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Social Workers denied immunity from lawsuit based on their negligence

by | Sep 29, 2017 | Firm News, juvenile law

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. In Juvenile Dependency matter social workers are the crux of the case.  They determine if neglect has occurred through investigation.  They can obtain orders from the Judge if need be to extricate the children from an abusive home.  Here it is alleged they did not take the children from an abusive home and left them with the foster parents who abused them.

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.