In D.C., unwarranted child abuse suspicions lead to a case with no end


Parents Juliana and Greg Caplan are photographed with their twin daughters, then 13 months, in February 2008. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)
June 13, 2013

Nearly six years later, the case isn’t over for the Caplan family.

Their twins were 8 months old when police arrived at their Georgetown home at 1 a.m. on an August night to take one of their girls away.

What happened after that — the fight to get their daughters back and to get themselves off a list of suspected child abusers — was chronicled in Marc Fisher’s Washington Post column in February 2008.

The case continues today, as the city moves to seal the ongoing arguments by the Caplans, who filed a $1 million civil suit against the city for the way the Child and Family Services Agency handled the case.

“The District is arguing that basically every lawsuit ever filed challenging neglect proceedings must be kept under seal,” said Greg Smith, the family’s attorney.

The city says kids are involved and they want to keep their names out of the public record. Smith says that means that “CFSA practices will never see the light of day.”

The inner workings of that agency rattled the Caplans’ lives one day in August 2007, when Julianna Caplan was changing the diaper of one of their twins. The other twin was trying to push herself up, fell over and bonked her head. Julianna and Greg Caplan took her to the hospital and test results showed an injury — a retinal hemorrhage — consistent with shaken baby syndrome.

The hospital visit flagged CFSA, which swooped in. Social workers kept the injured child at the hospital and sent the cops to the Caplans’ home to take custody of the other baby.

The twins were placed in a foster home for two weeks, and their parents landed on the city’s child-abuse registry for much longer.

No one wants to be falsely accused of child abuse. And any parent can imagine the hell it would be if the little beings who consume all your attention were placed in a stranger’s home.

The Caplans agreed that CFSA was correct to investigate them, and they are simpatico with the laws and systems in place that put the child first.

All this happened just before a woman named Banita Jacks killed her four daughters and lived with their corpses for months. The city got slammed for the lack of oversight in the Jacks case. So you can’t thump them for a by-the-book investigation of a couple just because they’re from Georgetown.

No, what the Caplans are upset about was what followed: a struggle one city official called “Kafkaesque” to get their daughters home and get themselves removed from the child-abuse registry when tests and the testimony of five doctors said nothing resembling child abuse had ever happened.

The 8-month-old who bonked her head had an unusually large one — in the 99th percentile for size — and that often contributes to a more traumatic result from a perfectly innocent bump, Smith said.

The Caplans are suing the city for cash, yes, Smith said. They lost about $100,000 on a legal team to help them get their children back and get them off the child-abuser list. But Smith said they are also pursuing the case because “they feel the system is broken, and it needs to be improved.”

The Caplans testified before the D.C. Council; they spoke with social workers; they had meetings. And nothing has changed.

In court documents, D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan argued that the Caplans’ case isn’t an examination of the agency’s inner workings, but rather “just a garden-variety negligence action, targeting the District’s deep pockets.”

“The public at large has no particular interest in this case beyond mere curiosity. Plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate any reason— other than their apparent desire to litigate their private lives in the press — that the District’s motion to seal should not be granted,” Nathan said.

Smith said the argument that the city is protecting the girls is a false one, since it cited information from sealed documents in the very papers it filed to keep all that information secret.

CFSA spokeswoman Mindy Good said the agency has no comment on the pending litigation. And the Caplans preferred not to comment on the case beyond the court filings.

It makes sense to keep those girls out of the public eye, to keep their names out of public court documents.

On the other hand, the case is one of the rare opportunities to hear the family’s side of the story. They say dysfunction is rampant in a system that is largely shielded from the public eye, and one that usually works with families who don’t have access to the kind of lawyer the Caplans can get.

“Our view is that everything should be public, of course,” that lawyer explained. “Scrutiny is the best disinfectant.”

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things.
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