Agency in violation, judge says Files falsely listed couple as abusers

September 29, 1992|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,Staff Writer

The Carroll County Department of Social Services violated a Taylorsville couple's constitutional rights by keeping an open file in a statewide data bank that falsely accused them of sexually abusing their infant son, a federal judge has ruled.

Senior U.S. District Judge Herbert F. Murray said the actions of DSS "deprived the [couple] of their protected interest in familial privacy without due process of law."

Judge Murray, in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, granted summary judgment in favor of David and Marsha Hodge in their $1.5 million lawsuit against the social services agency.

"This whole case shows the power and arrogance of a state agency that doesn't care," Mr. Hodge said yesterday. "It shows the length to which they [state officials] will go to destroy the reputation of one of their critics."

Judge Murray's ruling Friday clears the way for the Hodges to seek the damages in a trial. It also removed the department from the

suit because it is immune under the 11th Amendment to the Constitution.

The Hodges will continue to pursue their claims against Carroll DSS Director M. Alexander Jones, Assistant Director Alan L. Katz and Carolyn W. Colvin, secretary of the state Department of Human Resources. Her department oversees the Social Services Department.

Human resources officials have not decided whether to appeal the ruling, a spokesman said.

The Hodges were plunged into the social services arena after a misdiagnosis of their son's swollen arm led Carroll County General Hospital pediatrician Michael Rosner to report possible abuse. The swelling was a bone infection later corrected by surgery at Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore.

Even before the correct diagnosis, the social worker assigned to the case ruled out the alleged abuse.

For three years, the Hodges thought their worst problem was being listed in the data bank as

linked to "unsubstantiated" physical abuse of their son, but they were continually denied access to that file.

Judge Murray ruled in August that DSS must disclose the contents of the Hodges' file to them. What they saw infuriated them.

"We have seen our file," Mr. Hodge said earlier this month. "We're in a state of shock regarding the misinformation it contains."

For three years, the Hodges were included in the state's Automated Master File as "indicated" for allegedly sexually abusing their 3-month-old son. The coded information in the file was available to social services workers throughout state.

The automated file contains data on all "customers" of DSS, including food stamp recipients and child abusers.

The Hodges claimed in their suit that state law requires DSS to contact people they intend to include in a central file of child abusers and allow them the chance to challenge such an inclusion.

But DSS maintained that state law only mandates such contact when entering a name on the so-called "Central Registry for Child Abuse," a data base unused for more than a decade. The agency's position was that the law did not require them to notify anybody who was to be included on the automated master file.

Judge Murray vehemently disagreed.

"Because the legislature could not have intended the absurd result of notice and a hearing in cases of food stamp services, the defendants argue, the AMF [master file] cannot be a central registry," the judge wrote in his ruling.

"However, this court finds even more absurd the notion that the defendants could avoid the clear requirements of [state law] simply by adding other sorts of records to a central registry."

While agreeing with the Hodges that DSS violated its own procedures by denying the couple their rights to appeal inclusion on the automated file, Judge Murray said issues of defamation will have to be settled in a state court.

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