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Social Worker Penalized

February 15, 2011 permalink

When social workers are disciplined, it is always for failure to snatch a child. Mistakes of the other kind, snatching a child unnecessarily, never result in discipline, of if they do, the penalty is ultimately removed by union action or an appellate court. Here is a case of a Los Angeles social worker, Lorna Hornbeek, who received a thirty day suspension for taking a child without adequate justification. If past practice is followed, she will ultimately get her back pay.



Social worker suffers repercussions for removing child from family

Hospital officials had called to report that the mother of a premature newborn had tested positive for amphetamines and PCP. A second drug test, given 26 hours later, turned up negative.

For Lorna Hornbeek, an experienced social worker with the Department of Children and Family Services, the decision was clear - the baby and his 2-year-old sister needed to be removed from the family immediately while an investigation took place.

That decision, made nearly three years ago, resulted in a 30-day suspension without pay for Hornbeek, in part for "carelessness or negligence of duties resulting in improper service" rendered to county clients, according to her disciplinary letter. The letter also made mention of a "costly" civil lawsuit filed by the family, which the county by then had settled for $350,000.

Hornbeek, a DCFS supervisor in Torrance, hired a private lawyer and is now trying to clear her name. A trial over the circumstances of her case concluded last week before an administrative law judge, who is expected to make a recommendation to the county Civil Service Commission in March.

"What is she supposed to do?" said her lawyer, Rees Lloyd, a prominent Los Angeles labor attorney. "It's damned if you do, damned if you don't."

The case - believed to be the first in which a social worker was disciplined for removing a child - highlights the difficult and complex decisions social workers face in dealing with often murky and fluid circumstances.

"My clients are the children," Hornbeek said in a recent interview. "I have an obligation to protect them, first and foremost."

At the time of Hornbeek's decision three years ago, California law required a reasonable suspicion of harm to remove a child from the home. Now, the standard is even higher - the law requires clear evidence of imminent harm to the child.

"We're a big target for criticism," said Neil Zanville, a children's services administrator for DCFS. "But we are only legally empowered to act on evidence that we see. The courts require solid information to warrant removal of a child."

Due to confidentiality restrictions, the department declined to comment specifically on Hornbeek's case. Officials would speak only generally about the department and its practices.

Hornbeek provided a copy of her disciplinary letter, along with redacted notes and correspondence with department officials. The lawsuit filed by the family and the county's settlement and plan of correction are public documents.

In its suit against the county, filed in May 2008, the family argued that Hornbeek and others should have known that a positive drug test is not alone sufficient evidence for removing a child. Other evidence, such as lack of prenatal care, prior contact with police or DCFS, a disheveled home or visible signs of abuse, must also be present, social workers and county officials said.

The mother and father denied using drugs, and their criminal records were clear. They maintained a neat home with plenty of food, they said in court documents. The baby's urine and stool samples were negative for drugs.

The mother delivered on Feb. 7, 2008, three weeks early, in an ambulance headed to a Los Angeles-area hospital. Physicians noted suspicious signs and decided to screen her for drugs, which turned up positive.

The family contested the hospital's legal right to administer the initial test, and requested a second test. Given roughly a day later, the second test was negative. They argued the positive test amounted to an illegal search and should not have been reported to the county.

"The hospital has an obligation to report a positive test," said Jim Lott, spokesman for the Hospital Association of Southern California, a trade group. "It's up to the county whether or not they want to pursue it."

Hornbeek, then a supervisor with the county's emergency response unit, was not on duty that night. A few days later, when she learned the children had not been removed, she said she followed up with the case worker who responded and the hospital.

Hospital officials assured her the test had been handled and performed appropriately. She had them retest both samples, and the results came back the same. That, coupled with the fact that both of the mother's children were born premature and underweight, led her to remove them from the home.

"I believe I did the right thing," she said.

At a court hearing three days later, a judge decided - against objections by county attorneys - that it was safe for the children to return home, but agreed the parents should remain under county supervision. They were required to submit to random drug tests and other restrictions, which they completed.

In late March 2008, the case was closed.

Two months later, the family filed a lawsuit against the county, Hornbeek and the initial case worker for intentional infliction of emotional distress, breach of mandatory duties and negligence. The county initially declined to settle, but in August 2009 agreed to pay the family $350,000.

Neither attorneys for the family, nor county lawyers, returned phone calls for comment. It is unclear why the county ultimately decided to settle the case.

In its required plan of correction, the county said the cause of the suit was, in part, due to "staff violations of established policies." They wrote that the case would be referred to "performance management" for review and action.

Hornbeek said no one in the county, including the judges who heard the case, ever suggested she had done something wrong. In May 2008, she received high marks on a performance review.

"They had to pay a settlement, then threw her under the bus," said Lloyd, Hornbeek's attorney, who is confident she will be reimbursed for her monthlong suspension. "I've never seen anything like this."

Hornbeek, who has two master's degrees and a doctoral degree, said the job of a social worker is difficult, and the stress of this ordeal has taken a toll.

If social workers fear repercussions for taking children away, children in abusive situations will increasingly be left to fend for themselves, she and her attorney said.

"If they can do this to Lorna, a good, competent woman, they can do it to anyone," Lloyd said.

Zanville, speaking generally, used the same phrase as Lloyd in describing the feeling of many social workers: "You're damned if you do, damned if you don't."

The ultimate goal of the county is to reunite children with families if it is safe, or to find permanent homes for them as soon as possible, he said.

The process often takes months, even years.

"It's really a shell game," he said. "We do the best we can under difficult circumstances."

Source: Daily Breeze