Social workers not immune from liability for lying

In the second case based on the same event, the federal appellate court has affirmed that the county is not immune from liability after two social workers committed perjury, causing a California woman to lose custody of her two young daughters for six and a half years.

Normally, social workers and other public officials and their employers are protected from lawsuits by qualified immunity. This helps protect government employees who have to make difficult decisions about things like child custody from lawsuits over ordinary mistakes or errors in judgment.

However, it doesn't protect the employees or their employer when a "reasonable person" would have known that his or her actions violated clearly established law. It also isn't designed to protect an official that intentionally violates someone's constitutional rights or the law.

Orange County officials tried to defend the social workers in this case, neither of whom were ever disciplined for fabricating testimony against the California mother, by saying that it was not clearly established law in civil court at the time of the events that people in the California mother's position had the right to be free from fabricated evidence. The social workers had both falsely told the family court judge that the mother had caused the children to skip a mandatory visit with their father, even though they knew that the problem was caused by a visitation monitor. In addition, they falsely told the court that the mother had turned her daughters against the visitation monitor and told them that their father was trying to take them away from her.

The appellate judge was less-than-impressed with the defense, saying that anybody "with an IQ greater than room temperature in Alaska" would know that lying in court was perjury, and illegal.

In 2011, the mother won a $4.9 million verdict against the county over the events. By the time the county finished appealing, interest and additional attorney fees swelled the total to $9.6 million. The newest lawsuit is brought by one of the children who had been removed from their mother's care.

It's important to realize that social workers and their employer are not permitted to fabricate evidence. They are supposed to be neutral observers who testify fairly in all child custody cases. If you believe that a social worker involved in your case is biased, it would be wise to seek legal assistance promptly.

Source: The Orange County Register, "Daughter sues Orange County after being taken from mom, who got $9.6M in same case," Jordan Graham, Jan. 18, 2017

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