Sunday, May 20, 2007

People need to be able to report child abuse without fear of retaliation, but in this case it seems like the cop went too far

Suit alleges child taken without cause
Parents say neighbor stirred action by calling her police officer son
Honeycutt-Spears, Valarie. Lexington Herald-Leader, May 14, 2007, pg. B1.

A Williamsburg police officer conspired with a state social worker to take custody of a woman's 2-year-old son after the woman got into a dispute with the officer's mother, according to a lawsuit filed last week.

The suit, filed Tuesday in Whitley Circuit Court, says that on April 9, Felicia Morgan of Williamsburg "had words" with her neighbor, telling the woman to stop "snooping" and "peeping" through a privacy fence. According to the suit, the neighbor called her son, Williamsburg police Officer Wayne Bird.

Within minutes Bird, in uniform, appeared on Morgan's doorstep along with state social worker Stephanie Bryant, who took custody of Morgan's 2-year-old son, according to the court complaint.

The lawsuit maintains that the child was taken without just cause.

According to the complaint, Bird told Felicia Morgan not to curse at his mother, "and the next time (his mother) called or he saw Plaintiffs outside he would clean house with the Plaintiffs on or off duty."

Bird and the social worker told Morgan that they were investigating a complaint that the Morgans -- Felicia and her husband, Anthony -- were permitting the 2-year-old to drink beer.

"It was obvious to Stephanie Bryant that the child was not intoxicated, was drinking root beer and was well-cared for," the lawsuit said.

A Cabinet for Health and Family Services document attached to the complaint states that Bryant found no evidence of a problem.

"This investigation is found to be an unsubstantiation at this time. A case will not be opened. No finding of neglect has been found," said the April 12 report, signed by Bryant and her supervisor.

"Overall," said the Morgans' attorney, David Smith of Corbin, "this shows that the Cabinet (child protection officials) in Whitley and McCreary counties is completely out of control."

Bryant took the child and placed him in the temporary custody of Felicia Morgan's mother. Social workers returned the child to his parents the next day, after the parents hired an attorney.

The Morgans are suing Wayne Bird, his mother, Gladys Bird, and Bryant, alleging that the three "clearly falsified untrue allegations."

The lawsuit also names the city of Williamsburg and Bryant's employer, the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, as defendants. The couple asks for $8,000 in damages.

The two agencies "negligently supervised their employees and permitted them to act outside their duties, in an unconstitutional manner," the complaint says.

A lawsuit gives one side of a story. Wayne and Gladys Bird and Bryant did not return phone calls.

Cabinet spokeswoman Vikki Franklin said Cabinet officials could not comment because they had not received the lawsuit.

Williamsburg City Police Chief Denny Shelley said he was not aware of the lawsuit or the incident.

"No formal complaint has been filed with the city," Shelley said.

The complaint alleges that Bird searched without a warrant both the Morgans' house and that of a neighbor.

The Morgans passed two drug tests in the hours after the child was taken.

Although the social worker did not find any evidence that the couple had been neglectful, they were required to sign a "safety plan" promising that they would not "party" in front of their child.

In the past 18 months, the Cabinet has fielded several complaints that Kentucky social workers unjustly remove children from homes. Earlier this year, the Cabinet's inspector general found that some state social workers, mostly in Hardin County, were vindictive against parents and committed possible crimes as they removed children inappropriately.

In recent weeks, a judge in Whitley County also criticized social work officials there for placing a foster child in a home where a registered sex offender "freely roamed."