Couple sues state for $1 million False file listing of child abuse cited

April 13, 1993|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,Staff Writer

A Taylorsville couple incorrectly listed in state records as child sexual abusers are suing the Maryland Department of Human Resources secretary and two Carroll County Department of Social Services officials for $1 million.

In a 13-count defamation and conspiracy lawsuit filed Friday in Carroll County Circuit Court, David R. and Marsha A. Hodge of Timothy Drive say the defendants "deliberately and intentionally lied" to them when they sought access to the official files that falsely accused them of sexually abusing their son.

Named as defendants in the suit are M. Alexander Jones, director of the Carroll Department of Social Services; Assistant Director Alan L. Katz; and Carolyn W. Colvin, state secretary of human resources, whose department oversees the Department of Social Services.

The lawsuit was expected after a federal judge ruled that the department violated the Hodges' constitutional rights by maintaining the false abuse allegations in a central computer data base and refusing to give the Hodges a chance to appeal their inclusion on the computer list.

In his September ruling, Senior U.S. District Judge Herbert F. Murray said the state agency maintained "a file on the Hodges with no legitimate justification for doing so."

The file, in which the Hodges were said to have sexually abused their infant son, was not corrected until four days after they filed their $1.5 million federal lawsuit.

Judge Murray's ruling -- which would force state officials to grant a hearing to all people included on the statewide list of child abusers -- was appealed by Social Services. The judge later refused to amend his decision, and the agency has appealed it to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va.

The Hodges were thrown 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 child abuse. The swelling was a bone infection later corrected by surgery at Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore.

The couple's son, now 4, is entering preschool.

Even before the correct diagnosis was made, the social worker assigned to the case ruled out any abuse.

For three years, the Hodges thought their worst problem was being listed in the data bank as linked to unsubstantiated physical abuse. They were continually denied access to that file.

After Judge Murray granted them access to their file, the Hodges were outraged at what they saw.

Their experience with Social Services has made Mr. Hodge an informal spokesman on social service procedures since 1989.

Last night, the Maryland General Assembly still was considering a bill that would force Social Services to allow people access to files maintained on them in the agency's data bank and grant them hearings if they disagree with the file's contents. The legislation was introduced by Del. Donald B. Elliot, R-Carroll.

Mr. Hodge has lobbied state legislators hard for four years for legislation that would give people access to their Social Services files in such cases. He was armed this year with Judge Murray's ruling and the support of a score of delegates and senators.

In combination with the legislation, the ultimate outcome of the Hodges' federal suit could have wide implications on how state child abuse records are taken and maintained.

Judge Murray also hinted in his ruling that the Hodges may have a defamation claim against the three agency employees, but that such a claim must be heard in state -- not federal -- court.

"My life has been altered forever by them," Mr. Hodge said yesterday. "This whole thing is not about protecting kids. It's about protecting their [the state agency's] social agenda and protecting money."

Helen Szablya, a Human Resources spokeswoman, did not return telephone calls seeking comment yesterday.

In the defamation suit, the Hodges say the defendants told them that they were listed on the state data base as Social Services "clients" and that allegations of child abuse had been "ruled out."

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