Washington Post

A Case of a Family Services Job Well Done, or Overdone?
By Marc Fisher
Sunday, February 24, 2008

On the Thursday before Labor Day, while Julianna Caplan was changing the diaper on one of her twins, she heard a dull thud. She turned around to see her other 8-month-old trying to push herself up from the floor, where she'd been playing, and knock her head.

There were no bumps or bruises, but over the next few hours, the little girl acted fussy, then altogether out of sorts. After she began throwing up and drifting off to sleep, her parents grew concerned, called the doctor and ended up at Children's Hospital.

The baby recovered fully within 24 hours, but almost six months later, Caplan and her husband, Greg, remain trapped in the District's frightening child-abuse system. It is a quicksand of bureaucratic paralysis, a warped mirror image of the indifference that permitted Banita Jacks's four girls to die in Southeast last year.

The city took both Caplan twins away from home and placed them in foster care for a time. The parents are still on the city's child-abuse registry, even though a court and police have found no evidence of abuse.

The Caplan Family
Julianna and Greg Caplan and their 13-month-old twins. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)

After Mayor Adrian Fenty fired six Child and Family Services Agency workers because they "just didn't do their job" in the Jacks case, social workers predicted that the pendulum would swing to the point that the slightest whisper of possible abuse would result in knee-jerk reactions against parents.

The Caplans' ordeal started before the horror of the Jacks case, but the Georgetown couple is convinced that their names are not being removed from the city's child protection registry largely because of the District's embarrassment over the Jacks case.

The parents believe the city was right to suspect abuse, right to investigate, right to run tests. But they say the case went off the rails when city lawyers continued to press abuse allegations even after the judge found no cause to proceed.

The twists in the case fill hundreds of pages of reports, but the bottom line is: The baby suffered retinal hemorrhaging, sometimes a sign of child abuse. When a doctor noted that, Child and Family Services intervened.

Because it was a holiday, the hospital had to wait several days to conduct tests to see if the baby had been abused. Those tests would find no reason to believe abuse had occurred. The police investigator would write that "all five examining physicians made no medical diagnoses or cause to support physical abuse." And D.C. Magistrate Judge Mary Grace Rook would find that "there are not reasonable grounds to believe that [the baby] was abused."

But Child and Family Services neither waited nor investigated. With lights flashing and four police officers on hand, social workers arrived at the Caplan house at midnight on the night after the baby entered the hospital. They took the infant's uninjured sister out of her father's embrace and put her in foster care in Prince George's County.

It was the first night she had ever spent away from her parents and her sister. It would not be the last.

She was forced to spend nearly two weeks at the foster care facility in Hyattsville. The injured sister, after her recovery, was kept in the hospital awaiting test results. Afterward, she was in foster care for five days. Both sisters were then reunited at home under their grandmothers' care, but on condition that the Caplans move out of their own house.

At a hearing, the city sought to keep the children separated from their parents, but the court rejected the abuse allegations, and the family was allowed back together.

"If they had had their way, we would have been out of our house for months," says Julianna, a former CNN publicist who now works from home as a freelancer. Greg is a manager for Lockheed Martin. They wiped out their savings and borrowed from relatives to raise $75,000 for legal help.

Just as disturbing as the agency's rush to judgment was their fixation on the Caplans because of their class, or, as CFSA head Sharlynn Bobo put it, their "privilege."

"This family is privileged and able to marshal significant resources to accomplish its goals and fight the allegations," Bobo wrote to her staff in September. "I believe that we made the right decision" to take the girls away from their parents.

Even after the court found for the Caplans, the city offered to end its investigation only if the parents submitted to counseling, anger management classes and unannounced visits from social workers. The Caplans declined the deal.

"It was like, what is the price of our morals?" Julianna says. "Do we lie and say someone abused our daughters to make this go away?"

Not everyone at CFSA was comfortable with what happened. In an e-mail to one of the children's grandparents, Deputy Director Roque Gerald criticized "defensive child welfare. In our attempt to protect, we have also lost the ability of balance for fear of retribution." Neither Gerald nor Bobo returned my calls.

D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles says the city was right not to give the Caplans special treatment. "I am not going to treat you differently because you are an attractive, articulate couple," he says. "I'm not saying I would have done this the same way, but I see the law working its way."

Nickles says the Caplans may appeal to a neutral party -- an outside expert -- to be removed from the registry, which means they are automatic suspects if their children are injured and need care.

"They treat us with contempt because we fought back," Julianna says. "Who would not sell every stitch of clothing off their backs to fight for their children?"

Two days before the Jacks case broke, Nickles, then the mayor's legal adviser, met with the Caplans after Greg called Fenty on WAMU's "Kojo Nnamdi Show." Nickles then described the couple's ordeal as "Kafkaesque." But after the Jacks story broke, city leaders changed their tune.

Nickles denies any shift in his attitude. "It may very well be that the weight of the evidence supports the Caplans' position," he said. "But the law is skewed properly toward the protection of the child."

He says he agonized over the Caplan case, in part because one of his own children once fell out of a crib and was taken to the hospital. But he concluded that "the city was not overly aggressive."

Taking the girls from their parents was "traumatic, but this is a very law-driven process that can have very unsatisfying results. If this had been shaken-baby syndrome and something had happened to the second child, the public would have come down hard on us, quite appropriately."

Fenty says he "would rather err on the side of getting too many calls about abuse. That's exactly what we want to have happen."

The Caplans reject the idea that the city is only doing its job well by being on hair-trigger alert. "Do you believe innocent families have to get caught up in this?" Greg asks. "This is a false choice. What has to happen is not overreaction, but competence."

The Caplans plan to sue the District, seeking reforms in the child welfare system and reimbursement of what they spent fighting the allegations. The twins are happy and playful children now, but the daughter who spent two weeks in foster care "freaks out if I leave the room," Julianna says. "Before, she would let anyone hold her. Now, she screams."

E-mail:marcfisher@washpost.com


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