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Washington DC Family Harassed
February 24, 2008 permalink
A columnist for the Washington Post profiles the Caplan family that last August had a baby girl bump her head and recover after one day's observation. Child protectors grabbed the girl and her twin, and have not left the family alone since. The family is down $75,000 and counting. Stories like this now appear regularly in the UK and the USA, so far nothing in the Canadian print press.
The Washington Post
Raw Fisher The Cold Splash of Reality, With A Side of Sizzle
A Bump, A Panic, Two Babies Torn From Home
On the Thursday before Labor Day, while Julianna Caplan was changing the diaper on one of her twins, she heard a dull thud. She turned around to see her other 8-month-old trying to push herself up from the floor, where she'd been playing, and knock her head.
There were no bumps or bruises, but over the next few hours, the little girl acted fussy, then altogether out of sorts. After she began throwing up and drifting off to sleep, her parents grew concerned, called the doctor and ended up at Children's Hospital.
The baby recovered fully within 24 hours, but almost six months later, Caplan and her husband, Greg, remain trapped in the District's frightening child-abuse system. It is a quicksand of bureaucratic paralysis, a warped mirror image of the indifference that permitted Banita Jacks's four girls to die in Southeast last year.
The city took both Caplan twins away from home and placed them in foster care for a time. The parents are still on the city's child-abuse registry, even though a court and police have found no evidence of abuse.
After Mayor Adrian Fenty fired six Child and Family Services Agency workers because they "just didn't do their job" in the Jacks case, social workers predicted that the pendulum would swing to the point that the slightest whisper of possible abuse would result in knee-jerk reactions against parents.
The Caplans' ordeal started before the horror of the Jacks case, but the Georgetown couple is convinced that their names are not being removed from the city's child protection registry largely because of the District's embarrassment over the Jacks case.
The parents believe the city was right to suspect abuse, right to investigate, right to run tests. But they say the case went off the rails when city lawyers continued to press abuse allegations even after the judge found no cause to proceed.
The twists in the case fill hundreds of pages of reports, but the bottom line is: The baby suffered retinal hemorrhaging, sometimes a sign of child abuse. When a doctor noted that, Child and Family Services intervened.
Because it was a holiday, the hospital had to wait several days to conduct tests to see if the baby had been abused. Those tests would find no reason to believe abuse had occurred. The police investigator would write that "all five examining physicians made no medical diagnoses or cause to support physical abuse." And D.C. Magistrate Judge Mary Grace Rook would find that "there are not reasonable grounds to believe that [the baby] was abused."
But Child and Family Services neither waited nor investigated. With lights flashing and four police officers on hand, social workers arrived at the Caplan house at midnight on the night after the baby entered the hospital. They took the infant's uninjured sister out of her father's embrace and put her in foster care in Prince George's County.
It was the first night she had ever spent away from her parents and her sister. It would not be the last.
She was forced to spend nearly two weeks at the foster care facility in Hyattsville. The injured sister, after her recovery, was kept in the hospital awaiting test results. Afterward, she was in foster care for five days. Both sisters were then reunited at home under their grandmothers' care, but on condition that the Caplans move out of their own house.
At a hearing, the city sought to keep the children separated from their parents, but the court rejected the abuse allegations, and the family was allowed back together.
"If they had had their way, we would have been out of our house for months," says Julianna, a former CNN publicist who now works from home as a freelancer. Greg is a manager for Lockheed Martin. They wiped out their savings and borrowed from relatives to raise $75,000 for legal help.
Just as disturbing as the agency's rush to judgment was their fixation on the Caplans because of their class, or, as CFSA head Sharlynn Bobo put it, their "privilege."
"This family is privileged and able to marshal significant resources to accomplish its goals and fight the allegations," Bobo wrote to her staff in September. "I believe that we made the right decision" to take the girls away from their parents.
Even after the court found for the Caplans, the city offered to end its investigation only if the parents submitted to counseling, anger management classes and unannounced visits from social workers. The Caplans declined the deal.
"It was like, what is the price of our morals?" Julianna says. "Do we lie and say someone abused our daughters to make this go away?"
Not everyone at CFSA was comfortable with what happened. In an e-mail to one of the children's grandparents, Deputy Director Roque Gerald criticized "defensive child welfare. In our attempt to protect, we have also lost the ability of balance for fear of retribution." Neither Gerald nor Bobo returned my calls.
D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles says the city was right not to give the Caplans special treatment. "I am not going to treat you differently because you are an attractive, articulate couple," he says. "I'm not saying I would have done this the same way, but I see the law working its way."
Nickles says the Caplans may appeal to a neutral party -- an outside expert -- to be removed from the registry, which means they are automatic suspects if their children are injured and need care.
"They treat us with contempt because we fought back," Julianna says. "Who would not sell every stitch of clothing off their backs to fight for their children?"
Two days before the Jacks case broke, Nickles, then the mayor's legal adviser, met with the Caplans after Greg called Fenty on WAMU's "Kojo Nnamdi Show." Nickles then described the couple's ordeal as "Kafkaesque." But after the Jacks story broke, city leaders changed their tune.
Nickles denies any shift in his attitude. "It may very well be that the weight of the evidence supports the Caplans' position," he said. "But the law is skewed properly toward the protection of the child."
He says he agonized over the Caplan case, in part because one of his own children once fell out of a crib and was taken to the hospital. But he concluded that "the city was not overly aggressive."
Taking the girls from their parents was "traumatic, but this is a very law-driven process that can have very unsatisfying results. If this had been shaken-baby syndrome and something had happened to the second child, the public would have come down hard on us, quite appropriately."
Fenty says he "would rather err on the side of getting too many calls about abuse. That's exactly what we want to have happen."
The Caplans reject the idea that the city is only doing its job well by being on hair-trigger alert. "Do you believe innocent families have to get caught up in this?" Greg asks. "This is a false choice. What has to happen is not overreaction, but competence."
The Caplans plan to sue the District, seeking reforms in the child welfare system and reimbursement of what they spent fighting the allegations. The twins are happy and playful children now, but the daughter who spent two weeks in foster care "freaks out if I leave the room," Julianna says. "Before, she would let anyone hold her. Now, she screams."
By Marc Fisher | February 24, 2008; 2:51 AM ET
Source: Washington Post
Addendum: Five years later litigation is still pending and the child protectors are fighting to keep it secret.
In D.C., unwarranted child abuse suspicions lead to a case with no end
Nearly six years later, the case isn’t over for the Caplan family.
Their twins were 8 months old when police arrived at their Georgetown home at 1 a.m. on an August night to take one of their girls away.
What happened after that — the fight to get their daughters back and to get themselves off a list of suspected child abusers — was chronicled in Marc Fisher’s Washington Post column in February 2008.
The case continues today, as the city moves to seal the ongoing arguments by the Caplans, who filed a $1 million civil suit against the city for the way the Child and Family Services Agency handled the case.
“The District is arguing that basically every lawsuit ever filed challenging neglect proceedings must be kept under seal,” said Greg Smith, the family’s attorney.
The city says kids are involved and they want to keep their names out of the public record. Smith says that means that “CFSA practices will never see the light of day.”
The inner workings of that agency rattled the Caplans’ lives one day in August 2007, when Julianna Caplan was changing the diaper of one of their twins. The other twin was trying to push herself up, fell over and bonked her head. Julianna and Greg Caplan took her to the hospital and test results showed an injury — a retinal hemorrhage — consistent with shaken baby syndrome.
The hospital visit flagged CFSA, which swooped in. Social workers kept the injured child at the hospital and sent the cops to the Caplans’ home to take custody of the other baby.
The twins were placed in a foster home for two weeks, and their parents landed on the city’s child-abuse registry for much longer.
No one wants to be falsely accused of child abuse. And any parent can imagine the hell it would be if the little beings who consume all your attention were placed in a stranger’s home.
The Caplans agreed that CFSA was correct to investigate them, and they are simpatico with the laws and systems in place that put the child first.
All this happened just before a woman named Banita Jacks killed her four daughters and lived with their corpses for months. The city got slammed for the lack of oversight in the Jacks case. So you can’t thump them for a by-the-book investigation of a couple just because they’re from Georgetown.
No, what the Caplans are upset about was what followed: a struggle one city official called “Kafkaesque” to get their daughters home and get themselves removed from the child-abuse registry when tests and the testimony of five doctors said nothing resembling child abuse had ever happened.
The 8-month-old who bonked her head had an unusually large one — in the 99th percentile for size — and that often contributes to a more traumatic result from a perfectly innocent bump, Smith said.
The Caplans are suing the city for cash, yes, Smith said. They lost about $100,000 on a legal team to help them get their children back and get them off the child-abuser list. But Smith said they are also pursuing the case because “they feel the system is broken, and it needs to be improved.”
The Caplans testified before the D.C. Council; they spoke with social workers; they had meetings. And nothing has changed.
In court documents, D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan argued that the Caplans’ case isn’t an examination of the agency’s inner workings, but rather “just a garden-variety negligence action, targeting the District’s deep pockets.”
“The public at large has no particular interest in this case beyond mere curiosity. Plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate any reason— other than their apparent desire to litigate their private lives in the press — that the District’s motion to seal should not be granted,” Nathan said.
Smith said the argument that the city is protecting the girls is a false one, since it cited information from sealed documents in the very papers it filed to keep all that information secret.
CFSA spokeswoman Mindy Good said the agency has no comment on the pending litigation. And the Caplans preferred not to comment on the case beyond the court filings.
It makes sense to keep those girls out of the public eye, to keep their names out of public court documents.
On the other hand, the case is one of the rare opportunities to hear the family’s side of the story. They say dysfunction is rampant in a system that is largely shielded from the public eye, and one that usually works with families who don’t have access to the kind of lawyer the Caplans can get.
“Our view is that everything should be public, of course,” that lawyer explained. “Scrutiny is the best disinfectant.”
Source: Washington Post