DENVER (CN) – Eighteen Oklahoma social workers embroiled in a civil rights action brought by a group of foster kids took the fight to the 10th Circuit on Tuesday, arguing the judge hearing the lawsuit unfairly denied them the shield of qualified immunity.
Rachel Matthews and several foster children claim their civil rights were violated by 18 employees of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services who failed to intervene and protect the children from their guardians, Deidre and Jerry Matthews.
Over the course of a decade, the social workers dismissed at least 17 reports of abuse filed against the Matthews household in Jay, Oklahoma, including one report that said, “Deidre Matthews was collecting kids like stray animals.” Meanwhile, the Department of Human Services honored the Matthews with its “adoptive parents of the year” award.
According to the children’s lawsuit, “Anywhere from 8 to 11 children and 2 to 5 adults lived in the Matthews’ home. Some of the children were placed with the Matthews by DHS through the foster care program, some ended up being adopted by the Matthews, some had a legal guardianship with the Matthews and some of the children were just living with them.
“Also present on the property were 20 to 50 animals, which included at least three monkeys, 11 lemurs, marmosets, coatimundis, raccoons, dogs, cats, horses, donkeys as well as various other animals.”
In his 2016 denial of the social workers’ motion to dismiss for qualified immunity – the subject of Tuesday’s hearing at the 10th Circuit – U.S. District Judge Terence Kern laid a timeline of their many visits to the Matthews’ home, a list that spans seven pages and covers more than a decade of interactions.
Aside from numerous reports of the Matthews’ use of corporal punishment, a 2009 visit found 10 monkeys living in the Matthews’ trailer. One of the monkeys had bitten two of the children, and Deidre reportedly had treated one of the bites herself “by giving the child veterinary nerve block and stitching the wound closed with needle and string she used on dogs,” Kern wrote in his order.
In another instance from 2009, social workers came out to the home to investigate the accidental overdose of three of the plaintiffs on over-the-counter and prescription medication. And in 2012, the school principal of one of the plaintiffs filed a report with the Department of Human Services noting the child regularly came to school “very hungry, dirty and smelling of urine so strongly that the principal vomited,” Kern wrote.
Across dozens of reports, the social workers either screened out the report and took no action, or visited the Matthews’ home and found no cause to remove the children – even for reports filed by law enforcement, Kern wrote.
The final report received by Delaware County social workers reported that “Jerry had moved out; adults in the home were abusing drugs; there were maggots, dirty clothes, animal feces and dead animals all over the home; and Deidre was barely functioning and passing out constantly,” Kern wrote, noting that again the referral was screened out and never investigated.
A month later, the Matthews case was transferred to neighboring Craig County, and its investigator immediately found evidence of abuse, neglect, endangerment and lack of protection. A Delaware County judge took all the plaintiffs into emergency custody.
Rachel and the other foster children sued the following year, in 2015. In October 2016, Kern determined that as a branch of the state of Oklahoma, the Department of Human Services has immunity from state constitutional claims filed in federal court.
As for the 18 social workers, Kern found they collectively – rather than individually – asserted a qualified immunity defense. Accordingly, he denied their motion to dismiss collectively, finding the plaintiffs had adequately alleged actions by the social workers that were “conscience-shocking,” the threshold at which the qualified immunity defense fails.
The Department of Human Services employees appealed Kern’s denial to the 10th Circuit, where on Tuesday their attorney Emily Fagan said each was “unfairly denied their right to qualified immunity.”
Circuit Judge Carlos Lucero agreed “there was some segmentation of fault during the trial, where some workers were considered more at fault than others,” and then asked: “It seems to me a pretty powerful argument; what you’re asking us to do is something you didn’t do. Why raise this at last minute?”
“We did not do it as well as we did for this court,” Fagan said. “But I don’t think qualified immunity should be lost as fault of the attorney.”
In response, the children’s attorney Conner Helms referred to the complaint, which he said sets a clear timeline and details each defendant’s role in failing to protect the children.
Meanwhile, Senior Circuit Judge Bobby Baldock questioned the idea of handling the immunity question individually.
“The facts are established, this is a question of law,” Baldock said. “Are we obliged to go through each individual to preserve constitutional rights?”
Helms pointed to Kern’s order, stating that regardless of the defense presented, the judge did consider the individual roles of the social workers involved.
“Judge Kern did seem to go out of his way to provided timelines on an individual basis, even though it was not presented that way,” Lucero agreed.
Circuit Judge Timothy Tymkovich rounded out the three-judge panel, which took the arguments under submission.
Jerry and Deidre Matthews faced criminal charges over their treatment and neglect of the children under their care. The Oklahoman reported in July 2016 that Jerry Matthews received a suspended life sentence in exchange for testifying against his now ex-wife, and “was assessed a $1,768 fine and court costs, is not to be around children and is on supervised probation for the rest of his life.”
A plea date in Deidre Matthews’ case, which involves 14 felony charges, has been set for Oct. 4.