October 21, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
I’ve often inveighed against the propensity of child welfare agencies to either under-respond to real cases of child abuse or neglect, or over-respond to cases in which children are at no risk whatsoever. In those latter cases, Lenore Skenazy’s website Free-Range Kids is always a source of valuable information. State intervention into parental decision-making, regardless of whether children need it or not is rife. And it always seems to come with the ultimate threat – obey, or we’ll take away your kids.
For a parent, that’s the worst possible threat. I’d wager that most parents would face jail themselves rather than see the state make off with their children. And of course caseworkers know it. They know full-well that, when they appear at a parent’s door demanding entry, most parents go cold with fear.
And well they might. Federal largess encourages states to take children from their parents, shove them into foster care and have them adopted. And who’s to say that a child taken from a parent wasn’t at risk? When the standard for what constitutes abuse or neglect is so low, most days, pretty much any parent can qualify as neglectful or even abusive. Leave a child alone in a car in full view for a few minutes? You’re a neglectful parent. Let the kids walk home alone from a nearby park? You’ve placed the kids in danger of … who knows what?
Plus, the parents with the most interaction with CPS are poor and uneducated ones. As such, they’re less likely to know and be able to assert their parental and constitutional rights. They understand when a target’s been painted on their back and generally do everything to avoid it.
And of course none of what CPS does is public information, so who’s to say whether a caseworker over-reacted, under-reacted or acted properly under the circumstances.
All of this and much more is well-known and the estimable Richard Wexler reprises it in detail (Chronicle of Social Change, 10/18/16). But his main point is more disturbing even than what we already know about child welfare agencies.
It seems that an Orange County, California caseworker, Marcia Vreeken is claiming that she’s entitled to immunity from civil damages for lying under oath. Stranger still, she’s claiming that she didn’t know that doing so was legally wrong. The cherry on top is that, Vreeken’s wrongdoing has been proven in court – she’s been found liable – but Orange County CPS gave her a promotion afterwards.
Yes, all of that is true. Vreeken and Orange County have been sued by Deanna Fogarty-Hardwick and her two children, Kendall and Preslie who are both now adults. Vreeken’s case has gone to trial and a jury found her liable and awarded $4.9 million in damages. That was occasioned by Vreeken’s behavior as described by the Orange County Register:
The threat came first: “If you don’t submit to me, you’ll never see your kids again.”
Then the Orange County social worker produced a document, telling her she must sign it.
Suddenly, Deanna Fogarty-Hardwick was faced with [a choice:] Sign a paper that says you’re a bad parent, or lose your children. Fogarty-Hardwick refused to sign it that day in 2000 and the very worst happened: Her two daughters, then ages 6 and 9, were placed in [a shelter] and then in foster care.
That’s the threat each caseworker comes to each parent equipped with. It doesn’t need to be spoken, as it was to Fogarty-Hardwick; it’s just there, like the elephant in the room. But Mom knew her rights as a parent. She didn’t need to cave in to such police-state tactics. Or did she? The OCR again:
Vreeken and another social worker went with a uniformed police officer to take Kendall’s younger sister, who was “screaming and crying for her mother as she hid under the principal’s desk,” … Kendall was also forcibly removed, leaving her “devastated.”…
A therapist wrote to the agency that “Kendall … was tearful throughout the session, begging to go home. … She doesn’t know how much longer she can cope and visibly shook while relating this.” … [But] the social workers instead reported the children “were doing well.”
It’s the CPS version of the old police trope “You can beat the rap, but you can’t beat the ride.” That is, the police can arrest you and you may eventually be acquitted. But in the meantime, you’ll spend time in jail, pay a lawyer, wake up nights in a cold sweat, etc. But with CPS, it’s worse. They’ll take your kids and consign them to the care of strangers. They kids will be terrified and emotionally traumatized for months or even years to come, so, even if you eventually get them back, the damage will have been done.
And in Fogarty-Hardwick’s case, the caseworker will lie under oath to cover up her own wrongdoing.
[Fogarty-Hardwick] won a record damage award of $4.9 million after a jury found that Vreeken and another caseworker filed false reports and withheld evidence which would have cleared Fogarty-Hardwick. An appellate court judge said it was clear the judge and jury felt “the wrongful conduct was not an isolated incident.”
Now, having been found liable, Vreeken doesn’t pretend to have behaved appropriately; she just claims she should be given a pass for her wrongdoing.
And now, in response to Preslie’s lawsuit, Vreeken is arguing that she is entitled to immunity because she didn’t know that lying to a court was a violation of the family’s constitutional rights. Sure, there’s a California statute that says you’re not supposed to do this, Vreeken’s lawyer conceded, and well, yes, she might have known it was immoral and unethical but, hey, that doesn’t mean it’s also unconstitutional.
Of course Vreeken is making that argument strictly out of desperation. The law on immunity for governmental actors is roughly this: an employee of the state is individually immune from civil liability for wrongs committed in the course of his/her state job if, in the exercise of reasonable diligence, he/she wouldn’t know the behavior violated the law. After all, if a police officer does something that a court later deems to have violated a person’s civil rights, but the officer didn’t have reason to know the court would so rule, we can’t fairly hold the officer liable. To do otherwise would be a game of ‘gotcha.’ State employees need to be on notice in advance of what is and isn’t acceptable behavior so they can conduct themselves accordingly.
So Vreeken is trying to claim she didn’t know that falsifying records and withholding evidence were wrong and therefore she shouldn’t have to be responsible for doing those things. Really. I’m going to take a wild guess that her claims will be laughed out of court.
But whatever happens, it’s all OK with Orange County CPS.
The oral arguments don’t indicate Orange County’s official position on this, but here’s a clue: Instead of firing Vreeken, the Orange County Department of Social Services promoted her. As of 2011, Vreeken was training other caseworkers.
And of course, Wexler makes the final salient point.
Consider as well the one key difference between this case and so many others: Ms. Fogarty-Hardwick and family had the financial resources to wage a long fight, and ultimately be compensated for what CPS did to them. This was one of those rare cases where CPS reached into a white middle-class family.
What do you really think goes on when the family is poor and non-white?
I made the same point in the Meitiv case in Maryland last year. For once, CPS chose an educated white family to inflict their Stassi tactics on. They too are being sued, as well they should be.
But let’s face it, this sort of thing goes on all the time. But it happens mostly to the poor and uneducated who don’t have the resources to stand up to state power. And since everything CPS does occurs behind its state-sanctioned veil of secrecy, We the People rarely hear about it.
And isn’t it interesting that, every time we do, we’re outraged?
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