Despite the fact that her infant son hadn't been seen by family members or authorities for at least two months, a drug- using mother was ordered released from jail in June by the Sacramento County Juvenile Court, The Bee has learned.
Without ever producing her son, as ordered by the court, Tanisha Edwards remained free until last week, when authorities began an intensive search for 22-month-old Dwight Stallings.
Authorities say the child has not been seen by family members since April 2011, and Edwards, 35, has been unable or unwilling to reveal what happened to the little boy.
Her arrest last week in Elk Grove came after Sacramento County Child Protective Services spent months looking for the mother and child, seeking sporadic help from law enforcement in the "Baby Dwight" case.
The role of the Juvenile Court and the secrecy surrounding its actions adds a new layer to the mystery and the apparent systemwide failure that allowed a baby under CPS care to go missing for 11 months.
Both CPS and the Juvenile Court have cited confidentiality laws in refusing to divulge details of the case.
But two sources close to the investigation told The Bee this week that the Juvenile Court played an early, pivotal role by cutting Edwards loose from custody without ensuring that her infant son was safe.
"Why would the court let her go without anyone seeing that child?" asked one source, who would not be identified because of the secrecy involving juvenile cases.
According to The Bee's sources, this is the sequence of events:
Last April, when CPS officials first realized that Dwight had not been seen by family members, they contacted the Sheriff's Department for help in locating Edwards.
The first call was April 14, a Thursday, when CPS and sheriff's deputies went to Edwards' Florin Road apartment but did not find her there.
The next day, CPS and sheriff's deputies again went with the agency to the apartment but did not find Edwards.
After the weekend, CPS called for help twice more, once on Monday, April 18, and again on Wednesday, April 20, but neither Edwards nor the baby could be found.
CPS then went to Juvenile Court to obtain a warrant ordering Edwards' arrest for failure to produce the child.
That warrant was issued by the court on May 26. Sacramento police found Edwards on Stockton Boulevard on June 4 and arrested her.
Edwards remained in the Sacramento County jail until she appeared in Juvenile Court on June 8.
Despite the fact that no one had seen Dwight since April, Edwards was ordered released from custody.
Juvenile Court records are sealed, but sources say Edwards was found to be in violation of the court-ordered deadline to produce the child on Aug. 19, so another bench warrant was issued for her arrest.
By then, Edwards had been contacted by sheriff's deputies twice once on July 5 and again on Aug. 6 on calls unrelated to the missing child.
However, deputies who responded to those calls would have had no way of knowing there was a problem because, at the time, there was no outstanding warrant.
CPS made one more effort to find Edwards using backup from sheriff's deputies on Aug. 5, but that effort was unsuccessful and no missing persons report was filed by CPS.
After the Aug. 19 warrant was issued, CPS made no more efforts to involve the Sheriff's Department, sources said.
Similarly, the agency did not alert Elk Grove police, even though Edwards had lived there in the past and her mother was living there with custody of two of Edwards' other children, ages 7 and 15.
"The first time that we received a call from CPS was on (March 19) to look for Tanisha Edwards at her mother's house in Elk Grove," said Officer Christopher Trim, Elk Grove police spokesman. "That was the first time we had been made aware of Ms. Edwards, that she had this warrant from CPS."
The department immediately began seeking Edwards and arrested her March 22 at her mother's house, Trim said.
It was Elk Grove police not CPS workers who notified the Sheriff's Department that Dwight was still missing, igniting an all-out effort to locate the boy.
According to the Sheriff's Department, Edwards has given authorities conflicting stories, saying her son is with unidentified relatives or with unknown black Muslim women. She has also said that Dwight was taken by two unknown males dressed in black, and that he died of an illness at an unknown hospital, according to sheriff's reports.
The case has ignited intense media attention and vigorous finger-pointing, as agencies scramble to explain their roles now, and in the preceding 11 months.
In an unusual maneuver, CPS and the Sheriff's Department held a joint news conference Wednesday to display a unified front in their hunt for the missing child.
Absent from that lineup was anyone from the Juvenile Court, which operates almost exclusively in secret because of confidentiality laws.
Pressure is mounting in California and elsewhere to open Juvenile Court proceedings to the public to ensure that judges, social workers and others are held accountable for their actions.
Over objections from social workers and some child advocates, Los Angeles County Presiding Judge Michael Nash last month opened Juvenile Court proceedings there to the media, unless there is persuasive evidence that children would be harmed.
Supporters have long argued that juvenile courts make monumental decisions in the lives of families, yet operate with virtually no oversight or public accountability.
Opponents contend that these children, many of them victims of abuse and neglect, are too fragile to bear such scrutiny.
The Bee is legally challenging Sacramento's Juvenile Court to obtain Tanisha Edwards' court records, arguing that she is not a minor and therefore not protected by confidentiality shields.