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The day the agency filed its petition, police broke down the door to Darel's Upper East Side apartment and took the kid into ACS custody.
For the next 18 months, the case made its way through Family Court. At the trial, Darel said nothing about the provocative picture she'd allegedly taken two years before. "My lawyers said, 'Let the doctors make the case,' " she explains. Though the girl's adhesions were "non-specific," one doctor told the court, "it's consistent with digital manipulation by someone else." According to the transcripts, when another doctor testified, she explained that she'd asked the girl whether anyone had touched her genital area. "And she replied, 'Yes, my father,' " that doctor testified.
Then, in July 1998, Manhattan Family Court Judge Gloria Sosa-Lintner dropped the accusation against the dad: "The allegations of sexual abuse are dismissed as unproven." She cited the questionable timing of the disclosuresduring a contested divorceand suggested other possible causes for the girl's injuries, such as "poor hygiene." In tossing the accusation the judge wrote: "The medical evidence is inconclusive, the timing of the disclosure suggests an ulterior motive and the child's statements, by virtue of Respondent Mother's unhealthy influence, are unreliable."
Sosa-Lintner devoted 14 pages of her 18-page decision, dated July 30, 1998, to Darel's "bizarre" behavior. The judge determined Darel had neglected her daughter by socially isolating her, keeping her out of school too often one year and the next providing an "inadequate" homeschooling program that left the girl "below grade level in every subject except math even though she is above average intelligence." She found Darel had further neglected her daughter "by creating a paranoid scenario of sexual abuse that has impaired the child's mental stability." She singled out Darel's "erratic, peculiar and at times, threatening" behaviorsuch as leaving "rambling voice-mail messages for the attorneys on the case at 3 a.m." And she went to town over reports that Darel had a drinking problem. She wrote that the court "enters a finding by a preponderance of the evidence that the Respondent Mother's alcohol abuse placed the child in imminent danger."
Darel disputes many of Sosa-Lintner's findings. She denies having an alcohol problem and insists the judge is "lying" about it. She gave the Voice written testimony from three mental health professionals, all asserting she did not suffer from alcoholism. With regard to her daughter's schooling, Darel cites the section of the court transcript in which one Bellevue doctor reports that the child was at grade level in most subjects, with above- average skills in math. A 2003 appellate decision upheld Sosa-Lintner's ruling.
In concluding the 1998 hearing, Judge Sosa-Linter turned the original allegations on their head, finding that the father had neglected his daughter by failing to protect her from Darel. She ordered the daughter to remain in ACS custody, where she would be shuffled from foster home to foster home for four years.
To this day, Darel's family cannot accept this decision. Her older daughter, Danielle Sapio, 37, of Plant City, Florida, talks about her time living with her mother as the source of her fondest childhood memories. (As an adolescent, she lived with her father, Darel's first husband.) Her mother, Sapio says, homeschooled her for years; signed her up for ballet, guitar, and tennis lessons; brought her to her dog-grooming business; and taught her the value of hard work.
"They take my baby sister because my mother has unconventional ways to raise a child," Sapio says. "She's not society's vision of a mother, but she is a good mother."
In Darel's modest apartment, photo collages of her and her daughter, sometimes in matching outfits, adorn the walls. Posted by the stove is a roughly scrawled birthday card by the then seven-year-old girl proclaiming, "To the most perfect mother! I love you!"
"Does it look like I was socially isolating my child?" Darel says, flipping through one photo album after another, each filled with pictures of her daughter. In almost all, the girl is smiling, her eyes bright, her hair pulled into a perky ponytail. There is a shot of her in a church play, another at a ballet rehearsal, another hugging her French teacher.
"These are the happiest years of my life," Darel says, her eyes welling. She fixes on a snapshot of her daughter. The girl has a goofy grin, and Q-tips stuck in her ears.
Darel rubs her fingers over the image and says, "She was so full of personality."
Darel may have lost at trial, but she wasn't about to give up. For years, she worked to reunite with her daughter, doing what ACS caseworkers ordered her to do, attending parenting classes and therapy sessions. By 2001, ACS had sent her to three psychiatrists to undergo three evaluations. Each cleared hershe had no "psychotic symptoms or cognitive defects that would interfere with her ability to take care of her daughter," as one report put it.
But Darel has done things that the city could use against her. On December 19, 2000, she picked up her daughter from her Queens school and drove her to Manhattan. Court records show that the daughter, then 11, was no longer a ward of the state; her foster-care placement had legally expired five days earlier but she was still living with her foster family. Yet Darel knew she would be pushing the envelope; according to court records, she disguised her daughter and the two stayed with friends to evade detection.