Last July I reported on the William Dunn case here. I’ve recently spoken with Dunn and his attorney, Robert Hancock and learned more details. The case opens a window on the mindset that often prevails in child protective agencies. Let’s just say, it’s not exactly father-friendly.
Mr. Dunn is a Florida man who fathered a daughter, Mercedes, out of wedlock with a casual acquaintance, Jennifer Shoaf. For some time, Shoaf kept the child secret from Dunn, but eventually he learned about her and moved immediately to be part of her life.
What he found out about his daughter’s situation appalled him. Shoaf was living with a boyfriend, Miguel Colon. His daughter, then about four years old, was suffering from apparent symptoms of sexual abuse. Dunn reported the matter to the Department of Children and Families who investigated but concluded there was no problem. They also told Dunn something else; they told him not to be surprised if Shoaf levelled charges against him in retaliation.
And guess what. That’s just what happened. But Dunn was able to prove to the satisfaction of a judge that Mercedes was suffering harm from being in her mother’s and Colon’s care, so custody was transferred to Dunn.
But Shoaf wasn’t finished. In September of 2006, she again contacted DCF with allegations against Dunn. She said Mercedes had told her that Dunn had been touching her and taking photos of her. Now, I don’t know a dad in the world who doesn’t “touch and take photos of his children,” but to DCF that meant “sexual touching” and “pornographic photos,” even though the girl had indicated no such thing. Such is the mindset of certain child welfare workers.
So DCF again investigated and Mercedes said, however very young children say such a thing, that there had been no inappropriate touching by Dunn. Despite being required by law and by Florida regulation to do so, DCF failed to interview Dunn or his wife, Heather, whom Dunn made sure to always have present when bathing, dressing, medicating, etc. the little girl.
Despite all that, despite the fact that they had no evidence of inappropriate behavior on Dunn’s part, despite the fact that they themselves had warned him about false allegations by Shoaf, they took Mercedes into foster care. It took Dunn a year to get her back, but get her back he did and she is now nine and seems to be a healthy and happy child. That said, she does require counselling for the anxiety caused by the persistent lying her mother coached her to do.
Meanwhile, Dunn employed Hancock to represent him in a lawsuit against DCF. It’s based on their negligent investigation of the case that resulted in Dunn’s daughter being taken from him. He’s suing on his own behalf and that of his daughter who suffered sexual victimization apparently at the hands of Colon. Trial is scheduled for October 4, and Hancock likes his chances.
I can’t overemphasize the value of what Dunn and Hancock are doing. I’ve written about the abuses of father’s and children’s rights by child welfare authorities more times than I can count and every father who’s experienced some version of what Dunn has should know that he may have a lawsuit available to him. Negligence is not a difficult thing to prove; it’s just failure to use ordinary care. So if a state CPS agency fails to use ordinary care in investigating a claim against a dad he should consult an attorney.
The negligence cause of action can be a good one in a case like Dunn’s, but we shouldn’t forget that the U.S. Ninth Circuit has ruled that a CPS agency that fails to notify a father before it places his child in foster care can be liable under federal civil rights laws. My guess is that a father who sues under that theory will discover a pattern or practice of ignoring fathers as a placement alternative for children taken from abusive or neglectful mothers. At least that’s what an Urban Institute study from 2006 shows.
It’s often been true in the past that, when legislatures refuse to enact needed legislation, litigation can often do what needs to be done. African-Americans had success in court well before southern legislatures required schools and other public facilities to be integrated. And once litigation succeeds, statute law is often not far behind. Again, civil rights litigation led directly to the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. In the same way, products liability litigation led to consumer products safety laws.
The Dunn case and the Burke case decided by the Ninth Circuit show again that, when legislatures fail, litigation can often succeed in asserting rights and disciplining those who have come to believe that they act with impunity.
William Dunn’s case could be the tip of the spear that slays the beast.