San Diego–based attorney Shawn McMillan takes on only one type of case: those against California's child protective services agencies, which has paid out $20 million since 2005 as a result of his cases. Randy and Danyelle Branning were among his clients. At Atavist, Jessica Weisberg describes the "nightmare" that began for the couple on August 29, 2013, when a sheriff's deputy and two female CPS workers arrived at their Eastvale, Calif., home to ask about "an incident" the previous day: Danyelle's stepdaughter, Amber, was caught smoking pot, the latest in a string of troubles for the 16-year-old. Randy was a yeller and had a temper. But the visit to the house came in reaction to what Amber allegedly told a school counselor: that her dad had head-butted her. He hadn't.
Within 10 minutes, the women determined Amber needed to be put in foster care, along with "Kelly," 10, and "Cory," 6, because Randy posed too much of a threat. This though there was no warrant as required unless there is "imminent danger"; though Kelly was taped saying her dad had never once been violent; and though Danyelle frantically tried to come up with alternatives—Randy could leave, the kids could go to her mom's. Weisberg charts the painful course that followed: the family court case that cost them their savings, Kelly's revelation that Cory had been molested while in foster care, Amber running away from foster care, and the case they filed with McMillan's help against Riverside County, a few social workers, and two foster agencies. They settled for $800,000, but Danyelle is "afraid of my own children now." Read Weisberg's nuanced story in full to find out why.