DENVER (CN) – A 10th Circuit panel did not hide its disappointment Tuesday in granting qualified immunity to 14 Oklahoma social workers who repeatedly failed to protect 10 children from a shockingly abusive household that also contained dangerous pet monkeys.
Case law protects state agents from being held responsible for private violence, according to the opinion written by U.S. Circuit Judge Bobby Baldock.
“[Oklahoma Department of Human Services] and its caseworkers may find solace in the fact that to a large degree they have prevailed on appeal. If so, they are sorely mistaken for no solace is to be found within these written words,” Baldock wrote in the 27-page opinion.
“To say the caseworkers left the children with the Matthews to suffer continued abuse and neglect under deplorable conditions in a dangerous home environment is perhaps an understatement,” he wrote.
In October 2015, Rachel Matthews and several foster children sued 18 employees of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services on civil rights violations, claiming they failed to intervene and protect the children from guardians Deidre and Jerry Matthews.
In 2003, the Department of Human Services named the Matthews “adoptive parents of the year.” Over the following decade, however, the social workers collectively dismissed 17 abuse reports filed against the Matthews household in Jay, Oklahoma.
There is may be a fine line between keeping an open door and taking on too much. In the Matthews’ case, though, Deidre was accused of “collecting kids like stray animals.”
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 Department of Human Services 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 addition to numerous reports of the Matthews’ use of corporal punishment, a 2009 visit found monkeys living in their trailer. One of the monkeys had bitten two of the children, and according to the lawsuit, Deidre 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.”
In another instance in 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.”
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.
Because the 18 social workers named in the lawsuit asserted a collective – rather than individual – defense of qualified immunity, the Delaware County District Court of Oklahoma also denied them in bulk.
Before the 10th Circuit, the defendants reasserted their individual rights, shifting the burden of proof back to the 10 plaintiffs who needed to show how each of the 18 caseworkers failed them to advance their lawsuit.
Through qualified immunity, state agents may be protected from being held accountable for private violence unless they have a special relationship with the victims or their actions directly caused harm.
The 10th Circuit had to decide “whether the facts alleged in the complaint give rise to constitutional claims against each of the ODHS caseworkers, and if so, whether those claims were clearly established at the time of the alleged constitutional violations.”
Although the Matthews’ tragedy could be a case study in subpar social services, Baldock wrote that he was bound by precedent, and that the plaintiff’s complaint only made adequate cases for three of the 18 social workers to be denied qualified immunity.
Only one special needs child was considered a ward of the state under the Matthews’ guardianship from 2005 to 2007. Caseworker Kila Bergdorf was assigned to the child and ignored signs that her client was in trouble—including the fact that Deidre Matthews failed to show up for her guardianship review in 2007.
Furthermore, department employees Carol Schraad and her supervisor Karen Feather conspired to give the family 24 to 48 hours’ notice of inspection “to allow the Matthews enough time to clean their home and rehearse interviews with the children.”
In addition to blocking the children from protective services, Baldock wrote, that these actions “increased plaintiffs’ vulnerability to the alleged abuse and neglect, private violence, they faced daily.”
While 14 of the 18 social workers have been granted qualified immunity, Baldock warned them not to celebrate their victory.
“Assuming the allegations of the complaint have some basis in fact (and we suspect they may), any layperson would think a court justified in throwing ODHS and its caseworkers ‘under the bus,’” Baldock wrote. “We too cannot help wondering what is going on at ODHS and its Delaware County office that would allow this undeniable tragedy to extend over a period of several years, a tragedy that resulted in unspeakable and perhaps irreparable harm to the children and the criminal convictions of both Jerry and Deidre Matthews.”
In June 2016, Jerry Matthews took a plea deal that traded a life sentence for testimony against his ex-wife. Deidre Matthews was charged with 12 counts of child abuse in October 2017 and sentenced to life in prison.
Chief Circuit Judge Timothy Tymkovich and Circuit Judge Carlos Lucero joined Baldock’s opinion.