A California mother who won over $1 million in legal settlements after the state removed her sons from her custody is continuing to speak out about the long-term trauma that unnecessary family separation causes on families.
Rachel Bruno was awarded $1.49 million in legal settlements against Orange County, Los Angeles County, and Children’s Hospital last year.
Her two sons were removed from her custody in 2015 after her 7-week-old son suffered a cranial fracture with intracerebral hemorrhage. Bruno was stripped of her custody without a warrant or a court order.
Raised as a daughter and granddaughter of pastors, Bruno never thought she would be under police investigation and losing custody of her children. But that’s exactly what happened.
Bruno said she never abused her son but was immediately under investigation by police after she took her crying baby to the hospital and he was diagnosed with severe brain bleeding.
Within a matter of hours, according to Bruno, police ordered that her older son, who was 20 months old at the time, be removed from her custody.
Before she even had a court hearing, Bruno said, Child Protective Services agents were asking her mother if she would sign papers to adopt both of Burno’s children. Bruno’s mother did so under the threat that the children would be placed in foster care if she didn’t.
“Before this happened to me, I probably would have never believed it. And I think that's where a lot of people fall,” Bruno told The Christian Post in a recent interview.
Bruno also said she was ordered to take a child abuse class. Even though she thought she would be taking a class with drug addicts, alcoholics, and domestic abusers, she found that many people in her class were in a similar situation as her.
“When I get there and people start telling their stories, I realize everybody's in the same boat that I am,” she said. “There were families in there who had playground accidents [and were accused of] child abuse.”
Another family in the class, she said, had a child who slipped in a bathtub. They were also accused of child abuse, she said.
Bruno also had to take a parenting class, do a polygraph test, a psychiatric evaluation, and oblige other requests from the CPS agency. And she wasn’t allowed to return to her own home for 40 days and 40 nights, and was only given seven hours of visitation with her children each week.
According to Bruno, government officials also took her 20-month-old son and gave him a full medical examination, including an anal wink test to check for sexual abuse. Additionally, her son received 13 vaccinations without her consent.
Although she was allowed to return home after a month, Bruno said it took quite a bit of time for her 20-month-old son to accept her as his mother. Bruno said her son felt she had abandoned him even though it was not her choice to be separated.
“My 20 month old, he was really traumatized,” Bruno said. “He kept rejecting me for probably about a year.”
“Even after I came home, he's like, ‘I don't want you, mommy. I want to go live with my grandma,’” Bruno said, adding that it was the grandmother who picked up her son from the shelter after the medical tests were run on him.
“As far as he's concerned, I abandoned him and I let these people do this to him. I was shocked at the things they did to this poor child.”
As her son kept rejecting her, Bruno admitted that she built a wall to protect herself from the pain of her son’s rejection.
“The words hurt. The rejection hurts,” she said. “I have to pray to my God: ‘I can't do this. I'm a victim too.’ And I just hear the Holy Spirit say, ‘Yes, I know, but you're the adult in the situation.”
“And as crazy as it sounds, I had to forgive my 2-year-old and tell God I forgive Him,” she said.
When her oldest son turned 3 in 2017, Bruno said the Holy Spirit led her to speak to her son about what happened to him when he was 20 months old.
“I remember sitting down with him one day. I asked him, ‘Do you remember when your auntie from Brazil came to take care of you?’ And he looked at me and he said, ‘Why did you leave?’” Bruno recalled. “At that point, I knew that he knew.”
“I sat down with him and took all the pictures that I had of his brother in the hospital,” she said. “And I showed him what happened to his brother.”
Bruno said she told her son that the authorities thought she was responsible for what happened to his brother.
Her son, she said, looked back at her and told her that she had never hurt him. Yet Bruno had to explain to her son, in a way that wouldn’t cause rebellion, that government employees had made a mistake.
Bruno said she told her son that what happened was not her or her husband, Ricardo's, choice. But no matter what, she told him that they must forgive those responsible for that because God is the ultimate judge.
From that point on, she said, her son’s attitude completely changed.
“I told him they thought they were doing their job. And in every job there's going to be people who make that choice,” she said. “But we're not gonna let them get away with it and we're gonna fight them.”
And fight them they did. Bruno even let her oldest son take part in the civil suit by allowing him to drop the litigation paperwork in the mailbox.
“I signed the petition for the civil suit in front of him. We prayed over it with him. We took him to the post office, he put it in the mail,” she said. “So he really became a part of the whole process.”
According to Bruno, a lot of families suffer for years after their children have been removed from the home because of the trauma and “lies that their children have been told.”
“It’s the complete destruction of the family, it really is,” Bruno stressed.
Bruno and her family are not the only families in California to walk away with million-dollar settlements after their children were removed by child services.
In November 2018, one mother received a settlement of over $6 million from Los Angeles County after a jury ruled that her child had been unlawfully seized by county social welfare workers.
In Orange County, another mother was awarded about $9.6 million in 2011 on grounds social workers fabricated evidence to ensure the separation of a daughter from her mother.
“They’ve been sued out the yin-yang,” Bruno said of California’s CPS system. “But they continue to do it. I'm a lucky one in that I was in a financial position that I could sue them. How many hundreds of thousands of parents can’t?”
“That's really why I've been speaking out and I want to talk about it and I want to educate the public,” she added. “My story is a fairytale compared to all the other ones I've heard. But I am in a position that I can fight for them, and that's what I want to do.”
Bruno stressed that disruptive action continues to be committed by CPS agencies nationwide because there are too many federal incentives for states to put children through adoption. States receive about $8 billion annually in federal funds related to child abuse prevention, according to Pew Research.
Due to the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, Bruno says adoption and foster care have become “one big money-making machine for the Department of Health and Human Services.”
In 2018, President Donald Trump signed a law called the Family First Prevention Services Act, which provides more funding for at-home parenting classes, mental health counseling and substance abuse treatment. The law also puts limits on putting children in institutional settings such as group homes.
Bruno praised the legislation.
“Let's help parents with rehab,” she said. “Let's help parents with classes on domestic violence. Let's help women try to get out of that abusive relationship. I think that is a step in the right direction.”
However, she warns that there is still much work left to be done.
“There is still money involved which scares me,” she stressed.