Woman fights to get daughter out of state custody

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (CBS19 NEWS) -- Five years after a court granted custody of her daughter to the state, Rhiannon Williams hasn't stopped fighting what she believes was an unjust decision that illuminates racial disparities in foster care.

"I want her out of the system. I want her home. I want her back in my custody, and I want them to be held accountable for what they've done," she said.

Williams' ordeal began in September 2012, when her daughter, then a fifth grader at Charlottesville's Walker Upper Elementary School, got in trouble in class.

Williams says a school counselor told her her daughter had threatened to harm herself after getting in trouble. School officials told her she needed to take her daughter for a psychological assessment at Region 10, but Williams says she had had previous unpleasant experience at Region 10 with her son.

"I told them that's not the only option that I have," she said. "My child has a family doctor that's been seeing her since birth, and I will take her to him. If he says that she needs a psychological evaluation, he'll refer her somewhere else."

The next day, Williams says, before she could take her child to the doctor, her daughter was taken away, launching a legal fight that has lasted for years.

Privacy laws prevent the Charlottesville office of the Virginia Department of Social Services and the city schools from commenting on Williams' case, but the state's version of what happened is laid out in an opinion from the Court of Appeals of Virginia, where Williams unsuccessfully fought to get her daughter back in 2014.

According to the opinion, school officials claimed Williams downplayed her daughter's threats and was unwilling to seek help. The court record says when Williams was told her daughter had been taken into custody, she was "yelling, foaming at the mouth, demanding that she be able to take her daughter with her, using a lot of profanity."

The record says Williams' daughter was taken to the hospital, where Williams refused to sign a safety plan, which requires a parent to consent to Child Protective Services oversight.

Then, according to the court record, Williams left the hospital without her child. To the state, that was considered parental abandonment.

A lower court ruled against Williams, and her daughter was placed into foster care.

However, Williams disputes the state's account. She acknowledges she refused to sign the plan, but says it's because it required her to admit neglect or abuse.

She left her daughter at the hospital, she says, because they wouldn't release her unless Williams admitted wrongdoing, and she had another child at home who needed her immediate care.

"I told them I wasn't signing anything because I don't beat my children, and I don't have a record," she said.

Five years later, Williams' daughter is in high school. This fall, she was allowed to move back in with her mother, something the teen says she has always wanted. But she is still in the custody of the state.

"She's been to three different school systems, losing friends, making friends, just not being able to be settled and having any stability within the last five years," said Williams.

And Williams says she wants her story heard before she goes back to court on Jan. 10.

"They legally kidnapped my child," she said. "And if it was that easy for them to take my child and take me through all this stuff for five years, I can only imagine how many other children are sitting in the system for absolutely no reason."

This is part one of a two-part series. Part two will look at the racial breakdown of children in foster care and how they end up there. That story airs on Friday on CBS19 at 6.

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