Legalized Child-Stealing in Arlington County, Virginia

The Washington Examiner has a must-read editorial called “Baby Snatching by Arlington County.”

It shows that if County social workers seize your baby, based on false allegations of neglect, and put your baby in foster care long enough, you might never get your child back, even if you prove yourself innocent, because the courts will say it’s in “the best interests of the child” that your baby stay with the foster parents he’s gotten used to living with.  (Taking that logic to its ultimate conclusion, a kidnapper who kidnapped a newborn from a hospital and then escaped prosecution on a technicality could keep the child, because the child would have bonded with the kidnapper by the time the kidnapper was apprehended).

That’s the gist of a recent Arlington, Virginia circuit court decision described in today’s Washington Examiner. County social workers took a baby away from her parents based largely on false, anonymous allegations that she was being starved, even though she was at her proper weight at the time they seized her from her parents.  And although those allegations were later ruled false by a CPS hearing officer, the judge permanently removed her from her parents anyway, claiming she had bonded with her new foster parents and thus might be traumatized if she were returned.  (He also cited evidence that her natural parents were not model parents, but that is not the test for terminating parental rights under the Supreme Court’s decision in Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U.S. 745 (1982).  If it were, millions of healthy children could be removed from their families by social workers).  Parents Nancy Hey and Christopher Slitor spent a staggering $350,000 in legal bills in their losing fight for their child.

I personally am worried about this court decision, even though I and my family have never been accused of child neglect or abuse, because my wife, at the suggestion of our pediatrician, called Arlington County social workers because our baby is extremely difficult to feed, and they then visited our house earlier this year.  (Our baby Sarah is 70th percentile in height and skull size, but only 10th percentile in weight).  I thought nothing of this visit at the time, since our baby is lively and healthy and has never been neglected or abused, and my wife is a good mother (who conscientiously cared for many children as a nanny, and helped raise her own nephew).  

Although the circuit court decision is apparently justified by the so-called “best interest of the child,” its long run effect is to harm children by discouraging even fit, non-abusive parents from seeking advice or information from doctors or social workers when their children have behaviors or injuries that might sometimes be associated with parental abuse or neglect.  Good parents will now worry about talking to doctors (who are required by state laws to report any possibility of abuse or neglect to social workers) or social workers lest it lead to unwarranted (and unreversible) seizures of a child by social workers. 

Parents already have to worry that if they take their child to the doctor, and reasonably disagree with the doctor’s preferred treatment, overzealous social workers will temporarily seize their child.  That’s what happened to Corissa Mueller, who took her baby daughter Taige to the doctor because the baby had a high temperature, and then had social workers temporarily seize the child after she rejected the doctor’s preferred treatment (a spinal tap) in favor of a reasonable alternative she felt posed fewer health risks.  (The Center for Individual Rights, my former law firm, is representing Mueller in a constitutional lawsuit against Idaho state social worker April Auker for her role in the seizure in Mueller v. Idaho.  A federal judge in Idaho refused to dismiss the lawsuit, citing a 1999 ruling in favor of parental rights by the federal appeals court in that region, the Ninth Circuit.)  Since conditions in foster care are often bad, even temporary seizures of a child can cause devastating emotional and psychological harm.

The Arlington County court ruling, now on appeal, radically increases the risk to parents of taking an injured, ill, or behaviorally-disordered child to a doctor, by allowing an erroneous temporary seizure of a child based on suspicions of abuse to become permanent merely because of the passage of time, even if the child turns out never to have been neglected or abused.  Arlington County seems to be moving towards the situation in some foreign countries like England, where children are removed permanently from their parents based on the most meager suspicions of abuse, fueled in part by the bounties that social workers and local governments receive for seizing children from their parents and then adopting them out.