RIVERSIDE, Calif. (CN) - Riverside County took a newborn baby from her mother without a reason or a warrant - and it makes a habit of it, the mother and baby claim in a federal class action.
Lead plaintiff A.A., the baby, sued Riverside County, Juvenile Dependency Investigator Karla Torres, Torres' supervisor Felicia M. Butler, and all similarly situated county social workers and investigators, in the Dec. 12 lawsuit.
Plaintiffs' attorney Shawn McMillan told Courthouse News that his firm, which specializes in civil rights cases against child protection agencies, "uncovered an alarming trend" about a year ago during discovery for other cases.
"County child welfare agencies regularly subvert the constitutional rights of parents and children by seizing children from their parents when there is no danger to the child, and in fact no need to seize the child at all," McMillan said.
"The class action is designed to address a procedural problem. They [Riverside County social workers] as a matter of course don't get warrants before seizing kids. Deficient policies, deficient training and deficient supervision all lead to civil rights violations on a regular basis," McMillan said.
"This lawsuit is designed to address the problem."
The 27-page lawsuit claims that A.A. is one of thousands of children wrongfully taken from her mother by county social workers.
"In February 2013, when she was three days old, plaintiff A.A. was snatched by an employee of the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services literally from the breast of her mother as they lay in the hospital recuperating from a successful, safe delivery," the complaint states.
A.A. "was healthy and in no danger whatever; her mother has no history of drug, alcohol, or tobacco use nor any history of psychiatric treatment," according to the lawsuit.
The county "had unlawfully seized (A.A.'s) four siblings months before and sent them into foster care," the complaint states. It claims "thousands of other children" have been seized by Riverside County employees "without any sort of warrant and without any risk of serious injury."
According to the lawsuit, Tonita Rogers gave birth to A.A. by Caesarean section and spent the next few days recuperating and bonding with her baby. Rogers says she was "healthy and fully capable of taking care" of her baby.
Three days later, Torres came to Rogers's hospital room at around 2:45 p.m. and saw that she was recovering well and that A.A. was healthy, according to the complaint.
"Despite these facts, and solely because there had been an earlier dependency petition filed regarding plaintiffs' siblings, Torres seized the newborn baby plaintiff from her mother's care and custody," the complaint states.
Rogers claims that Torres "did not bother to seek a warrant," which would have taken about two hours, nor did she seek an ex parte petition for non-custodial removal before taking the baby.
McMillan told Courthouse News that A.A. was returned to her mother 5 to 10 days later. He said that many of the seized children are out of their mother's care for a year or more.
He said that around half of his firm's cases involve African-American children like A.A., and that "a large portion" are from lower-income families.
But McMillan said that white and upper-class parents were not "immune" to the problem and that some of his cases involve "medical doctors and investment bankers."
McMillan said the social workers find the children they seize via two statewide databases: the CWS/CMS system and the Child Abuse Central Index. Anyone reported as being involved in suspected child abuse is likely to be in one or both systems, he said.
"If you appear on one of them, you have an immediate black mark against you. The CWS/CMS system is largely kept a secret so that children, as they age into adulthood, and parents may not even know they are listed," McMillan said. "In any event, the databases are largely accessible to hospital and social workers and the like."
The plaintiffs claim that Riverside County social workers know or should know that taking children from their families without a warrant is illegal and violates their civil rights. The county itself "turned a blind eye" to what its social workers do, and failed to train them on "child abuse and dependency type investigations and court proceedings," the complaint states.
"The real problem here is that the county itself is at fault for not adequately training its workers and supervising them," McMillan said. "In addition, the county has failed - for years, if not decades, to implement any policies or procedures to protect the 4th Amendment rights of children and the 14th Amendment rights of parents in circumstances similar to those presented in the present lawsuit."
McMillan said that the constitutional violations are "a direct result of the deficient polices and practices of the county. For this reason, we anticipate that the discovery process will reveal the individually named workers were each involved in dozens, if not hundreds of unwarranted child seizures."
According to the lawsuit, Riverside County "never investigates or disciplines its social workers," including Torres, who take children without reason.
McMillan said he has sued Riverside County on behalf of a child seized without a warrant before. He said the county unofficially promised to fix the problem, but apparently never did.
The county did not return requests for comment Monday.
A.A. seeks class certification, an injunction and compensatory, statutory and punitive damages for civil rights violations.
McMillan said that an injunction to stop the county from taking any more children is the most important thing.
"Riverside is a test bed. The idea is to see what happens and to what extent we can establish accountability," he said. "This has the potential to affect the entire state."
McMillan, of San Diego, is assisted by co-counsel Mark Daniel Ankcorn, of Del Mar.
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