$5 Million Verdict Against Orange County Social Workers Who Lied, Falsified Evidence

A Santa Ana appellate court this month affirmed a nearly $5 million judgment against Orange County’s Department of Social Services for wrongfully depriving a woman of her children.

In its 35-page opinion, released on June 14, justices of the Fourth District Court of Appeal said a jury verdict in favor of Deana Fogarty-Hardwick was based upon on evidence of improper conduct by two social workers, Marcie Vreeken and Helen Dwojak.

After her two girls were removed from her custody, they were placed in the Orangewood Children’s Home, where they remained for more than a month, with their mother restricted only to supervised visitation. Although the court had authorized the agency to return the girls to her custody, the social workers refused to do so. Instead, the two girls were moved to foster care, where they remained for some additional time.

Thereafter, Vreeken engaged in a highly charged conversation with Fogarty-Hardwick concerning the false claims made by the social workers about Fogarty-Hardwick’s conduct. According to the Court, Vreeken got angry, and threatened that if Fogarty-Hardwick did not “submit” to her will, she would never see her children again.

Fogarty-Hardwick alleged that the social workers deliberately withheld information from the court concerning the emotional detriment suffered by her daughters while in foster placement, and thereby convinced the court to extend the children’s placement. While both of her girls exhibited significant emotional distress in their placement, which was reported to the agency by their therapist, that information was not conveyed to the court by the social workers. Instead, Vreeken falsely claimed, under oath in testimony before the court, that the children were doing well.

Intentionally false statements, fabricated evidence, and “perjury” became a part of “a successful effort to convince the juvenile court to remove her daughters from her custody and place them in foster care.”

The jury specifically concluded that Vreeken and Dwojak had lied, falsified evidence, and suppressed exculpatory evidence — all of which was material to the dependency court’s decision to deprive Fogarty-Hardwick of custody — and that they did so with malice. The Court of Appeal found that these findings were “clearly sufficient to satisfy the Supreme Court’s definition of circumstances in which ‘qualified immunity would not be available.'”

The jury found that both Vreeken and Dwojak had “intentionally violate[d] the plaintiff’s right to familial association or right to privacy,” and that they did so “while acting or purporting to act in the performance of their official duties,” and that their conduct was a substantial factor in causing harm to Fogarty-Hardwick.

The jury awarded $117,386 in damages, including past and future economic loss, and past and future non-economic loss, against Vreeken. As for Dwojak, the jury awarded damages of $273,900, including damages for past and future economic loss, and past and future non-economic loss.

OFFICIAL POLICY

Fogarty-Hardwick also asserted the County had a policy of “deliberate indifference” to the rights of parents in her situation, and as a result of that policy, the County failed to supervise, control or direct the conduct of its social workers.

The agency’s action seemed to bear this out. “Despite Fogarty-Hardwick’s complaints, and the concerns expressed by others about the handling of this dependency case, SSA did not investigate the situation or consider assigning different social workers to the matter. Neither of the social workers involved was disciplined. Instead, Vreeken was promoted to supervisor in 2001,” judge Bedsworth explained in his ruling.

The jury agreed, concluding that Vreeken and Dwojak’s conduct occurred “as a result of the official policy or custom of the County of Orange,” and that the County was “deliberately indifferent to the need to train and/or supervise its employees adequately.”

The jury voted 10-2 that Fogarty-Hardwick’s right to raise her children free of governmental interference had been violated, said Shawn A. McMillan, one of her attorneys.

McMillan said the more than $4.9 million verdict included approximately $4.5 million in general damages against the county for providing inadequate training and/or supervision to the social workers and for showing deliberate indifference. The verdict was one of the largest of its kind in the state, and perhaps the nation.

INJUNCTIONS OVERRULED

As part of its judgment, the lower court granted injunctive relief which “permanently” restrained the County, SSA and their employees from including allegations in a juvenile dependency petition against any parent or guardian of a child without some reasonable and articulable evidence giving rise to “a reasonable suspicion that the child has been abused, neglected or abandoned by the accused parent or guardian, or is in imminent danger of abuse, neglect or abandonment by that parent.

It also enjoined the agency from requiring a parent or guardian of a child to sign its “Agency-Parent Temporary Agreement” or releases of confidential information, such as medical, psychological, psychiatric, and employment records, “unless the agency has some reasonable and articulable evidence giving rise to a reasonable suspicion that the parent whose records or information are sought has abused, neglected or abandoned the child, or the child is in imminent danger of abuse, neglect or abandonment by that parent.”

As reasonable as all of this may appear, the high court overruled the two injunctions, saying that they conflicted with California’s state code.

NOT AN ISOLATED INCIDENT

The Court, however, admonished that: “our decision to strike the injunctive relief from the judgment should not be viewed by the County as a sign we view it as insignificant. Quite the contrary is true. The fact that a very well respected member of the superior court bench viewed the issuance of injunctive relief as necessary here highlights the egregiousness of defendants’ conduct in this case. Stated plainly, the outcome of this case cannot be dismissed as merely the unfortunate product of a runaway jury. The evidence adduced at trial obviously caused both the jury and the judge to conclude not only that something seriously wrong was done to Fogarty-Hardwick in this case, but also that the wrongful conduct was not an isolated incident. That conclusion is something the County should be taking very seriously.”

Fogarty-Hardwick v. County of Orange, Cal: Court of Appeals, 4th Dist., Div. 3, 2010.

Larry Welborn, Justices affirm $5 million verdict for Seal Beach mom, Orange County Register, (June 15, 2010).