A court case known as the “Right to Lie” case would establish whether social workers are legally immune from perjury charges if they lie to the courts in order to remove children from their families — and it is now one step away from the Supreme Court.
Case number 15-55563, also known as Hardwick v. Vreeken or the “Right to Lie” case, was heard in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in October. The case is an extension of a long-running court battle between a California woman and her two daughters against the child welfare system in Orange County, California.
Paperwork filed in the case, Do Social Workers Have a Constitutional “Right to Lie” Case 9th Cir 15-55563, says that after a seven-week trial beginning in 2007, a jury found social workers and Orange County liable for the “unconstitutional removal and continued detention” of Kendall and Preslie Hardwick, then 9 and 6, from their mother, Deanna Fogarty.
The Orange County Register reports that in a lawsuit filed by Kendall, social workers Marcie Vreeken and Helen Dwojak were accused of lying in a court report, failing to disclose threats Vreeken made against Kendall and her sister, withholding evidence that would have cleared their mother, and filing false reports.
Caseworkers were also found guilty of withholding information about the girls’ emotional states in foster care. At one point, a therapist wrote to the agency that Kendall showed signs of emotional regression and was tearful throughout the session, begging to go home.
“She doesn’t know how much longer she can cope and visibly shook while relating this,” the therapist wrote. Despite receiving reports such as these, the caseworkers continued to report to the courts that the girls were “doing well.”
The jury found that the girls were removed from their home by caseworkers using a “pervasive pattern of lies and extensive cover-up.” The girls ended up spending six and a half years in foster care, despite their mother’s continual attempts to comply with every request the caseworkers made of her, The Orange County Register reports.
The court found that the child welfare workers committed “judicial deception” to facilitate the removal of the children from their mother. So far, the case has resulted in more than $10 million in judgments against Orange County.
In October, a three-judge panel from the Ninth Circuit court heard oral arguments on behalf of one of the caseworkers, Marsha Vreeken, who is appealing the case. The 23-minute video is available for public viewing by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and can be viewed below.
Attorneys for Vreeken have argued that lying to the courts and making up stories of abuse to facilitate the removal of children from their homes might be ethically and morally wrong, but the actions were not illegal according to established law. They have appealed to the Ninth Circuit based on the argument that while state code might instruct caseworkers not to lie, there is no case law or precedent to suggest that their lying is unconstitutional.
The attorneys are arguing that as government workers, social workers are entitled to “qualified immunity” from prosecution in federal court unless there is proof that constitutional rights have been violated, and that the caseworkers knew “without a doubt” that their actions would be a violation of law.
The judges were not impressed with the argument, especially Judge Stephen Trott, who has been a member of the court since he was appointed by Ronald Reagan in 1987, according to Chronicles of Social Change.
“How in the world could a person in the shoes of your clients possibly believe that it was appropriate to use perjury and false evidence?” Trott asked. “How could they possibly not be in notice that you can’t do that?”
Trott was clearly baffled by the argument and the idea that social workers would not know that it’s not okay to commit perjury in court.
“You mean due process is somehow consistent with a government worker introducing perjured testimony and false evidence? I can’t even believe for a microsecond that a caseworker wouldn’t understand you can’t lie and put in false evidence.”
Chronicles of Social Change is warning of the implications of this case for families, especially families who do not have the financial means to fight child protection services in court.
“Consider the message this sends to the frontlines,” they wrote. “Caseworkers often are scapegoated if they leave a child in her or his own home and something goes wrong. But demand that a mother ‘submit’ to your will, take the children and run and then lie about it, and not only will you not be punished, you’ll get a promotion.”
Kathlee Arthur, who calls herself a “grandma warrior” and state committee woman for the Washington Democratic Party, has been following this case closely and meeting with legislators to try to raise awareness about it. She reports that no legislators that she has met with were even aware of the case.
If the judges rule against Vreeken and the case is appealed, it would move to the Supreme Court. Should that happen, the Supreme Court would officially establish whether child welfare caseworkers have the constitutional right to lie and present false evidence to remove children from their families.
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