Lessons for Child Welfare from the California “Right-to-Lie” Case

In the past few years, we’ve learned a lot of ugly truths about the criminal justice system. (By “we,” I mean, those of us who are white and middle class. Poor people and people of color have known all along.)

But at least in criminal justice, every accused is entitled to a lawyer – though not necessarily an effective one. At least in criminal justice conviction requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt. At least in criminal justice, the records and the trial are public. At least in criminal justice, almost everyone now admits that racial bias is a problem, even if they disagree about how much of a problem.

Opinion_Feature_ImageAnd at least in criminal justice, a police officer sued after allegedly perjuring himself probably wouldn’t say, “Gee, I had no idea that was unconstitutional.”

In contrast, none of these protections is universal – and most never apply at all – in cases where the stakes often are higher: cases in which a child protective services agency decides to consign a child to the chaos of foster care.

The right to counsel, and whether hearings are open or closed, vary from state to state. In every state, child protective services can hide almost every mistake behind “confidentiality” laws. Homes can be searched and children can be strip-searched – and seized – without a warrant.

The standard of proof for a court to rubber-stamp removal of a child is only “preponderance of the evidence,” the same standard used to determine which insurance company pays for a fender-bender.

And there is an entire coterie insisting that people in child welfare are so special, so superior to the rest of us, that racial bias isn’t even an issue. Stripped of all the blather and euphemism, their position boils down to this: Of course there used to be racism in America, and that made African-Americans and Native Americans bad parents, so we have to take away their children. Common sense, and abundant research, say otherwise.

Now, we can add one more difference: A child protective services caseworker, Marcia Vreeken, is claiming what amounts to a constitutional right to lie. Vreeken does not admit to lying – though a jury said she did – she merely says that even if she did, she’s entitled to immunity from civil suit.

How the Children were Harmed

As The Chronicle reported last week, this is the latest turn in a long set of cases involving a mother in Orange County, Calif., Deanna Fogarty-Hardwick and her two children, Kendall and Preslie. The mother and the children, now young adults, all have brought civil lawsuits.

The mother 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.”

Here’s what happened, according to 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.

The Register reports that according Kendall’s lawsuit:

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.”

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.

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.

Message to the Front Lines

Consider the message this sends to the frontlines. Caseworkers often are scapegoated if they leave a child in her or his own home and something goes wrong. But demand that a mother “submit” to your will, take the children and run and then lie about it, and not only will you not be punished, you’ll get a promotion.

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?

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Richard Wexler
About Richard Wexler 51 Articles
Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, www.nccpr.org. His interest in child welfare grew out of 19 years of work as a reporter for newspapers, public radio and public television. During that time, he won more than two dozen awards, many of them for stories about child abuse and foster care. He is the author of Wounded Innocents: The Real Victims of the War Against Child Abuse (Prometheus Books: 1990, 1995).

16 Comments

  1. I would like to start a March for woman who truly are wonderful parents as myself stand up to dcfs as I’m am currently trying too but I can’t do it along my life is not the same and my kids are not either I feel as if I let my kids down because I can’t do anything to get them back no matter how hard I’ve been trying my kids know mama always make a way from nothing to something mama gone work it out my son is turning 18 September 30 and I raised him he never been in any kind of trouble with police always helped and respect his mother and helped me take care of his younger siblings but since dcfs took him he’s been in contact with police gotten into several fights

  2. Im in need of help as I too am going thru similar issues with dcfs they lied to the judge that my kids were being sexually abused and it was just me and my babies living in the household. My case has been open almost an year and not one piece of evidence has been presented kids was never tooken for a medical examiner to prove her false allegation my kids are 17 will be 18 in one week 13,10,and 8 please if someone can point me in the right direction as dcfs dogs is trying to terminate my reunification with my babies my daughter is having a really rough life right now if you guys can see the bags under my daughter eyes she making herself sick she needs me. I’ve been everywhere trying to find help but no one is listening please

  3. I am a disabled veteran and monterey cps has has my son since 2012 and told me there is nothing they can do. I dont drink, do drugs, etc. I am being discriminated against due to my ptsd and depression and I dont know what legal actions I could take. I never knew that CPS actually lied…I trusted the gov for so long.

  4. CPS came to my home refarding a infant and the dog. The children were running around playing with the dog and the infant and the dog ran onto each other. We rush the baby to the hospital no scan or mri was done, we brought her home then she started having seizure. So she was rush back. Cps came to the home unexpectly. She talk to the others children and said my home was very clean…. but her report was we endangered her and sexually abused her and my home was dirty. We have contacted an attorney. But why would she lie?
    I have a 37 yrs son thst has had 36 operation. We are not low-income. We did nothing wrong my heart is broken.

    • They lie because getting young, cute, adoptable children is how they make money. They are able to get away with it because they can keep the records confidential. There is no oversight. You’re automatically guilty. “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely” – and they have absolute power. This is the source of their funding, and it depends on increasing the numbers of adopted kids: https://www.ssa.gov/OP_Home/ssact/title04/0473A.htm

  5. I have given her the california rules or codes pertaining to our right to be heard before another judge in family appellate court. She has that right according to the statute. Also, can’t she demand her CPS case be seen by higher level management that is above who she is dealing with now, and from a different district or area, especially since CPS is State and not County. Thoughts?

  6. First time ever doing this. My great nephew is being physically and mentally abuse by his birth father, and my niece is being forced, even with enough visible and documented evidence, to be with his birth father with unsupervised visits. Each time he comes home from him, he is marked up and devastated. The judge has told my niece he finds no cause to not give him this visitation. The California CPS worker says there is nothing they can do about it and has to honor the judge. Thoughts?

  7. I live in Maine, my children’s mother an I lost our kids 3 months ago due to case worker getting a 6 hour emergency ppo order to take our children. The case worker commited perjury filed false documents false statements, the social worker even used the police dept, said a bunch of stuff the dhhs and police dept believed, in all reality, the Sherrif actually states the case worker lied in her affidavit to get emergency order. Further corruption only hours after my children were stolen from there mother and I, my 3 children agess 1,4,5 were placed in a foster home, the foster mother stated hours after my children were takin from us, that she went to give my kids a bath and there were bruises on all 3 children from head to toe, she was told to take them to doctor, she took them but doc couldn’t see kids right away due to foster mom not knowing my children’s name, so a few moments after that dhhs called gave info and doctors was able to see children. Doctors findings was there was no visible marks, no concerns children appear to be healthy!!!! Finally we are about to have jepordy hearing where judge hears our case

  8. My family was victim of Los Angeles psychopath social workers, their disgusting supervisors and even more corrupt Regional Assistants. Wouldn’t be surprised if any of them came up missing or dead. You are leaving “the people” with absolutely no remedy but to take it upon their own families to find justice so do not be surprised when they do so. In fact they will have tons of people helping them too.

    Horrifying testimony is coming out of Los Angeles and how they run their department, how they’ve managed to squash substantiated Federal civil rights violations by parents and how they submit knowingly false information to eager county paid judges at Edelman’s court which removes all parental rights from innocent individuals. Why yesterday, the direct quote from Joi Russell, who used to be a deputy director of LA county dcfs was: “As social workers we don’t need proof, we just need to believe.”

    LA County has managed to import 1/2 it’s employees from countries that ran to the united states because their families were being oppressed or who’s families have experienced historical racial and gov’t oppression. These individuals are now put in places of power to do the same to minorities here in the states….that is why in our case we had a little Iranian and Russian born, thickly accented people telling me and my children that we were not american indians because we didn’t live on a reservation. Seems to me like the Christians in Los Angeles are getting the jews to do their dirty work for them and hey it’s working!

    This article is angering because it speaks the truth. With this amount of corruption at the highest levels in la county, all 7,000 employees are guilty of “judicial deception”, not to mention the Condoners (judges at Edelman’s) and the Helpers (corrupt court appointed parent attorneys) who have created or advanced this Industry where violating human and civil rights is STANDARD.

  9. well dick I’ve sighted many of your articles through out the years and recommended your book to many. This to takes the cake, we always knew it would take a progressive state to address the kids for cash, like California. The fact that workers are being shot on site after court proceedings will be the next epidemic to show this cause. It is repulsive that loving parents, have to protest for the right to do so. CPS is the bad guy, the wolf in sheep clothing at the budget hearings and a scourge upon this great nation. For forty years they have done more harm than good and now enter the lawyers to do what? 75% of these land mark cases that prevail against cps fail to collect! Stop the false advertising and get to work…

  10. The official policy of the last Orange Co DSS head (under oath in a deposition) was that she did not lie. Heck, Orange Co hired another worker being sued for her work with LA DCFS in a case that is currently under trial and trial is going poorly for the defense there according to reports.
    The OC county supervisors should be arrested with her and tried as co principles for their actions.

    • And the LA county workers were found guilty $3.1 million dollars worth. And OC has hired one of them

  11. Richard, will you come back to Arizona for a minute please ?

    We’ve got a couple solid strategies and we really could use someone like you right now

  12. Thank you for your report Mr. Wexler We rely heavily on your work as court watchers and advocates…We have been spreading this CPS SCORE CARD https://is.gd/uhkGx7 written by our friend Steven Isham of Arizona…would like to know what you think of it. Thanks again for this article!

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