HARRISBURG, Pa. (CN) – Child-welfare workers cannot dismiss allegations that they falsely accused parents of abusing a 4-month-old who had in fact sustained injuries from a stroke and congenital rickets, a federal judge ruled.
Jamel Billups and Jacqueline Rosario sued Franklin County and a host of Pennsylvania child-services entities six months ago for civil rights violations. The black couple claims that the Child Safety team at Penn State Hershey Medical Center accused them of child abuse when their daughter, L.B., suffered a stroke and showed signs of rickets on Oct. 19, 2009.
Pennsylvania then allegedly seized L.B. and her 2-year-old brother, T.R., and sent them to foster homes. Jamel was jailed 414 days for a crime he did not commit, according to the complaint.
The hospital, county, Office of Children, Youth and Families and Chambersburg Borough each filed separately with their individual employees to dismiss the claims.
Chief U.S. District Judge Yvette Kane dismissed most claims last week, but said the Billups can proceed with due-process claims against Franklin County and two of its employees, Kari Coccagna and Minnie Tuner.
Claims against the hospital and its staff failed largely for lack of evidence. Kane said they also improperly relied on Jamel Billup’s incarceration and criminal prosecution. “The court finds that plaintiffs have not sufficiently pled that the medical center defendants, in examining L.B. and rendering conclusions on her injuries, ‘consciously disregarded a great risk that there had been no abuse,'” Kane wrote, quoting precedent.
Kathryn Crowell, the doctor who allegedly gave false incriminating testimony, has immunity from civil damages for her testimony, the 51-page decision states.
Though the Billips say the child-abuse charges stemmed from the hospital’s presumptions, the court found there was “reasonable and articulable evidence” of abuse.
“Parent’s rights to the care, custody and control of their children ‘does not include a right to remain free from child abuse investigations,'” Kane wrote, quoting 3rd Circuit precedent. Parents “are not entitled to a presumption of innocence during the pendency of a child abuse investigation,” she added.
The Billups also failed to allege a discriminatory policy in the hospital’s alleged treatment of staff members for unapproved testimony or reports. If a doctor’s opinion does not align with that of the hospital, that worker is allegedly barred from identifying the hospital as his employer, minimizing the credence that their testimony can achieve.
Kane also dismissed claims against the child-welfare office as duplicative of the claims against the county.
Social workers Kari Coccanga and Minnie Tuner do not have immunity, however, from claims that they coerced the Billups into signing a “voluntary safety plan,” which provided for unannounced home visits and forbade one-on-one time between the father and his children.
Kane upheld due-process claims against Franklin County over the voluntary safety plan, but the county is not liable for failure to train and injunctive relief claims.
Two other social workers, Tammie Lay and Dawn Watson, persuaded the judge to dismiss claims that they failed to properly conduct their own “independent medical non-presumption tainted burden shifting investigation.”
Chambersburg Borough and its employees dodged liability because the Billups’ “claims do not implicate the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of substantive due process,” the judge found.