Criminal Justice

10th Circuit grants immunity to social workers in child abuse case

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The Byron White U.S. Courthouse in Denver, home of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Wally Gobetz / Flickr.

When the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a case of child abuse it called “horrific,” it stressed that it wasn’t pleased with its own ruling.

“To say the [Oklahoma Department of Human Services] caseworkers left the children with the Matthews[es] to suffer continued abuse and neglect under deplorable conditions in a dangerous home environment is perhaps an understatement,” the panel wrote in Matthews v. Bergdorf. “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.”

But the court said it was bound by U.S. Supreme Court precedent on qualified immunity for state employees. That led it to dismiss most of the claims in a lawsuit brought by Rachel Matthews and a group of children formerly under the care of Deidre and Jerry Matthews of Jay, Oklahoma. Only claims against social workers Karen Feather and Carol Schraad-Dahn survived the appeal.

Courthouse News had the story.

The lawsuit alleges that workers for the Oklahoma Department of Human Services repeatedly ignored reports of abuse and neglect at the Matthews home. Deidre and Jerry Matthews were foster and adoptive parents, and had been honored for that work in 2006. However, the Tulsa World reported in 2014 that conditions in the home went downhill in 2009, when there were nine children and two adults living in a two-bedroom trailer.

The older children testified that children were beaten enough to draw blood, locked in a dog cage overnight or tied to the bed, and denied food and water. The couple kept 20 to 50 animals on their property, the lawsuit says, and the children would be bitten by dogs and monkeys. Deidre Matthews would treat these wounds herself using veterinary supplies, the children testified. She also kept them out of school to hide their injuries from the authorities. At the household’s final visit by a social worker, the report found that Deidre Matthews was “barely functioning and passing out constantly,” according to an earlier Courthouse News story; other adults in the home were abusing drugs; and there were dead animals, feces and maggots all over the home.

Nonetheless, the children allege that child protection workers ignored at least 17 reports of suspected child abuse at the home. In fact, they allege, Feather instructed Schraad-Dahn to call Deidre Matthews 24 hours in advance of “surprise” home inspections and warn her they were coming. That behavior, the 10th Circuit said, is “conscience shocking” and violated established law, which allowed the court to find an exception to qualified immunity for Feather and Schraad-Dahn.

However, the plaintiffs did not show that the other 15 social worker defendants had affirmatively taken action to put them in danger, the 10th Circuit said. Thus, it ruled, those workers have qualified immunity.

“ODHS 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,” the court wrote. “But … the Supreme Court, at least for now, marked the path we are sworn to follow.”

Since the children were removed, Deidre and Jerry Matthews have divorced and are serving suspended life sentences.

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