A federal judge in Baltimore has refused to dismiss a lawsuit filed by a former Carroll County couple that contends a child abuse investigator illegally searched their home and threatened to continue spot checks unless they agreed to enroll in a therapy program.
"It's a step in the right direction," said Ronald Dorsey of Woodlawn. He and his wife, Carolyn, filed the suit last year in U.S. District Court.
They hope Senior Judge Herbert F. Murray will grant a summary judgment in their favor, Mr. Dorsey said yesterday. Judge Murray filed an opinion late last week dismissing some of the counts but allowing most of them to stand.
The Dorsey family moved from Carroll County to Woodlawn in August 1989, the suit says, to get out of the jurisdiction of the Carroll Department of Social Services.
Their suit alleges that Ruth Ann Arty, formerly a social worker in Carroll, targeted them for harassment because of their values and beliefs. The Dorseys say that they never were charged with child abuse, but that Ms. Arty threatened to continue spot checks on the family indefinitely unless they consented to intensive family therapy.
The Social Services investigation involved alleged abuse against one of their seven adopted children, Mr. Dorsey said. Five of the children were adopted through the Carroll Department of Social Services, he said.
Shortly after the Dorseys moved, the Baltimore County Department of Social Services dropped the investigation, court records show.
Defendants in the lawsuit are Ms. Arty and Trevor St. Victor George Walford, former Carroll Social Services investigators; M. Alexander Jones, the department's director, and Alan Katz assistant director; and Carolyn Colvin, secretary of the Maryland Department of Human Resources, which oversees local social services departments.
Judge Murray dismissed Camille B. Wheeler, director of the Baltimore County Department of Social Services, as a defendant. The judge ruled that the charges in the lawsuit do not implicate her or her department.
The Maryland attorney general's office, representing the defendants, had filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
Department of Human Resources spokeswoman Helen Szablya did not return phone calls yesterday. The assistant attorneys' general handling the case referred inquiries on the case to her.
In his memorandum, filed April 29, Judge Murray accepted only a few arguments made by the state, clearing the way for the case to continue to discovery and trial.
Judge Murray ruled that the search of the Dorsey home by Ms. Arty and Mr. Walford in July 1989 is not immune to constitutional protection from unreasonable search and seizure.
"Even in a child abuse investigation, parents do not sacrifice their constitutional rights -- the interest in protecting the children, concededly a substantial one, certainly does not authorize warrantless home searches in every case," the judge wrote in his opinion.
State lawyers contend the search was reasonable, but Judge Murray said the point is an arguable one.
The defendants contend that Mrs. Dorsey consented to the search. But the Dorseys say she did not agree to it and that Mr. Walford kept her in the kitchen while Ms. Arty searched the home and questioned the children.
Judge Murray ruled in the state's favor, however, by dismissing the Dorseys' charges that Social Services officials unfairly entered and kept the couple's name in a statewide data base for suspected child abuse.
Another Carroll County couple, David and Marsha Hodge of Taylorsville, won a ruling by Judge Murray last year that the state violated their constitutional rights by keeping them listed on official records as child abusers after an investigator cleared them.
In January 1989, a doctor misdiagnosed a bone infection in the Hodges' infant son's arm, believing it was a fracture. A Carroll County Social Services investigator ruled out child abuse, and the correct medical diagnosis removed all doubt a few days later.
Their lawsuit to have their records expunged revealed last August that a coding error had mistakenly listed their son for nearly three years as having been sexually abused.
In the Dorsey case, however, Judge Murray ruled that the Hodge ruling did not apply, and dismissed that count as the state requested.
". . . The allegations of child abuse in this case have never been refuted to a certainty," Judge Murray wrote in the Dorsey case. "[T]he defendants in this case have a legitimate reason for maintaining a record of the investigations of the Dorseys."
The Dorseys claim that Ms. Arty's actions destroyed their relationship with the child.