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Monday, June 17, 2024 | Back issues
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Social Worker for Slain Baby Loses Immunity

(CN) - Grandparents of baby girl who was murdered by her father's meth-addicted girlfriend can sue a Kansas social worker, the 10th Circuit ruled.

Brooklyn Coons was 23 months old when she died on Jan. 20, 2008, from complications related to shaken baby syndrome. The infant girl had been living with her father, Randy, and his girlfriend, Melissa Wells, for the last few months after her mother died suddenly. Wells has since been convicted of murdering the baby and claims to have been suffering from a methamphetamine addiction at the time.

Brooklyn's maternal grandparents - Larry and Mary Crosetto - filed a lawsuit against Linda Gillen, a social worker with the Coffeyville department of social services.

The Crosettos claimed Gillen had been involved with their adoption of Brooklyn's mother in 1982, and had an intense hatred of them as a result. Gillen also allegedly knew of Wells' background because she had been in the system as a child.

Even the state agreed that Gillen had treated Brooklyn differently than her other 11 clients, according to the complaint. The Crosettos say that Camie Russell, director for the Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation Unit of the Kansas Attorney General's Office, made the determination after reviewing Gillen's 12 cases after Brooklyn's death.

Russell's report forms the basis for the Crosettos' complaint that Gillen created the danger that resulted in Brooklyn's death, and denied them and Brooklyn's brother their rights to familial association.

A federal judge concluded, however, that Gillen deserved summary judgment based on qualified immunity because her overall conduct was not decidedly affirmative and did not shock the conscience.

The Denver-based federal appeals court reversed on Dec. 19, reviving the family's danger-creation and familial association claims. Brooklyn's name is abbreviated as B.I.C. in the 22-page decision.

"A refusal is more than a mere failure to act," Judge Paul Kelly Jr. wrote for a three-judge panel. "As the District Court initially found, 'On December 10, 2007, Mr. Crosetto called defendant to report that the bruises on their grandchildren[] were escalating. Defendant told Mr. Crosetto to contact the police. Plaintiffs further allege that they provided defendant with a CD of photographs of B.I.C.'s injuries and that defendant refused to accept it.' The way in which Ms. Gillen discouraged the Crosettos and others from reporting abuse directly to her and her refusal to receive documentation of the abuse are sufficiently affirmative forms of conduct to proceed with a danger creation claim."

The Crosettos' familial association claim still fails, however.

"The Crosettos argue that they do not need to show that Ms. Gillen intended to cause BIC's death but only need to show an intent to interfere with the relationship in some way," Kelly wrote. "Yet there similarly is no evidence or reasonable inference that Ms. Gillen's conduct was directed at the intimate relationship with an intent to adversely affect it."

Senior Judge William Holloway Jr. and Judge Scott Matheson Jr. concurred with Kelly.

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