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LOIS HENRY: County coughs up $1.4 million to wronged parent

BY LOIS HENRY Californian columnist lhenry@bakersfield.com

Kern County's Child Protective Services department has cost county taxpayers another $1.4 million.

That's the settlement amount granted last month to a local doctor in a case where CPS illegally took her two children. The county did this in February, 2011, without a warrant and, as it turns out, for no legitimate reason.

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Christine Deeths has filed a lawsuit against several other people associated with her case, including the doctors she believes got the CPS case rolling.

Problems started when Deeths' then 4-year-old daughter went to Memorial Hospital in early 2011 with respiratory problems. R.D. had been diagnosed in 2007 at UCLA with cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that manifests with respiratory and gastrointestinal problems.

While at Memorial, Deeths had a confrontation with the pediatrician/hospitalist, Dr. Anthony Thomas.

Deeths said Thomas confused her with another parent of a cystic fibrosis child and argued with her over R.D.'s care based on that other child's requirements.

Whispers that Deeths might be exaggerating R.D.'s condition as a result of Munchhausen syndrome by proxy seem to have begun at Memorial, according to Deeths' lawsuit.

By mid-January, R.D. was transferred to Lucile Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford which had already enlisted the services of Dr. John Stirling, a child abuse expert and director of Center for Child Protection at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center.

Without examining R.D. nor reviewing her full medical records, Stirling spoke with other doctors at Lucile Packard and told Deeths R.D. did not have cystic fibrosis and that the treatments she'd been following were unnecessary. He said a CPS case had been initiated and told Deeths she had to follow Lucile Packard's discharge orders to the letter.

The discharge summary shows that while doctors initially took R.D. off many of the medications and treatments she'd been on when admitted, they ultimately re-prescribed them as R.D. did poorly when they were taken away.

Deeths did follow the discharge orders and ultimately was dinged for it by CPS after another hospital stay in early February that year.

That second hospital stay resulted in a disagreement over whether R.D. should have oxygen at home.

The social worker's records show that as she was trying to sort out that issue, Drs. Thomas and Stirling, along with R.D.'s pulmonologist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Dr. Christopher Harris, told CPS they felt R.D. was in danger and was being subjected to harm.

The social worker took Deeths' children the next day.

Deeths' lawsuit contends the doctors knowingly, or negligently gave bad information to CPS resulting in the loss of her children. It does not say how much Deeths is seeking in damages.

When I first began reporting this story, a spokeswoman from Cedars-Sinai told me that Harris would have no comment. Stirling said he would consider discussing the case with me if Deeths provided him a waiver. While she at first agreed, she later declined on advice of her attorney. Memorial's Thomas never returned my calls.

-- Lois Henry

Lois Henry hosts Californian Radio every Wednesday on KERN 1180 AM from 9 to 10 a.m. You can get your two cents in by calling 842-KERN

In fact, the case was so egregious that the county's settlement offer came without an actual lawsuit being filed.

There's more.

As part of the settlement, the Kern County Department of Human Services, which oversees CPS, agreed to remove the doctor's name from California's child abuse registry and reverse the entire case that was brought against her.

It's as if it never happened.

But it did.

"My children will never be the same," said the doctor, Christine Deeths. "They lost their innocence the day they were taken. CPS stole that from them and it can never be replaced."

Deeth's daughter was 4 and her son 6 when a social worker took them away from their home.

The allegation was that Deeths, a family practitioner, was harming her daughter by subjecting her to unnecessary medical treatments. That's a condition known as Munchhausen syndrome by proxy, an extremely rare mental disorder that some experts argue isn't even a real disorder. Theoretically, parents make up or exaggerate a child's ailments to get attention from the medical community.

Despite its rarity, Kern CPS has wrongly taken children and tagged parents with Munchhausen on several occasions.

Just last May, taxpayers forked over $1 million to settle a lawsuit brought by Darlene and Larry McCue after CPS workers accused Darlene of Munchhausen and took their boy in 2008 He had severe peanut allergies.

The McCue and Deeths cases combined bring CPS' debt to taxpayers to $2.4 million in just seven months.

***

In previous stories, I had shielded Deeths' identity. But the family now lives out of state and she has filed a lawsuit against several doctors involved in the case so her name is a matter of public record. To afford the children some privacy, I'll only use their initials.

While Deeths was satisfied with the monetary part of the settlement and very happy to have her name erased from the child abuse registry, she was frustrated that the individual county employees who made poor decisions or flat out ignored the law in her case wouldn't be held accountable. In order to move the settlement forward, Deeths said, she and her lawyer agreed to drop individuals from the suit.

"They have no consequences. It's not them paying the settlement, it's taxpayers," she said.

But it was those individuals, including a public health nurse, social workers and county attorneys, she said, who pursued the case, dragged it out and went to great lengths to "win" against her regardless of the truth.

Beyond that, she hoped her case would spur changes in how the department does business.

After the McCue case, the department began revamping policies on how and when children can be taken. Social workers had been taking kids without warrants even when there was no imminent threat to a child's safety. That was patently illegal, said Deeths' attorney Shawn McMillan who also represented the McCues.

Deeths is hopeful that her case will prompt the county to have a medical doctor review records in cases, like hers, where the allegation of abuse centers on complicated medical issues.

***

Both of Deeths' children are adopted.

Her daughter, R.D., was born in 2006 to a meth-addicted woman who'd had no prenatal care. The baby also tested positive for marijuana exposure.

From the start the child was very ill with chronic gastrointestinal and respiratory problem. She grew very slowly if at all. She had numerous hospitalizations and doctor's visits.

Reading through her complete medical records literally took me days.

CPS had only a handful of records from R.D.'s most recent hospital stay when the social worker decided to take her and her older brother T.D. on Feb. 25, 2011. The social worker made that decision, it appears, solely on the say-so of three doctors, one of whom had never examined R.D. and also hadn't reviewed her complete medical history. (See adjoining story.)

If CPS had waited for complete records and had a doctor review them, Deeths is confident there never would have been a CPS case.

"It's the same as if the county had a Spanish speaking family in court and refused to use a translator. That would be negligent," Deeths said. "Medicine is its own language, it needs a qualified interpreter to understand the records."

She said she brought up the need to have a doctor review records during settlement negotiations and Deputy County Counsel Mark Nations said it was a valid point that he would look into.

Nations did not return a phone call and email regarding this case.

I asked Deeths if there was anything positive to come out of her ordeal.

She said she learned empathy.

As part of the original CPS case, Deeths was ordered to attend parenting classes put on by Human Services. The classes themselves were useless, she said. But she met dozens of parents who, like her, had lost their children. Unlike her, however, they weren't nearly as educated nor did they have the same resources, money, strong family support, friends, colleagues, etc.

"I learned a lot about the less privileged," she said. "I learned a lot of empathy."

She had the resources to fight CPS, she said, when most other parents don't. She wonders how many more families have been unfairly torn apart.

"A lot of what they're taking kids for is a lack of knowledge about life skills and CPS isn't helping parents learn those life skills," she said. "Meanwhile they're creating generational problems because when you take a child, they're changed forever.

"They're creating a cycle."

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail lhenry@bakersfield.com

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