A Case of a Family Services Job Well Done, or Overdone?

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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.

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.


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