Suit over erroneous social services abuse listing is dismissed

November 04, 1994|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,Sun Staff Writer

A Carroll Circuit judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by a Taylorsville couple who once were erroneously linked to child sexual abuse, but not without denouncing the way the Department of Social Services keeps track of its records.

"Although the erroneous entry of information in the present case was harmless under the circumstances . . . the court shudders to think of the possible ramifications that could result from continued shoddy record-keeping," Judge Raymond E. Beck Sr. wrote in his order dismissing David and Marsha Hodge's $12 million suit.

The defendants were M. Alexander Jones, executive director of the Carroll County Department of Social Services; Alan Katz, assistant director; and Carolyn W. Colvin, then secretary of the state Department of Human Resources.

"Given the vital function which DSS is charged with performing, the court can only hope that proper training, procedures and protocol are adopted and adequately overseen so that mistakes similar to -- or potentially worse than -- that presented in the present case will not reoccur in the future," the judge wrote.

The Hodges -- who were never charged with or accused of child sexual abuse -- have said the real abuse in the case was by the Carroll County Department of Social Services and state Department of Human Resources.

Those agencies, the couple said, either allowed the mistake to stand or never checked enough to discover it, despite repeated inquiries by the Hodges about their status in the social services database.

Reached yesterday, Mr. Hodge said he was not surprised by the ruling, though he continues to doubt DSS made a simple mistake.

"It was so obvious what these guys have done," he said. "Either they are dangerous, treacherous liars, or they are grossly incompetent to the point of distraction."

Judge Beck said there was no legal basis for the suit, which sought damages based on claims of negligence, defamation and conspiracy.

"We've said all along we've never injured these people," Mr. Katz said yesterday. "If anything, the Hodge case proves the system works. We got a report of abuse, we investigated it, there was nothing there, and the case was closed. We were out of their lives. They brought us back into their lives."

Between 1989 and 1992, the Hodges sought to see, amend or expunge their records because they believed they were listed as "unsubstantiated" for physical abuse and felt that that was ambiguous. The initial suspicion of abuse of their son was based on a doctor's misdiagnosis.

But after suing the state and finally seeing their records, they learned they were mistakenly listed as "indicated" for sexual abuse. The database does not identify abusers, but the Hodges claim it provides enough information for anyone with access to draw the conclusion that one of them abused their son.

The Hodges say the mistake, the failure to correct it for two years and the repeated assurances over that time by state officials that they had nothing to worry about caused them harm.

The Hodges' battle has reached the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which dismissed the $1.5 million federal suit they filed against the same defendants as in the Carroll case.

Their case has led to a change in state law, which now allows some information to be inspected by its subjects -- and to be expunged.

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