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Jury Disowns Parents

July 4, 2007 permalink

A Utah couple, James and Connie Roska, had their children taken without cause in 1999. After years of successful litigation in appellate courts they got a jury trial for damages. The jury awarded them $2 for their suffering.

This case illustrates a prerequisites for reform of child protection. It is not enough to write letters to newspaper editors or politicians. It is important as well to get the message out to people not yet involved with the child protection system.



Skeptical jury awards just $2 for parents' pain over son's improper removal by state

But 1999 incident helped change family-rights laws

Melinda Sneddon, left, and Colleen Lasater
DCFS case workers Melinda Sneddon, left, and Colleen Lasater leave Federal Court on Monday after getting a verdict in their favor regarding the Roska family lawsuit against DCFS. (Francisco Kjolseth/The Salt Lake Tribune)

After watching Utah child-welfare caseworkers drive off with her 12-year-old son, Connie Roska collapsed on the front lawn of her Layton home.

She doesn't remember how she got back into the house.

But the hurt remains fresh for Roska and her husband, James, who testified tearfully in U.S. District Court last week about harms suffered due to Rusty's wrongful removal May 28, 1999. Sleepless nights, a missed graduation ceremony, depression and general distrust of governmental authorities were the suffering for which the Roskas said they deserve compensation.

It wasn't enough to sway a jury, which Monday rejected the couple's injury claim, awarding $2 in nominal damages.

Monday's verdict caps a six-day trial and nearly eight-year legal battle, which helped drive changes to Utah law aimed at safeguarding parents' rights.

But those changes are meaningless, if "you can violate the law without being punished," said the Roskas' lawyer Steven Russell. The Roskas left the courthouse Monday in tears and declined to comment.

The Roskas sued Shirley Morrison, a caseworker at Utah's Division of Child and Family Services, and her two supervisors, Colleen Lasater and Melinda Sneddon. A federal appeals court earlier had ruled the trio violated Utah law - and could be held personally liable - by taking Rusty into protective care without first offering services to his parents.

Caseworkers also violated the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by taking Rusty without a hearing or warrant, their attorneys acknowledged.

But Utah Assistant Attorney General Matthew Bates asked jurors to "cut these social workers a little slack."

Bates said caseworkers are caring professionals who "work in an extremely demanding and thankless job" and said they followed their training.

"Folks, you don't get damages just because your constitutional rights were violated," Bates said. "This isn't 'The Price Is Right.' [The Roskas] need to prove they were injured."

Caseworkers argued they had no choice but to remove Rusty, who they feared was a victim of abuse, and that removals without due process were common in the late '90s. The practice led Morrison, who worked for the division for one year, to later become an advocate for falsely accused families.

In a taped phone call to the Roskas' attorney, she condemned the state's "Gestapo-style" tactics and agreed to be a witness for the Roskas. That changed when the Roskas sued.

Utah law since has been changed to require a warrant or hearing before removal, unless there's an emergency.

Still, Russell called caseworkers' claims of ignorance "an outrage," citing division training manuals underscoring that removal should be a last resort.

The Roskas alleged caseworkers yelled profanities and shoved children out of their way during Rusty's removal. Sneddon told Roska if she didn't carry Rusty out to the van, she would "drag him up the stairs," Russell said.

A neuropsychologist who examined the family said Rusty Roska, now 21 and living in his parents' home, and his parents display symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Connie has coped by trying to "save the world," working as a parental-rights advocate, while her husband "retreated from the world," Russell said. "He lost the trust of his son and the trust of himself as a father. He still blames himself for what happened."

Bates questioned the Roskas' damage claims, noting each had struggled with mental illnesses before Rusty's removal. "Jim still has a job. Connie runs a day care," he said. "They appear to be living normal lives."

Russell said the Roskas have nearly exhausted their chances to appeal, though they may revive injury claims for their children.

The state had twice offered to settle with the Roskas; once for $100,000 and again for a more generous sum.

Russell said suing the state wasn't an option for the Roskas due to Utah's immunity statute. He fears the verdict will have a chilling effect on future lawsuits. "I can't imagine anyone wanting to go through this after this trial."

The case in brief

  • What happened: A jury found three Utah child-welfare workers owe only $2 in damages for the wrongful removal of a 12-year-old boy from his Davis County home.
  • History: Social workers and school officials believed the boy was a victim of Munchausen's Syndrome by Proxy, a condition in which a parent acts as if a child is ill, or even causes the child's illness. A doctor corroborated his parents' assertion that he suffered from a kidney disorder. Nevertheless, workers took custody of the boy, who returned home after a week in foster care.

    A federal judge had dismissed the parents' lawsuit, but an appeals court ruled the workers were liable for violating Utah law by taking they boy without first offering services to his parents.

Source: Salt Lake Tribune