(CN) - A social worker must face claims that she wrongfully took a 7-year-old from her father for three months based on false allegations that the child's stepsister sexually abused her, a federal judge ruled.
U.S. District Judge Terrence McVerry in Pittsburgh rejected social worker Angela Marling's motion to dismiss a three-count federal complaint against her filed by the adoptive father of the 7-year-old and his wife.
John and Jamie Weaver claimed the child, referred to in court documents as "JW," fell and injured her genital area while using an exercise bike at their home on June 26, 2012.
They said JW did not tell anyone about her injury until later that evening when she came home to Jennifer Kelly, JW's adoptive mother and John's ex-wife.
When Kelly took JW to the hospital for an examination, JW allegedly changed her story and claimed she'd been sexually abused by her 7-year-old stepsister, "BS," the biological daughter of JW's stepmother, Jamie Weaver.
The hospital then referred the incident to Washington County Children and Youth Services, where Marling worked.
The Weavers claimed Marling launched a "biased and incomplete" investigation, and knew or should have known "that the account by JW of inappropriate contact was unsubstantiated, unreliable, and contradicted by her own prior accounts of events."
The Weavers said JW had a history of fabricating stories. She told at least three incompatible versions of the June 26 incident, and no medical evidence supported JW's claims of sexual abuse, according to the lawsuit.
Before Marling even interviewed the Weavers, they claimed, she implemented a "safety plan" that barred them from having any contact with JW until mid-September 2012.
During that three-month span, the Weavers said Marling threatened to take their other children away, intentionally failed to notify them of their right to appeal the plan, misinformed them about and prevented them from exercising their right to a hearing regarding JW's removal, repeatedly referred to BS as a "perpetrator," and told JW's elementary school that Weaver was to have no unsupervised contact with his daughter.
The Weavers accused Marling of violating their substantive due process under the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. They also raised a state-law claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Marling argued that her actions were "entirely appropriate and reasonable given the report" of sexual abuse, and that she was protected by qualified immunity.
Judge McVerry disagreed Thursday and denied the social worker's motion to dismiss.
"The general focus of Marling's argument is that she acted 'reasonably' by initiating an investigation into suspected child abuse per the mandate of the state statute," McVerry wrote. "From that premise, Marling somehow concludes that the removal of JW and the approximately three-month long separation was likewise 'reasonable' based upon some articulable evidence. Notably absent are any facts pled to support that contention. Indeed, that logical leap would necessarily require the court to conclude that her adherence to a state statute's directive alone implies that Marling satisfied the relevant constitutional inquiry throughout-an exercise in which the court declines to engage."
McVerry said discovery was needed to find out "what information was available to Marling."
"Only then may the court meaningfully decide whether an objectively reasonable suspicion of abuse existed to justify the initial removal of JW and the resulting three-month separation," he wrote.
"The court similarly cannot conclude at this time that Marling has met her burden in showing that she is entitled to qualified immunity," McVerry added.
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