Sacramento County paid up last week, sending a $600,000 settlement to Becky and Dave Giammona and ending a dispute over a drug-exposed foster baby they fought to keep.
The payment marked the close of a six-year legal saga, during which a juvenile court referee concluded that Sacramento County Child Protective Services had conducted "one long vendetta" against the Giammonas.
"They put our family through hell," Becky Giammona, 48, said, "and there was absolutely no reason."
The Giammonas, who live in the countryside north of Auburn, are among the thousands of parents and children each year who come under the watch of the local child protection agency. Many have positive outcomes: Parents kicking drugs and reuniting with their kids. Children rescued from dangerous homes.
Dave and Becky Giammona thought they were a CPS success story, too – a middle-class family with two biological children who went on to become foster parents, adopting seven children with special needs. Over the years, they have taken in 19 children with intensive medical problems.
Then CPS removed a foster infant from their home and they wound up in court. What followed, they alleged in their court filings, was a nightmarish tangle of accusations, unannounced home visits and personal attacks.
The county could have settled the lawsuit for $400,000 three years ago, court papers indicate. Instead, after more legal wrangling, the Giammonas received $600,000.
The county would not comment on the settlement or what led up to it. Jim Hunt, acting administrator for the Countywide Services Agency that oversees CPS, said he could not discuss the matter on advice of county counsel.
In court, the county maintained that the Giammonas were hoarding foster-care dollars and running a sort of foster-care factory in their rural home. Becky Giammona says that a county attorney accused her family of being a "puppy mill" for children.
Looking back, the Giammonas and their attorney say the case illustrates the raw power that CPS has over families.
"They were forced to endure a 5 1/2-month Juvenile Court trial that consumed more than 3,000 pages of transcripts," attorney Donnie Cox, of Oceanside, wrote in court documents. "They were wrongly accused of child abuse and being uncaring and 'non-nurturing' parents. Their reputations were ruined and their family nearly torn apart."
Special-needs baby taken in
It all began with a telephone call in September 2003. A foster agency social worker wanted to know if Becky Giammona was interested in taking in a special-needs foster child, according to court documents.
The infant girl was 12 days old, born with cocaine and alcohol in her bloodstream and two holes in her heart.
"In the first twelve days of her life, (the girl) had no visitors or family to see her, and her only interaction had been with nurses," the court records say.
So Becky Giammona drove to Sutter Memorial Hospital in Sacramento, talked to medical professionals about the girl's needs, and took her home.
The Giammonas were likely candidates to be foster parents for the baby. Court documents show they had been considered "highly qualified" for the rigors of parenthood in previous foster parent and adoption cases. They had biological children and both had had steady employment.
Dave Giammona, now 49, is a mechanical engineer, while Becky Giammona returned to work in 2005 as a physical therapist assistant.
At first, all went well for the family and the new baby, whom they later named Alexis – "Lexi," for short. They worked with cardiologists until Alexis regained her health, court documents state. On New Year's Eve 2003, a Sacramento CPS social worker came to the home to talk to them about adopting her.
After a 90-minute visit, the social worker told the couple she planned to have the CPS adoptions unit assess the family and their home, according to a declaration filed in Sacramento Superior Court by Cox, the Giammonas' attorney.
The specter of the adoptions unit worried the couple. They had ended up in court on a previous case when they had tried to adopt another little girl – the sister of one of their earlier adoptees. In that case, court documents state, Sacramento CPS had blocked them from adopting the girl after a five-month court fight.
Becky Giammona was concerned about how her effort to adopt Alexis would be handled by the adoption unit she had fought in court.
"I challenged them and they didn't like it," she told The Bee last week.
Infant removed, returned
Four weeks after the social worker's New Year's Eve visit, baby Alexis was removed from the Giammona home by CPS. The couple was told another family was being chosen to adopt her, according to the court declaration.
The Giammonas threatened court action and, a week later, the girl was returned to them, while CPS continued its study of the home to determine whether the Giammonas could adopt the baby.
Alexis was pulled from the home again on May 14, this time over allegations that the house was filthy. The Giammonas went to court and won an order returning her to their care.
The saga continued for four more months, ending in September 2004 with an extraordinarily harsh condemnation of Sacramento County CPS by a Juvenile Court referee.
"This has been one long horrendous personal attack on the Giammonas," Referee Scott P. Harman said in his ruling. "That's what this trial has been about, is the department against the Giammonas."
Harman concluded that the problems stemmed from the Giammonas' previous dispute with the CPS adoption unit, that after that "suddenly the roof came off the house and everything went nuts." He noted that social workers from the Giammonas' home county, Nevada County, and from the foster family agency had testified in support of the couple. An adoption specialist for the California Department of Social Services also testified on their behalf.
Harman recounted how Sacramento County had presented "a parade of witnesses that tell us about how vile and disgusting and smelly and horrible the Giammona home is," according to transcripts filed in court.
At that point in the hearings, Harman had suddenly stopped the trial and ordered everyone on both sides of the case to drive to Auburn. He even ordered the Giammonas' cell phones taken away, their attorney said, to ensure they couldn't call ahead to get someone to clean up the house.
"And, contrary to the comments that have been made here in court, I did not find the home to be despicable, vile, disgusting," Harman said.
Harman called the case a "vendetta by the (CPS) adoptions unit against the Giammonas in an effort to do anything that it takes to get this child out of that home," adding that it was "the most outrageous example of a waste of valuable court time."
"We have had trials backed up forever because of this trial," Harman said, "and it has been absolutely unnecessary."
Board rejected settlement
With that, the Giammonas won their fight for Alexis. But they did not want anyone else to go through the same thing, they said. So, in May 2005, the couple sued the county, seeking payment for their legal costs.
In June 2006, the two sides agreed to a $400,000 settlement, but the Board of Supervisors rejected it, court documents state.
The case continued to move through the legal process until the county agreed to settle for $600,000 – a deal approved by supervisors on March 9, with a provision that none of the parties acknowledge guilt or liability.
The settlement provides for a $30,000 annuity to be purchased for Alexis, with payments starting when she turns 18 that will total more than $71,000. The Giammonas will get $570,000, but will pay attorney fees and legal costs of more than $361,000 out of that.
Cox, their attorney, said he believes Sacramento County incurred at least $1 million in legal costs fighting the suit rather than settling for $400,000. While Cox's firm specializes in these types of cases, he said he accepts only about one in 700 of those brought to him.
He took the Giammona case, he said, because he felt it demonstrated how much power social workers have over families.
"We never sue social workers for making mistakes," Cox said. "They have a really tough job.
"We only sue social workers when they're malicious. In almost all of the cases that we get involved with, we have people who have committed what we call 'contempt of social worker.' "
Though they no longer have any foster children, Dave and Becky Giammona said they still shudder when a white car comes up their winding drive – the familiar signal of an unannounced social worker visit. Five of their children, including both biological kids, are grown and out of the house, while the remaining four adopted children – ages 4 to 8 – play with the animals on their 2 1/2-acre lot.
Among them is Alexis, now 5, who still has physical problems but is attending kindergarten.
The Giammonas vehemently dispute the contention made by the county in legal documents that they became foster parents for money.
"I had a savings account before I started doing foster care," Becky Giammona said. "I don't now."
Both say their marriage and family have been strained by the legal conflict and intense personal scrutiny. But they hope their battle spreads a larger message.
"I want people to know they don't have to stand there and accept what CPS says," Becky Giammona said Thursday evening, as she settled the four children for a lasagna dinner. "They can fight them. They do have rights."