“I WANTED MY DAY IN COURT”

by Sharon Rondeau

(Aug. 27, 2018) — On a Saturday last December, “Michelle Robinson,” a single mother of three daughters whose youngest was taken from her more than two years ago by the Los Angeles Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS), received a letter in the mail stating that a warrant for her arrest had been issued.

Unaware of what prompted the notice, Robinson researched the referenced case number online and found that her accuser was Los Angeles County DCFS social worker and Regional Administrator Sonia Contreras, with a complaint filed in February 2017 alleging email and telephone harassment.

At approximately the same time the complaint was filed, Contreras and four other DCFS workers requested and were later granted a restraining order against Robinson.

The following Monday, an attorney appeared in court on Robinson’s behalf, after which the arrest warrant was canceled.

In July, hearings commenced on the charge, which stemmed from Robinson’s communications with Contreras and others about the change in custody of her youngest child to that of her father, Eric Crutchfield.  Robinson’s two older daughters are both over the age of 18.

As this publication has reported over the last 17 months, Robinson and Crutchfield were involved in an altercation on December 20, 2015.  Ten days prior, Robinson obtained a permanent, five-year restraining order against Crutchfield from Torrance Family Court Commissioner Glenda Veasey.  Robinson had taken their daughter to see Crutchfield on the occasion of her first birthday.

A provision of California law states that if a person protected by a restraining order makes an overture toward the restrained individual, the former is not violating the law.

The physical altercation took place while their daughter was asleep in her car seat in Robinson’s parked car at Crutchfield’s residence.   While attempting to drive away, Robinson sustained a bite on her upper arm for which she sought medical attention that evening.  In the early-morning hours of December 21, 2015, she filed a police report with the Los Angeles Police Department naming Crutchfield as her assailant.

She was subsequently contacted by LAPD Detective Sean Horton, after which a police report apparently filed by Crutchfield mysteriously surfaced naming Robinson, a document she believes Horton encouraged Crutchfield to sign. Apparently convinced or willing to make the case that Robinson was at fault, Horton contacted DCFS to allege that Robinson had placed her daughter in danger by engaging with Crutchfield and instigating the altercation.

Horton, who has been involved in extensive litigation involving the LAPD, told DCFS that a video of the incident existed depicting Robinson as the “aggressor.”  However, he did not produce the video, and at a custody trial that summer gave inconsistent testimony as to its length and contents.

In mid-March 2016, Robinson was contacted on her cell phone and told to bring her daughter to DCFS offices. After she complied, her daughter, who was then 15 months old, was placed in her father’s care.

Previously, Crutchfield was awarded no custody by Torrance family court Commissioner Glenda Veasey, who issued Robinson’s restraining order and at the same time, awarded her full legal and physical custody of thechild.  Robinson has supplied to this publication photos of the injuries she sustained and damage to her home while Crutchfield was reportedly in her home in March 2015, prompting her requesting the restraining order.

Robinson claimed that Crutchfield was a drug abuser who should not have been given any level of custody. She told The Post & Email that to her knowledge, DCFS social workers saw her daughter only once after placing her with Crutchfield, with a second attempt to check on her welfare proving unsuccessful.

While the matter was in dependency court, Robinson was given scheduled visitation times with her daughter at DCFS offices. On one occasion, Robinson related, she arrived at the designated time during her lunch hour but was told that her daughter was not there and that DCFS staff did not know where she was.

Robinson said she then demanded that the agency locate her daughter and that she intended to remain in the office until she ascertained that the child was safe.

In April of last year, Crutchfield was awarded permanent physical and legal custody of the toddler, including “developmental rights.” Robinson had learned that her daughter was diagnosed with developmental delay but to this day does not know if she has received intervention.

At the time of the final custody decision, Robinson’s visits were mandated to be professionally-monitored, an expense she said she could not shoulder and which he believed in principle she should not have to assume to see her own child.

It is now close to two years since Robnson has seen her daughter, the last visit having taken place at a police station on October 31, 2016.

An appeal of the custody order heard in May proved unsuccessful.

Robinson admits to having sent the emails in question to Contreras but insists that they were not threatening and intended only to seek “help” for what she viewed as the unjust confiscation and placement of her child with a less-fit parent with a criminal history of his own.

Robinson was determined to go to trial on the new charge and expected to do so this month at the Los Angeles Superior Court Airport location. After several brief hearings and continuances, the issue of whether or not the emails could be released from DCFS’s possession became a significant legal question given that all dependency case information is to be kept confidential under California’s Welfare and Institution Code (WIC) 827(a)(4).  The pertinent part of the law states:

(4) A juvenile case file, any portion thereof, and information relating to the content of the juvenile case file, may not be disseminated by the receiving agencies to any persons or agencies, other than those persons or agencies authorized to receive documents pursuant to this section. Further, a juvenile case file, any portion thereof, and information relating to the content of the juvenile case file, may not be made as an attachment to any other documents without the prior approval of the presiding judge of the juvenile court, unless it is used in connection with and in the course of a criminal investigation or a proceeding brought to declare a person a dependent child or ward of the juvenile court.

Ultimately, Supervising Judge Michael Levanas ordered that the emails could be presented to the court in “redacted” form. It remained unclear, even up through last week, as to how much of the emails would be redacted and whether or not a jury would be allowed to view them.

In late March, this reporter contacted Levanas by letter about what appeared to be a striking irregularity in the dependency case. In the first correspondence, we enclosed Veasey’s December 10, 2015 restraining order, which also awarded Robinson full physical and legal custody of the child.  A second letter included an October 14, 2016 order appearing to have been signed by Commissioner Steff Padilla revoking Veasey’s order without its having been officially filed in Torrance, at the Edelman Children’s Court, or formally issued to Robinson.

In early April, Levanas responded by letter, acknowledging both of our communications while stating that he could not confirm the existence of any dependency case and that he does not have the authority to change the decision of any lower judge.

For her part, Veasey had no knowledge that her order had been canceled by another court commissioner and in March issued a new five-year restraining order protecting Robinson from Crutchfield.

When he was awarded permanent custody in April 2017, Crutchfield was granted a permanent restraining order against Robinson by Judge Frank Menetrez.

On Monday, a new prosecutor assigned to the harassment case, Los Angeles County Assistant District Attorney Yasmin Fardghassemi, expressed a desire to delay the trial until after she returned from vacation in October, but Robinson insisted on exercising her right to a speedy trial, insisting that it go forward last week based on a 15-day stipulated window of time ending September 3.

As late as Monday morning, Robinson had expected jury selection to begin and to have her day in court.  During the proceedings, however, to Robinson and her attorney’s surprise, Fardghassemi announced that she would not prosecute the harassment charge but would instead pursue an on-the-spot charge of a probation violation.

A three-year probation period was imposed on Robinson as part of a sentence following a trial last summer on charges of “spousal abuse” and “battery” stemming from the December 20, 2015 altercation. She was acquitted of the former but convicted of the latter by a jury and additionally sentenced to a fine and ten days of community service which she is in the process of completing.

One of the accusations Contreras made in her complaint was that Robinson had “threatened to kill someone from that office.”

However, an email dated July 8, 2016 from Contreras to Robinson which The Post & Email has seen, with several DCFS parties copied, states, “I am happy to address concerns and questions that you have. Please contact me at XXX-XXX-XXXX in order to set up a meeting, or please feel free to call me so we can address your concerns telephonically.”

Some of those copied were among those granted restraining orders against Robinson in February 2017 along with Contreras.

“Contreras claims I sent over 80 threatening ‘hate emails’ but provided only ten to the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department (LASD).  It is also in direct contrast to the ‘200 emails’ reported to the court by social workers to obtain restraining orders,” Robinson told us.

Contreras also claimed that Robinson made multiple phone calls to her office on a daily basis. Robinson claims her emails were made “in good faith,” a defense written into California law against a harassment charge, and that she made no telephone calls to Contreras, providing a phone log which The Post & Email has seen.

Robinson told The Post & Email that the retired judge first assigned to the case, Thomas Herman, had commented “to the prosecution that if the emails were admitted he suspected they would be redacted and after he viewed the emails he said that he believed that the prosecution would have a hard time prosecuting this case if the documents are redacted because my emails almost exclusively talk about the facts of the case.”

“We realized she didn’t want to go to trial,” Robinson said of Fardghassemi.  “When I raised the issue about confidentiality of juvenile records, there was a similar case in the courtroom next to us.  When I raised the issue, they put that case on hold, too, because they were waiting to see what happened with mine.  They were hoping that the resolution would go against me so I wouldn’t set a precedent.  They still got permission to use the emails.  My attorney argued in court on the 17th, ‘We went through all of this because they didn’t do it correctly.’  What should have happened was the case should have been dismissed and they should have started over and done it right.”

“My attorney said that he believed that on an appeal, I would win hands down,” Robinson added, continuing:

The prosecutor was so adamant about my taking a plea deal, insinuating that I would be “in jail” for three years.  She kept saying, “This is a slam-dunk; I can win.”  I knew that a misdemeanor didn’t bring that much jail time, and I’ve never seen a prosecutor behave that way.

I never threatened physical harm to anyone, and my attorney told the prosecutor that I wanted my day in court.  She responded with, “She violated probation.”  After the trial for battery and I lost that case, I got ten days’ community service and three years’ probation.  The judge didn’t want to send me to jail and I never had to check in or anything.  However, the prosecutor pursued the fact that I “got in trouble while I was on probation.”

Even if that’s true, though, we had been there for months and no one ever raised the issue, including the first prosecutor on the case, Fred Engell.  She was just trying to find something.  I think she was looking for a way to punish me.  No one ever said anything before she appeared.

But the fact is, I did violate my probation.  She made a big point of calling around to get the case numbers and asked my attorney where the case was. They talked a while back and forth, and it looked as if my attorney got annoyed.  She went to talk to her supervisor, came back and said, “My supervisor said that we’re probably going to dismiss this case, and we’re just going to go after the probation violation.”

My attorney seemed really perturbed at that point because he had other cases pending in other courthouses.  So he asked to talk to the presiding judge, William Sadler, making the argument that “We’ve been here a long time and gone through a lot to get here.  And now they’re telling me they don’t want to prosecute this case?  It doesn’t make any sense and it’s unfair.”  He tried to express to the judge that there was continuance after continuance after continuance; we objected to almost every one of them because there was no reason to continue this case; they were waiting for particular information and finally got what they needed, but now they didn’t want to go forward.

But the judge said that was their option and they don’t have to prosecute.

One of the things Fardghassemi did was to call DCFS from the courtroom to see if they were coming to testify in an attempt to intimidate me.  My attorney had said that we didn’t need to hear from anyone other than Contreras; she was the one who claimed to be the victim.

The allegation that I threatened people at DCFS came from the day when they couldn’t find my daughter in the building and I had said, “I am not leaving this building until somebody gets my baby here today.”  I called my then-attorney, Katherine Anderson, and when I was on the phone with her, I told them, “Get Sonia Contreras down here.”  They eventually brought her down.  When Sonia arrived, I was still on the phone with Kathy, and I told Kathy that Contreras had come down and assumed Kathy had hung up.

If I had said I was going to kill everybody in that building, they would have called the police, which they didn’t.  I was standing near an occupied security desk.  They all understood that I came in regularly to see my baby; no one felt threatened.

As a way to avoid trial, Fardghassemi offered 180 days in jail and a three-year restraining order, and I told my attorney, “Tell her ‘No.'”  The judge said that if it were him, just on the probation violation alone, he would give me six months in jail. And my attorney told him, “Your Honor, I know you don’t know the history of this case, but it’s really about her daughter.”

So the first option was taking my chances and going to trial — which might not have happened because of the probation violation — and either way, the judge would have given me six months in jail.  The other option was pleading “guilty” or “no contest” with no jail, three years’ probation and a restraining order.

So I asked my attorney, “If I don’t take the deal, can I go to trial?”  I’ve always understood that if you don’t get convicted in a new case, they usually don’t violate your probation, but this judge was saying, “Whether or not she gets convicted, I’m leaning toward violating her probation.”

Had I known I was going to trial, I would have taken the chance, but that was taken away.  I wanted to communicate to a jury to tell what had happened to me.  I didn’t start out trying to help other people; I was trying to help myself, but this case turned into a precedent-setter for others.  My attorney told me that I had a good chance at appeal, but that opportunity was taken away from me as well.

Now, if the question of the use of confidential dependency documents in an unrelated court case comes up, people will never know what happened to me.  The likelihood is that they’ll never know about my case.  It’s an extra slap in the face because Los Angeles prosecutors keep getting away with it.

So I cannot contact Contreras and the others for three years beginning last Monday, although I have no reason to contact them now.  I am also barred from going to the DCFS office.  I have no reason to go there now, either.  As far as the workers having said they felt threatened, no one ever asked for an escort when I was there, but now they’re scared?

I fear DCFS will retaliate against other parents like me with the mindset that, “If we take your child and you fight, we’ll do to you what we did to her.”  I don’t know who they’ve done this to before me, but I believe their attitude is, “She fought it and lost, so we can continue to do this to parents.”  There will be an influx of people charged with the same thing I was; even if you’re communicating to lobby for or advocate for your child, they turn it into a crime.

At my request, my attorney told the judge that I was really adamant about wanting to go to trial, and the only reason I was considering taking the deal was that the option had been denied me.  So the judge had to restate the offer and I said, “No contest,” which is the same thing as “Guilty.”

I strongly felt that this must be how people feel giving false confessions under duress.  I sincerely feel I gave a false confession because I didn’t do it. I didn’t intend to threaten Contreras; I didn’t use obscene language, which was one of the elements of the crime; I got frustrated and angry.  She took a few emails sent when the case was at the tail end and I was begging for help and said I was harassing her.  I wrote to everybody I could think of asking for help.  I thought eventually someone would say, “Please help her.”

Now that I know that across the country, children are being taken from good parents for no reason, I know that it’s happening to too many people for there to be any movement to try to stop it.

I wanted my day in court, which I was denied.

I wanted my day in court. I was deprived of my Sixth Amendment right to confront my accuser.  I was deprived of my right to a speedy trial. And Judge Sadler sought to punish me to appease the prosecution.

Robinson was represented in the harassment case by the Law Offices of Vincent W. Davis.

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