Utah Couple Awarded $2 In Damages After Their Sick Son Was Improperly Taken From Them by the Division of Child and Family Services For Alleged Child Abuse
A couple in Utah were shocked in 1999 when workers from the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) and police barged into their home without warning and removed their 12-year-old son.
The case workers and police did not have a warrant, court order or permission to enter the home, where a daycare was run, but they pushed their way in anyway and announced they were taking the boy into state custody.
After their son Rusty was taken from them for alleged child abuse, Connie and James Roska began a long legal battle. Rusty was recovering from a serious illness, in a wheelchair and being fed through a feeding tube, but his health was improving. Connie was accused of having a controversial psychiatric disorder known as "Munchausen's Syndrome by Proxy," which assumes that mothers seek attention by making their children sick. The Division of Child and Family Services refused to speak with Rusty's doctor about his health issues.
On the day he was taken from home by social workers, Rusty had returned from a short day at school and was in bed resting. When the police and case workers entered the home, he and his parents begged them to leave him alone but their pleas were ignored. They pushed Rusty's siblings to the floor and cursed at them, all in the presence of other children who were attending daycare at the Roskas' home. A worker even kicked one of the children and then told Rusty's 14-year-old sister to "shut the kid up". They shoved a mother and caused her to fall while she was holding her child, and as a result the woman sustained an injury to her face. Rusty's doctor was on the phone to warn DCFS that Rusty's life would be endangered if he were to be removed from his mother's care, but a DCFS supervisor ordered the workers to ignore the doctor's advice.
Although medical professionals at the hospital where Rusty had been treated, as well as his doctor, found no evidence that Connie was suffering from Munchausen's Syndrome by Proxy or doing anything at all to harm Rusty, the social workers announced that they would take him into custody as part of an experiment. This experiment that they decided to try entailed taking Rusty from his mother to see if his health would improve. They figured that if he did get better once he was in foster care, then that would be evidence against Connie.
One of the case workers ordered Connie to put Rusty in the DCFS van. When Connie initially refused, the worker told her that if she didn't comply that they would drag him up the stairs. Connie then reluctantly carried him piggyback up the stairs and out to the van.
While in foster care, Rusty's health care was mismanaged. DCFS told the foster parents that he was faking his illness. They kept him alone in a basement room. He was not fed or given his medication properly and his health quickly and severely declined. He was returned home to the Roskas after 7 days, when they presented a judge with a notarized letter from Rusty's doctor.
After Rusty was safely at home, the Roskas filed a motion with the court asking the judge to strike down the state law that allowed DCFS to remove children from their homes without a hearing. The judge granted their motion. The state then dismissed their child abuse case against Connie Roska, thinking that the case would end there and that their power to take children without a hearing would remain untouched.
The Roskas then filed a lawsuit against DCFS in federal court alleging that the case workers violated their constitutional rights as protected by the 4th Amendment of the Constitution when they took Rusty from them without first providing notice or a hearing.
The suit was dismissed in 2000 because the judge ruled that the case workers were following state law and therefore immune from the lawsuit.
The Roskas appealed and the Court of Appeals ruled in their favor and said that the case workers were not immune because they had not obeyed state laws.
After a failed appeal by the Attorney General's office, the case was sent back to federal court. The Roskas asked the court for a summary judgment and their request was granted. The judge ruled that the DCFS workers were not immune and could be sued and that the Roskas were entitled to have a jury award damages.
The state appealed again, and when the ruling was once again in favor of the Roskas they requested a re-hearing, which was also denied.
In a decision that stunned just about everyone familiar with the case, a federal jury awarded the Roskas $1 each in damages. Judges and juries often award $1 in damages when they make a legal determination that a wrong was suffered, but don't feel that there are actual compensable damages in the case.
To date the Roska's have spent $536,000 in legal fees. They are now asking the state to pay their legal expenses.
They claim that their case has done a public service for parental rights in Utah because it established that DCFS workers must allow parents their constitutional rights. The case has been the cause for changes in DCFS policies and procedures and has also influenced changes in state laws. For those reasons, their attorney has filed court papers requesting that the state pay the Roskas' legal costs associated with the case.
The Attorney General's Office is, of course, opposed to paying any of the Roskas' legal fees. They say that the Roskas rejected all settlement offers and therefore are not entitled to any compensation.