The college application essay was the tipoff. It was beautifully written but painfully rendered; a high school student's story of her family's tumble from middle-class stability into homelessness and addiction.
It helped Danielle Stone earn a spot at UCLA. But it also drew her family into a yearlong odyssey through Los Angeles County's child welfare system.
A teacher who read the essay notified social workers. They visited the family in the San Pedro motel they moved into after a string of evictions.
"They felt like there might be emotional abuse," recalled Danielle's mother, Lisa Stone. "When they visited, everything was OK."
For the next six months, things were mostly OK. Then in the summer of 2012, social workers monitoring the family walked in on an ugly argument between mother and daughter. About a month later, they picked up Danielle's little brother from school and announced that he wouldn't be living with their parents anymore.
"They did an on-the-spot drug test, and we failed," said Lisa's husband, Archie Stone.
The couple began using drugs when they lost their home in the recession. Then Archie's paychecks from his longshoreman's job were garnished and they couldn't even afford an apartment.
"Coming from a million-dollar house to being homeless .... it was a nightmare," Lisa said. "Drugs were a way to not think about it."
They didn't realize how much they were hurting their children with their mood swings and neglect.
"The day social workers walked up the door with our daughter and son and said he was going to foster care, that was the worst day of our lives," she said.
If that was the worst day of their lives, last Friday was probably one of the best.
That afternoon they were among a half-dozen reunited families released from supervision by the Department of Children and Family Services.
To get their children back, Lisa and Archie had completed drug treatment programs, taken parenting classes, attended weekly therapy sessions and compiled a year's worth of clean drug tests.
"If you'd asked me at the time it happened whether we needed all of that, I'd be in total disagreement," Archie said. "But did it work out the way it should? It probably did.
"Our life has gotten a lot better. We're a lot closer than during our days of addiction. That part has really been good."
For years family reunification has been a goal of the child welfare system — and a target for critics when children suffer because parents don't make good.
But the horror stories don't tell the whole tale. So many children are taken from struggling parents with fixable problems that it makes sense to try to repair families rather than strand children in foster care.
"This is the best thing we do," said Judge Michael Nash, who presided over Friday's reunification hearings. "When we can put a family back together and get the government out of their lives, it's a victory for everybody involved."
Last year, 6,000 children were returned to their families in a county that has more than 17,000 children in foster care.