Mother of Four Stripped of Parental Rights on Orders of a Single, Biased Judge
Editor’s note: The following is a lightly-edited transcription of an interview with Vanessa Sommerfeld, a Utah mother of four whose parental rights were terminated. Her story suggests the existence of massive corruption on the part of state agencies. While it should be noted that hers is only one side of the story, her guilt or innocence is actually irrelevant to the larger issue discussed in this interview. As you’ll learn below, pending legislation can help prevent similar atrocities from occurring in Utah to people like Vanessa.
Libertas Institute: Please describe your story.
Vanessa Sommerfeld: My ex-husband Dana was involved in a lot of abuse during our marriage—financial, emotional, verbal, sometimes physical, and then it went into sexual abuse. He was addicted to pornography for most of our marriage. He couldn’t hold down a job, we went through bankruptcies… it was a nightmare. We never had a dime. We were always moving.
We had four kids together. When we separated, he began to stalk me. He would call me and harass me, would come over and not leave the house, and the kids and I had to move because he wouldn’t leave us alone. Then he followed me to that house, he’d come to where I worked, and basically did everything he could to make my life difficult. I was working a full time and a part time job 12 hours a day, having previously been a stay-at-home mom. I was going to school on top of that, and was a scout leader, lots of things.
So I had to get stalking injunctions and protective orders, and he would still just violate them. So I was working at a homeless shelter in St. George, and he started calling my work and harassing my employer to get a hold of me. So they set me up with the Erin Kimball Foundation which is a domestic violence foundation. They moved us into hiding. My husband couldn’t get to us because he didn’t have a vehicle—the police had impounded it.
He found out where I was now living because he knew where I was working. He borrowed friends’ cars to follow me. Shortly after that I remarried, but at the time I was dating this new husband, my ex-husband was still trying to get me back. He would send me letters trying to get me back, but when he found out I was engaged he started to look for somebody online to start dating.
He met a girl online who lived in Sandy, and he was in St. George, and after two weeks of knowing her (and only meeting in person once) they were engaged. She has muscular dystrophy. Basically, she’s completely disabled and in a wheelchair. He pretty much has to do everything for her; she can move only from her elbows down.
I believe their quick engagement was his way of trying to tell me that I shouldn’t marry my fiancée. I was planning on getting married at the end of December, and so he bumped his wedding up to the middle of December. They had known each other for about a month when they married.
LI: And you had your kids this entire time?
VS: Yes, full time. In fact, in our divorce decree he didn’t have visitation with the kids unless he was in counseling for his pornography and sexual addictions. There was limited access to the kids.
So he married this girl, and they ended up moving to Utah County. I never contacted him, but he continued to contact me, blaming me for everything. But he never really saw the kids. He would always make plans to see them, but then he’d never really follow through. Even when he got a visitation schedule he wouldn’t abide by it. He never saw the kids, and didn’t really want to have anything to do with them.
LI: What was your kids’ attitude towards their father? Did they want to see him?
VS: They didn’t care. They weren’t afraid of him or anything like that. If they went and saw him, they did, and if they didn’t, they didn’t. He just wasn’t really involved in their lives when we were married.
I ended up getting divorced from my second husband because of more abuse problems. On a rebound, you marry the same thing… My kids and I ended up moving to Utah County because our house went into foreclosure when he left. So we moved in with my family and were once against 20 minutes away from my ex-husband. He started harassing me all over again.
We were trying to build our life back up. So again, here I am in a hard position and [my ex-husband] starts the contention.
I was in school full time, my kids and I were in therapy, and I had my kids in all sorts of after-school programs: dancing, karate, girl scouts, boy scouts, ice skating, etc. We were trying to build our life back up. So again, here I am in a hard position and he starts the contention. Instead of being supportive—offering to watch the kids while I was in school, for example—he would make plans to have the kids and then break them.
He threatened to get my bishop involved, and started going through my parents. My parents can’t stand him, but they’ll never take it out on him; they take it out on me. So now he’s harassing my whole family. My sister and brother and their kids were all also living with my family, so there’s 11 of us in this house. He was pushing everybody’s buttons to stir the pot, and he was doing a good job at it.
So I actually want to the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) for help in February of 2007, I believe. I was starting to get abused in my family’s house (I grew up being abused, and it’s all I know). I was trying to find an “out” for my kids and I. I needed housing. I needed daycare so I could continue to attend school full time.
DCFS opened a case and talked to my kids. They all validated my story about my brother abusing them, but a couple months went by and I didn’t hear anything from them. Then in June I got a phone call from the case worker informing me that she was going to close the case (due to lack of evidence), but that in order to do that she needed to talk to my family. I told her that my family didn’t even know that I had gone to DCFS, and that if she talked to my family we would be homeless as a result.
Because I hadn’t filed a police report on my brother, DFCS didn’t offer me services such as emergency housing. I was in the “wrong” schooling so I couldn’t get day care help. I didn’t meet all of their little parameters for help. I had solicited my bishop for help, and he told my parents numerous times to kick my brother and sister out because they were enabling the problems. They wouldn’t do it.
I was trying to do everything I could to keep my kids and I out of this environment so that we could heal.
I had solicited help from community organizations as well, such as Turning Point at UVU. I was trying to do everything I could to keep my kids and I out of this environment so that we could heal. We were all in therapy, I was taking classes on domestic violence, I was trying to better myself so that we weren’t in this anymore.
So the DCFS worker came to my house, and I later arrive home from school to find my parents livid, obviously. On top of that my ex-husband had just sent another three-page email to my parents. As the worker talked to my parents upstairs, I was downstairs folding laundry and crying, because I knew what was coming. My dad came downstairs and started yelling and cussing at me, telling me to “fix the problem.”
We ended up homeless that night. Me and my children, ages 4, 6, 9, and 11.
LI: Why did they kick you out? Did they just not like you dragging them into it?
VS: They like to keep things under the rug and don’t want the exposure on them. And, it’s because of the dysfunction of my family.
I had $40 to my name. We found a motel that let us stay there for $40 for one night. I called my soon-to-be second ex-husband telling him I needed money. When he took off 6-7 months earlier he had emptied the bank account. He started screaming at me. So I took my kids to the woman’s shelter in Provo. I already had PTSD and was getting treated for that. I was scared, overwhelmed, and didn’t know anybody in Utah County except for my family, and I couldn’t and wouldn’t go back there. I was a wreck. I was done.
I had these four little kids and I couldn’t even function anymore. So I get to the shelter where I need help and the volunteer workers were rude! I’m thinking: how can you be so cold and malicious when you have these traumatized women and children coming in? One of them was as mean as can be, and it just pushed me over the edge. It was the last straw. I went out to my car, and I took 5 or 6 of my prescribed antidepressant pills. I was done.
They called the ambulance and took me to the hospital. DCFS took my kids into foster care for three days and then gave them to my first ex-husband, their dad. That’s how my involvement with DCFS really started.
I created a reunification plan with DCFS that basically required me to do things I had pretty much already been doing—continue therapy, finish school, get a place to live, get a job, and then have a psychological evaluation. I started the plan and worked through the contracted agency, Wasatch Mental Health. I also had an assigned public defender who wasn’t worth anything.
During this time I was having weekly supervised visits in the DCFS office. They were hard. But we had a great time, and the case worker would report that the kids and I loved each other, that we got along well, that we miss each other, the visits were appropriate, etc. At the end of the visits, my 6-year-old daughter would have panic attacks, like separation anxiety attacks. It would take us 45 minutes to get her off of me. She didn’t want to let go, didn’t want to leave, didn’t want to go back with her father. “Traci’s mean!” she would say. (Traci is the step-mom.) She would pull my hair, rip my clothes, hide under the table—she wanted to come home with me. It was bad.
So the kids would go home with Traci and Dana who then began to report to the case worker that all sorts of inappropriate stuff had gone on during the visit, even though they weren’t even there. And the case worker was there, who reported our good behavior. Nothing was wrong. But Traci would make claims with broad statements and could never give examples. So it got to the point where the case workers weren’t even letting me give the kids goodbye hugs. Any close contact with my children was prohibited.
Shortly thereafter, I got a knock on my door (I was living with a friend). It was the police. They said they wanted to talk to me about my kids. I had no clue what was going on. They put me in an interrogation room for a couple hours while this cop is telling me how I sexually abused my daughters. I told them it wasn’t true, explained what was going on (with my ex-husband and his wife), told them he was addicted to porn, that the FBI had investigated him at one point for child pornography… it was all their doing. I stated that I had never touched my children inappropriately, and that whatever issues the cops said my children have didn’t happen when they were with me. They were stupid things too, like “we found toilet paper on the bathroom floor” or “they’re hiding toilet paper in their bedrooms”—ridiculous things that the cops claimed were signs of sexual abuse. They claimed that my daughter had sexualized behavior and was dancing inappropriately. How does a seven-year-old dance like that? Viewed by a woman in a wheelchair, perhaps anything could be seen that way. But they were showing her all sorts of movies like High School Musical with dancing, and she loves that kind of stuff, so she was repeating what she saw. All of a sudden it’s claimed that I’m sexually abusing her.
LI: But they presented no actual evidence to support the allegation?
The officers were treating her allegations as evidence.
VS: No, none. Every sentence in the police report is: “Traci says…” It’s a he-said/she-said scenario. The officers were treating her allegations as evidence. I was arrested right in that room, with the officer telling me “I believe you did this.” It was all off of what Traci said. The girls had been interviewed and physically inspected at the Children’s Justice Center and found no evidence—none. They claimed that I had placed my hand on their upper chest, but parents do that with their kids all the time. The video recordings were appalling to watch because there was nothing in them to support the allegations.
I had another run-in with the police based on allegations made by Dana and Traci, where they claimed that I was with the girls at my parents’ house. It was very specific, saying that we had watched certain TV shows, had cookies, etc. The cops were about to arrest me again for violating the no contact order on my girls—all based on Dana and Traci’s word alone. But my boss was able to provide evidence showing I was logged into the system at work and therefore not at my parent’s house during the time they claimed I was. Even then the cops were still saying that they didn’t believe the evidence we had provided.
We discovered later in the DCFS report that Traci had begun to push for adoption of my children. She had had my kids for only five months.
LI: As a prerequisite, adoption would require termination of your parental rights, correct?
VS: Exactly. Traci can’t have kids of her own, and she grew up in an LDS community where family and kids are what it’s all about. Her dad works for the LDS Church. Their family is very big on image—very big on image. I think she needs that to make her feel good, because of her own disabilities and issues. She needs to feel like Dana isn’t going to leave her, because she’d be in a world of hurt. They kind of feed off of each other. Dana needs her to put on the image that he’s a good person and isn’t abusive, because look, he can take care of this woman in a wheelchair, using her as a prop. So they have this very bad co-dependent relationship.
So the suspicion is that the adoption of my children was the plan before the allegations against me started. Throughout all the reports, it was noted that Traci wanted to adopt them. But at this point I’m still working on my reunification plan and have done everything on it. Six months into it, I’ve completed the plan. But there were pending accusations against me, so I didn’t get my kids back. The DCFS supervisor had the gall to come up to me and say, “If you just admit to doing this, you’ll get your kids back. We’ll get you into a 12-week program, and you’ll get them back. If you deny it, you’ll never have them.”
But I didn’t do it, and I’m not admitting to something I didn’t do.
So we get to May 2008 when it’s time for my reunification to be over, and DCFS comes into me and says: “If you don’t give Dana full custody today, we’re going to seek termination of your parental rights.”
LI: Of course, the theoretical basis of the entire judicial system is that an individual is innocent until proven guilty. Do you feel, with your experience specifically or with DCFS cases generally, that that is true?
You’re guilty until proven innocent, and you never can prove that. You can never dig yourself out of it once you’re in.
VS: No. You’re guilty until proven innocent, and you never can prove that. You can never dig yourself out of it once you’re in. So now I’m in the criminal for the accusations, and juvenile (civil) court with my kids.
My public defender recommended I give Dana custody so I would still have my parental rights and be able to see my boys. That way we could still fight. So I gave my ex-husband full custody of the kids in June 2008.
I was fighting the criminal stuff at the same time. I had taken a polygraph at the Utah County District Attorney’s office for the criminal stuff and passed it. I was still trying to prove my innocence there. I paid the attorney who kept continuing the hearing, which I never had. Over and over, he just drained my money. So after I relinquished custody, the DA approached me with a plea agreement. They said they had no evidence for the sexual abuse charges, but they were going to prosecute me for child neglect because I had taken the antidepressant pills. So I pled down just to get out of the system (I had never been in the system before, and always assumed it worked), and ended up with a felony. What’s odd is that I had four kids with me, but I was only charged with two counts of child neglect, one for each of the girls. The boys, who were there, there’s nothing. How does that work?
I was supposed to be on probation for three years after the felony but after a year had it dropped because of good behavior. Even my probation officer called the whole thing garbage. He couldn’t believe it.
I was also able to get the felonies reduced to misdemeanors, but it still has negative consequences. It’s affected my schooling. I couldn’t get my DOPL license to become a massage therapist because of the felonies and “poor moral character.” It stopped me in every way. I spent all that time and thousands of dollars in school, and wasn’t allowed to use it. It was hard to find new employment; even the temp agencies didn’t like the felonies on my record. Luckily I still had the job I did when it all went down, and my boss knew everything and was cool about it.
So Dana has full custody of the kids, and I’m able to see the boys on supervised visits through ACAFS. So I’m having to pay $50 an hour to see my own kids. Then I found out that Dana and Traci placed my older daughter, now seven years old, in foster care. In their report they said, word for word, that “we don’t want to be responsible for her anymore.” So instead of giving her to somebody in my family, they put her in foster care at the Utah Youth Village — a group home where she’s with girls who really have been traumatized and abused.
Prior to this, in March 2008, Dana and Traci put my daughter on medication like Zoloft and Risperdal—an adult antipsychotic not FDA approved for children. But Wasatch Mental Health is just loading her up on all these drugs because of her trauma. The doses are being changed around as are the medications, and that’s going to affect a seven-year-old. At Wasatch, the therapists are 20-year-old interns claiming that they are experts and that they know I’m guilty. This actually violates their procedures which say that interns shouldn’t take on DCFS cases.
So in the group home she starts getting kicked in the stomach, concussions, abused, she would run away, etc. Because of this I got a court order to have the girls go see Dr. Kevin Gully, a forensic expert at Primary Children’s. I paid $3-4,000 for the forensic interview with Dr. Gully. I went, so did my ex, and then the girls were interviewed. The purpose of this was to determine whether I had sexually abused the girls or not. It was a lengthy process and after a couple months he produced a very lengthy report. It was in my favor. It said things like, “Why would the mother put the kids in therapy if she’s the one abusing them?” His hypothesis in the report is that the allegations were put into the girls’ heads by other parties through false memories—brainwashing.
Just as Dr. Gully’s report is about done, I received a call from the Orem police telling me that I needed to come in. Evidently Dana and Traci had made accusations that I had now sexually abused my boys. My name was cleared from the accusations about the girls, and Dana and Traci hadn’t got what they wanted. I wasn’t in jail, I wasn’t charged with sexual abuse, and I have a court-ordered report saying that Dr. Gully didn’t think I did this. So now the boys are thrown into the fire.
So the Guardian ad Litem John Moody proposed bringing my boys to see Dr. Gully. I thought that was great, and got some money to pay for it again. But as the report on the girls came back in my favor, Moody started back-tracking and didn’t want the boys to go through it. So there was a court order that Moody wanted and was pushing for, but once the report came back saying the mom didn’t abuse the girls, he changed his mind.
LI: So do you claim that the Guardian ad Litem is not an impartial defender?
[My children’s attorney] was going along with everybody else on this train that can’t be derailed, heading in the direction of trying to terminate my parental rights.
VS: My GAL is spineless—spineless. He’s been the GAL for all my kids since the beginning. He can’t stand up for anything. He is awful. He’s going along with everybody else on this train that can’t be derailed, heading in the direction of trying to terminate my parental rights. It was a plan that they were sticking to, no matter what evidence was brought forward that said otherwise. They couldn’t backtrack and say the abuse didn’t happen, because that would make them look bad and open them up for lawsuits.
LI: So not only is DCFS proceeding under the suspicion that you’re guilty unless you can prove otherwise to their satisfaction, but according to your claim they are not letting the investigation of facts determine the outcome. In your opinion, they were seeking a specific outcome and rejecting facts that didn’t fit?
VS: Well, I couldn’t prove my innocence because I was not allowed to have a jury trial.
I got another polygraph from an FBI guy, I got other forensic evaluations. I was forking out all of this money for independent evaluations that were all in my favor, but DCFS and the juvenile court judge, Mary Noonan, wouldn’t even look at them because they didn’t come from their state-contracted agencies.
So the Orem police interviewed me and my boys, and I walked out and never heard from them again. Unlike the other officers, they saw right through the allegations. That irritated my ex-husband, so he took my son, 13 years old at this time, down to the police station without a lawyer and had him arrested on grounds that he had sexually abused his sisters. Their theory was now that I had sexually abused my son, so he had abused his sisters.
My son produced a letter (that Traci helped him write), without an attorney, in which he claimed that I had done these things. They put him in the Slate Canyon jail for a couple weeks and then transferred him to a treatment center in Cedar City. So at 13 he was charged with a felony, having been convinced that he had done these things.
LI: So by this time, your ex-husband had gotten rid of your oldest daughter and son.
VS: And five years later, that daughter is still in foster care.
So Dana and Traci filed a petition to terminate my parental rights. It was stalled because Dr. Gully (the forensic expert at Primary Children’s) died. He was found hung right after he got my subpoena to have him come testify.
LI: What was the outcome of the investigation into his hanging?
Once my son arrived at the treatment center, he started saying that he didn’t abuse his sisters and that I didn’t do it. For the five months he was there, according to the therapist, he was (and this is word for word) “consistently inconsistent” with his story about the abuse. Nothing made any sense. He was claiming that his father and step-mom told him to say those things. He said he did it to gain the trust of his parents.
He requested a polygraph to prove his innocence and my own. He asked Judge Noonan that directly, including his therapist and Guardian ad Litem. Everybody shoots him down for months, not giving in to his request. I finally was able to get one court ordered in September 2009, and nobody followed through with it. In fact, my son later testified that he didn’t even know about it—nobody had told him that the order existed.
LI: So at this point you’re facing termination of your parental rights.
VS: Yes, we’re going full force into it. We deposed everybody and have so much evidence against Wasatch Mental Health, Utah Youth Village, the Guardian ad Litems, Dana and Traci, that it’s unparalleled. I could sue everybody at this point and win. There’s so much corruption, and we have it all documented.
We asked Judge Noonan to recuse herself a couple of times—this woman is the former head of DCFS!
We asked Judge Noonan to recuse herself a couple of times—this woman is the former head of DCFS! She refused. Obviously she’s slightly biased to DCFS. Nobody would budge and admit a conflict of interest.
So I wanted to take the system on and get my kids back, and defend myself against the termination. We had so much evidence. There’s no way anybody in their right mind would be able to look at that and say that I had did what I was accused of. There’s no way.
LI: By “right mind” you mean somebody who was actually impartial, correct?
VS: Yeah, an impartial judge and/or a jury.
I had a 20 day trial in the juvenile court system. That was absolutely unheard of, and my case was the talk of the Utah County court system. Most cases are just in and out. Half of the evidence we asked for from DCFS, we didn’t get. Videos “disappeared” or were destroyed after being subpoenaed.
The state of Utah has spent over a million dollars on my case, to take away my parental rights. Over a million dollars. And I had one expert witness come in who said that even convicted sex offenders serving life in prison see their kids. They don’t get their rights terminated. The witness said I was an anomaly, saying “I have never seen anything like your case before, it’s the most messed up case I’ve ever seen.” Nobody has been able to look at my case objectively and side with the state.
The state of Utah has spent over a million dollars on my case, to take away my parental rights. Over a million dollars.
On December 14, 2011, the judge read the termination order for an hour and twenty minutes. It was hell. She went through the same “facts” over and over and over, and all of it was skewed. All the “facts” were twisted. None of it was true.
LI: Were you given an opportunity to say goodbye to your children after your parental relationship to them was legally severed?
VS: Oh, no. No.
During this trial my oldest daughter was living with Dana and Traci again, for those few months. But once my rights were terminated, they put her right back into the group home. So they put on a show and that’s it. My daughter testified three different times that she was afraid that if she wanted to see me, Dana and Traci would put her back into foster care.
My son testified that he thought I had abandoned him, that I didn’t love him. He didn’t know that I had done a polygraph, he didn’t know that I was fighting for him. Dana and Traci had filled their heads with all of these things. Traci was telling my children, and it’s in the reports, that I was going to kill her and kidnap my children.
LI: So basically, you believe that Dana and Traci brainwashed your children.
VS: Yeah, and the state helped.
LI: How long has it now been since you’ve seen your children?
VS: I haven’t seen my girls since November of 2007, so almost six years. I haven’t seen my boys since January of 2009, so three and a half years.
LI: Did you have the option to appeal Judge Noonan’s decision?
I had already spent over $250,000 since 2007 fighting to get my kids back.
VS: I tried to appeal. I didn’t have another $150,000. I had already spent over $250,000 since 2007 fighting to get my kids back. We had some really solid issues for our appeal case, but there has only been one case of terminated parental rights in juvenile court that has been overturned in the appellate court.
So I started the appeal process, but the state’s attorneys drowned us in motions trying to use every bit of money I had. They were drowning me in paperwork to rack up my bills. I was also told that it would take over a year just to get it going.
During my termination hearing, my lawyer was horrified. He kept wanting to get up and walk out. He was so appalled at how the judge was acting and kept saying, “we’ve gotta leave, we gotta get out of here.” But he said the judge would have us arrested if we walked out for contempt of court. I don’t know how many times he about got arrested during that trial. He came unglued.
LI: He was upset at the apparent injustice?
VS: Oh, yeah. He said, “I hate Utah County. What is this, Mayberry?” There was no justice.
So Traci adopted my children in June of 2012. But they put my oldest daughter back in foster care, and I don’t know where she is. I think she tried to kill herself in February.
LI: What are your thoughts on one individual alone having the authority to terminate a person’s parental rights?
One person should not be allowed to have total control over your family.
VS: When it comes down to such a fundamental, basic right… It’s not like a car that’s being taken away from me. I gave birth to these children. They will always be a part of me. It’s not something you can just give and take. These are basic rights to raise my children and at least have contact with them. One person should not be allowed to have total control over your family.
LI: Do you consider your case an exception to the rule?
VS: No. I know many mothers whose rights were terminated, or who are in the middle of it as we speak. There’s one mother with the same Guardian ad Litem and same judge. She was in the same boat, where the ex had made unfounded accusations against her.
LI: Representative Christensen is promoting legislation that would allow the option of a jury trial in cases where the state is attempting to legally terminate a person’s parental rights. Why do you think this bill is important?
VS: If I had had a jury trial, I would never have lost the rights to my kids. Never. Good citizens, good people, are not going to sit by and watch all this corruption go on. They don’t have the financial incentives like the judges, Guardian ad Litem, and DCFS do. And having several people deliberate on a decision rather than one person is clearly better. They would be impartial, whereas those in the current system are absolutely not.
This is about job security for those working for the state. They have to do what’s asked of them. If you look at the 2011 audit of the Guardian ad Litem, they’re pulled from the shallow end of the legal pool. GALs have a lower skill level than most attorneys because of the pay. We’re not getting very bright, strong GALs according to the state’s own audit. These people don’t understand, or don’t want to look at the facts, and they don’t want to fight against the system. It’s not in their best interests to do so. They’re focused on job security. Like most people, they would rather go with the flow.
LI: Finally, if you had two minutes to speak to the entire Utah legislature, what message would you convey?
VS: We need to start protecting families instead of destroying them. The system is hurting, rather than helping. In my case, I came forward asking for help, but none was given. Why aren’t we doing more in-home services to support people in improving their lives? Others don’t ask. Had I had a little help when I needed it, we wouldn’t be in this situation today.
There is no financial interest in reunification. The state does not get any federal funding if they reunify kids with their families. Continued funding from the federal government requires keeping families broken and apart. Money is driving most of this.
Once you get in the system, people assume you’ve done something wrong. You’re not considered innocent until proven guilty. It’s automatically implied that you’re a bad person. The truth is that innocent people get sucked into the system all the time, convicted of things they didn’t actually do.
Ultimately, we need to educate people on the tactics being used by this system. We need to highlight the financial incentives that exist and stop them. It’s become “cash for kids,” basically. Our kids have a price tag on their heads. And it needs to stop.