emotionally and mentally abused my child?

The Post & Email asked, “Is that what the Voluntary Care Plan says?”

Yes, you can’t sign a case plan otherwise.  The big thing is that you can stay out of court.  But I said to Eric, I don’t want to stay out of court, because even though Judge Downing is terribly corrupt and incompetent from my experiences with her; some of this she doesn’t understand; some of it she does and is very angry about it.  Her big argument with us is the record. The record technically can be made by anybody in the courtroom.  She does not like other people to make the record unless she already knows that their response will be a controlled one.  So when we begin to speak, she’s going to shut us up, because that woman who’s sitting there  typing everything has sworn an oath as a court reporter.  Her office is separate from that of the judge.  I can sue her if she doesn’t document everything’s said, because that is her job:  to write down everything that is said in the courtroom.

The Post & Email said, “We’ve seen in Tennessee that the court reporters actually work for the judges, officially or unofficially, and “doctor” the court transcripts.”

We have that problem here as well.  She has her own bond and insurance and is an officer of the court.

Getting the transcript is another really big issue for us.  We’re trying to get a fee waiver because it’s probably $1,000 or more to get a record of everything that’s ever been said in that courtroom.  We filed a fee waiver which was denied.  At every step that we hit, we run into another obstacle.  Another problem we’re having is access to the courts, because the courtrooms are locked, and you can’t go in them.  It’s not like a regular courthouse where you walk down the hall and open the big double door and you go in and sit down.  The doors are locked by the deputy and he locks them as he goes in an d out.  They call only one case at a time. The problem is that if you want to file documents directly, you don’t have access to the court to  do that.  If you go to the clerk’s office downstairs on the second floor, she won’t stamp your papers “Filed.”  Another problem we’ve been having is we’ve filed documents and they just stamp them “received” and they won’t put them in our case file or in front of the judge.  So what we’ve started doing is serving the deputy  as we go into the courtroom, and that caused another major commotion.  He took them, not because he’s a nice guy, but because legally, he has to take them.  So we hand them in on the way in, and he takes them and then tries to hand them to the people, who hand them right back at us.  Access to the court, which is a constitutional right, is denied.  And it’s not just the U.S. Constitution; it’s the California constitution that’s being violated; the rules of the court are being violated; it’s their own code that’s being violated… you can go on and on.

We’re definitely up against a major block here, and I don’t know where the crack is going to be.  I can’t see the crack in the wall, but I know it’s there.  And my gosh…I won’t give up until I find it.  I really do believe that the only remedy for us and for everyone else is when this happens, even on a small level to families, you sue them, because accountability is the only way that these people are going to change.  They don’t have professional or personal accountability.  I don’t know what kind of people they are or what their spiritual beliefs are; they personally don’t have any professional accountability.  But they have to have professional accountability because they’re public servants.  This is their job; this is what they’re being paid to do.  I think so many more cases have to be filed because they’re trying to hide behind “qualified immunity.”  I don’t care if you have qualified immunity; if you are an officer of the court or a DCFS agent and you break the law or LA code, that doesn’t mean you are immune.  You should be able to be civilly prosecuted or sued.

Mrs. Henderson mentioned a strategy which The Post & Email will not divulge at this time.

What I would like to do for the future is to draft something simple which other families can also use.  Let’s say that you didn’t install your kid’s care seat properly or you yelled at your kid at the grocery store and somebody called and they opened up a voluntary case plan wherein they don’t take your kids from your physical custody but you still have a case.  This has to stop!  I want to protect kids.  There are kids who are abused and neglected, but this is ridiculous.

The Post & Email then asked, “How are your other six children doing?”

I saw the three eldest on Friday, and the monitor was there again.  One of the children asked, “Why is she here?” and I said, “I don’t really know the answer to that yet.”   My daughter wanted to know where the baby was and if he was getting milk.  They are antsy; they feel it, and they want to come home, and they don’t understand why they can’t come home.  They’re kids.

How do you deal with this terrible situation?

Lots of love.  I don’t know your spiritual beliefs, but we do believe in a God.  I say to my kids, “Who made the stars?  Who made the seas?  Who made everything, and who’s in control?  Is it you? Are you in control of everything?  Do you make it rain?  Is it the social worker?  Is he in control?” and they say, “Oh, no,” and I say, “Well, OK, then you have to be patient.”

I pray that your children are not scarred for life from this.

Well, they are scarred for life, but scars make you tougher.  And that’s the way I have to look at it at this point.  They’re repeatedly abused and neglected in foster care; the horror of it astounds me every time  I see them.  It’s what I consider abuse and neglect:  untreated cuts and bruises that fester; gum in their hair; dirty, torn clothes; they don’t have enough to eat.  These are the things that I see coming out of the foster homes, and it angers me to no end.

How can the state of California claim that it has jurisdiction over your children if you were acquitted of all charges?

Their case doesn’t depend on the criminal case; it’s a whole different court.  The criminal court that I went to had nothing to do with my kids except that some of the charges were criminal charges of child endangerment.  The charges that I have now are through a different kind of court.

What do they allege?

They allege physical abuse, emotional neglect, failure to protect, and there’s one about the sibling group.  The way they have it set up is that you can actually be charged with abuse with neglect of all kinds, and there are additional charges that are for the other parent.  Say they said that one parent did an action that day that is considered abuse; they charge the other parent with failure to protect because of the action of the other parent.  That’s the way it works.

On what basis have these charges been made?

They did their own investigation.  In other words, when my husband and I were arrested and taken to jail, they did a whole investigation without our consent or even knowledge.

Did they talk to your children?

Yes, they interviewed them repeatedly; they took them all to the doctor; they gave them learning assessments because we home-schooled and they wanted to see if they were up to grade level.  They came out fine.  I had only two in school, as the rest were very young.  They did a whole investigation, which is where they got their charges.  So they basically told us, “We don’t care if you were exonerated in the criminal court” and I said, “But that’s why I’m here,” but their answer was, “That has nothing to do with it.”

One of the charges was that we participate in Shabbat.  One of the questions they asked my daughter if she ever drinks alcohol, and she said, “Well, yes, I do, on Shabbat.”  So one of the charges is that we let our daughter drink alcohol.  They interviewed my former neighbor and asked if she had ever noticed anything unusual on my kids, and she said, “Yes,” and that once my daughter had had a black eye.  They asked my daughter how she got the black eye, and she said, “My brother threw a toy at me,” or whatever.  In the interview they said, “Are you sure your father didn’t do it?” and she said, “No, my father didn’t, but he put ice on it afterward.”  Then they asked her again a couple of days later who hit her, and she said that her father hit her.

How old was she at the time?

She was seven or eight.  It is what it is.  They concluded that he physically abused her and caused her eye to be bruised.  Those were the two charges against us, even though her eye was not bruised when they went into custody.

Why do you think your daughter said that?

I didn’t really understand it at first until I read through stacks and stacks of documents.  At first, I said, “What??”  But I read through their interview process, and then I felt as if I understood what happened.  I think she was scared and she wanted them to leave her alone.  Her answers were inconsistent.  The judge said in the hearing that he believed the daughter, not the mother and father.

Those are the two that stuck.  They had a bunch of other claims in there.  We had a propane tank in our garage, and somehow they decided that we were using a propane tank to heat the house.  I don’t know how they figured that out, but they said it was a “dangerous environment.”

Do you get the feeling that there was something underlying all of this which prompted them to target you?

Yes.  We were fighting a case in the criminal courts for over a year which stemmed from the original call from when we lived in Pasadena when the police came.

I understand that you filed a lawsuit against the City of Pasadena.

We first filed a claim, and they denied it.  We first filed for damages and then for medical for my husband, because they dislocated his shoulder when they beat him up.  Then he went to the hospital.  We had filed for a small amount of money, about $10,000, to pay for our damages, and they denied us.  I was so angry.  So we decided to start a lawsuit, but it’s so much work.  We had an attorney who took it for a while, but there were so many defendants to name, and for each defendant, you have to name a cause of action.  The initial legwork is really difficult.  I had never sued anybody before; I didn’t know how you do a lawsuit.  There’s a huge learning curve.  I’m not a lawyer; I’m not a law student; I wasn’t, although I am now.  I didn’t know about laws and codes.  You have to learn as you along, while you’re fighting.  So that’s the difficult part.  You make mistakes because you just don’t know.

At this point, more strategy was discussed.

In the meantime, I have a baby I just want to get milk to, so it;’s hard to focus in both worlds.

Mrs. Henderson then had to leave to bring her infant milk.

On May 25, 2011 both of the Henderson parents were arrested and spent two and one-half months in jail.  Mrs. Henderson developed an infection for which she was refused treatment, and Mr. Henderson lost a reported 50 pounds.

Jeffrey is currently living in a tent and has been unable to pay his cell phone bill; hence, it has been disconnected.

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Editor’s Note:  This morning the following message was posted on the private Facebook support page for the Hendersons:

Jeffrey and I need a printer. We are using Fedex to print all our doccuments and it is costing us a small fortune. The printer does not have to be fancy or new. Can someone help me find one?

Today Jeffrey reported that a printer and some clothing for their boys have been donated, to which he responded:

Some one who has been so wonderful to our family for so long has just dropped off a printer and some clothes for the boys. She wishes to remain anonymous and it just breaks my heart that few people know her secret identity. Thank you for introducing her to us, Katie McCall. I cant explain the the level of magnitude this will catapult our case into positive and quick results. Thank you for dropping of the printer mystery mama!

Katie McCall’s account of the Hendersons’ situation can be read here.

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