14 of 17 Oklahoma DHS workers dropped from lawsuit by federal court
In a ruling that includes a stern warning, a federal appeals court has dismissed most of the social workers named in a lawsuit accusing the Department of Human Services of failing to protect children from a decade of horrific abuse and neglect at the hands of a Delaware County couple.
The couple, Jerry and Deidre Matthews, were named DHS' adoptive parents of the year for Northeast Oklahoma in 2006, before many of the complaints had surfaced. They are now divorced and are being sued along with the DHS employees by nine children who stayed in their home.
"To say the OKHS caseworkers left the children with the Matthews to suffer continued abuse and neglect under deplorable conditions in a dangerous home environment is perhaps an understatement," the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals said in its ruling.
The abuse allegedly included handcuffing a girl to a bed at night and making her sleep in a metal dog cage on the floor, forcing children to stand outside naked, failing to obtain outside medical assistance for children bitten by a pet monkey, and keeping children in a home with dead cockroaches, mice, animal vomit and feces on the floor.
DHS reportedly received 17 separate complaints of abuse and neglect from January 2004 through March 2014 without taking decisive action to stop it.
Despite its concerns, the court ruled 14 of 17 DHS workers should be dropped from the civil case, deciding that the workers were protected by qualified immunity.
The court said private individuals — in this case, the Matthews — are generally legally responsible for any harm in such matters, rather than employees of a government agency that could have intervened.
The ruling reversed much of a Tulsa federal judge's decision that would have allowed the case to continue against all 17 DHS workers. The case will now be sent back to U.S. District Court in Tulsa for further proceedings consistent with the 10th Circuit Court ruling. A jury trial has been requested.
Court issues warning
The appeals court cautioned DHS workers against finding comfort in its ruling.
"ODHS and its caseworkers may find solace in the fact that to a large degree they have prevailed on appeal. If so, they are sorely mistaken for no solace is to be found within these written words," the appeals court said. "Assuming the allegations of the complaint have some basis in fact (and we suspect they may), any layperson would think a court justified in throwing ODHS and its caseworkers 'under the bus.'"
The judges said they, too, "cannot help wondering what is going on at ODHS and its Delaware County office that would allow this undeniable tragedy to extend over a period of several years, a tragedy that resulted in unspeakable and perhaps irreparable harm to the children and the criminal convictions of both Jerry and Deidre Matthews."
An affidavit filed in a criminal case against the couple said they kept children and a menagerie of animals and lived in a mobile home that was full of garbage and had animal feces ground into the carpet.
A principal complained to DHS that one of the children came to school each day with caked on dirt and grime, smelling of urine. The principal reported vomiting one day because the smell was so bad.
There were reports that Deidre Matthews had prescription drug issues.
The Matthews couple pleaded no contest to felony criminal charges that were filed against them in Delaware County District Court. Jerry Matthews pleaded no contest to a reduced charge of child neglect in 2016 and received a suspended life sentence in exchange for agreeing to testify against his now former wife. Deidre Matthews subsequently pleaded no contest in 2017 to 12 counts of child abuse, child neglect and child endangerment. She was sentenced to life in prison with all but four years suspended.
The appellate court decision handed down this past week came in a related federal court case where children from the home sued 17 DHS workers and Jerry and Diedre Matthews, contending their constitutional rights were violated by events that occurred in the home and the failure of caseworkers to take action to protect them.
A lawsuit against the DHS state agency is also pending in Delaware County District Court.
3 workers remain accused
Although the federal appeals court dismissed 14 DHS workers from the federal lawsuit, it said civil litigation could proceed against DHS child welfare worker Karen Feather and former DHS employee Carol Schraad-Dahn, who are accused of specific conduct that placed the children at risk of harm.
At Feather's direction, Schraad-Dahn would call Deidre Matthews to warn of upcoming home inspections 24 to 48 hours in advance, the federal lawsuit alleges.
DHS officials have not yet been able to substantiate the advance warning allegation, said Sheree Powell, agency spokeswoman.
Schraad-Dahn resigned from DHS in 2014, but Feathers is still employed there as a child welfare worker, said Emily Fagan, a DHS attorney.
The court also allowed litigation to continue against former caseworker Kila Bergdorf, who was accused of screening out a complaint that the Matthews' foster home was dangerous and filthy, that a special-needs child did not bathe frequently and often had dirty clothes, and that preteen children of different sexes were sleeping in the same room.
DHS had a custodial relationship with the special-needs child who was placed in the home by DHS, the court said. Bergdorf retired in 2009, Fagan said.
Fagan said she believes the court made the correct ruling in dismissing 14 DHS employees from the federal case based on qualified immunity.
Powell said that doesn't mean agency officials view all of their employees' actions as acceptable.
"No one is disputing that what these children went through was horrific," Powell said.
Fagan said some of the workers have been disciplined, but she couldn't disclose the discipline because it didn't rise to the level where it would be required to be disclosed under the Open Records Act. That means none of the workers were fired.
Powell said the agency has made changes to try to keep a similar situation from happening again. Workers now are provided with a family's complete child welfare history when they examine a new child welfare complaint, she said. That wasn't the case during the years when the complaints were made against the Matthews couple, she said.
Powell said conditions in the home deteriorated over the years and most of the complaints against the couple came after they were named as one of the agency's adoptive parents of the year in 2006.
Several of the children in the home were not placed there by DHS, she said.
Some of the children were foster children, some were ultimately adopted, some were legal wards and others just lived with them, according to court documents.