by Kimberly Edds, Staff Writer
An Orange County social worker who lied to a juvenile court commissioner in order to take away a woman’s two daughters — and cost the county $4.9 million in a court judgment — was later promoted to a supervisor, county officials confirmed.
She now trains other social workers.
It took Seal Beach mother Deanna Fogarty-Hardwick six-and-a-half years to regain custody of her children, who were 6 and 9 when they were taken from her in 2000.
Fogarty-Hardwick’s oldest daughter, Kendall, is now 20, and filed her own lawsuit against the county and three of its social workers for depriving her of a relationship with her mother.
Orange County Social Services social workers Marcie Vreeken and Helen Dwojak filed false reports and held back evidence which would have cleared Fogarty-Hardwick, an Orange County jury found in 2007. A third social worker was cleared of liability.
The jury awarded Fogarty-Hardwick $4.9 million in damages, with the county responsible for the bulk of the award. The county appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which denied the county’s request to be heard last week.
Vreeken and Dwojak were never disciplined.
In fact, Vreeken was later promoted, according to county records. She earned $103,441.48 last year as a senior social services supervisor, according to county records.
Dwojak, who was Vreeken’s supervisor, retired from the county in 2006, according to county records.
“I am certain and I stand by my social workers that they did not fabricate, they did not suppress any information and they did not perjure themselves,” said Dr. Michael Riley, director of the Orange County Social Services Agency. “If they had I would have dismissed them.”
Social Services conducted an investigation into how the social workers handled the case and found no wrongdoing, Riley said. “This woman is the epitome of integrity,” Riley said of Dwojak. “They did nothing wrong.”
According to court papers, Vreeken threatened that if Fogarty-Hardwick did not “submit” to her will, she would never see her children again. The social workers also tried in 2000 to coerce Fogarty-Hardwick to sign a document saying she was a bad parent by threatening to take her daughters away, Fogarty-Hardwick alleged.
According to daughter Kendall Hardwick’s lawsuit, Vreeken “attempted to coerce Kendall into visiting her father by threatening that if Kendall did not visit with her father she would be taken away from her mother and ‘put in a home.’ ”
Kendall Hardiwick’s lawuit accuses Vreeken of lying in a Feb. 17, 2000 court report, including failing to disclose her threats against Kendall and her sister that left the two girls in tears and a subsequent argument between Vreeken and Fogarty-Hardwick.
A county commissioner ordered Fogarty-Hardwick’s daughters taken from their mother and put in Orangewood Children’s Home immediately. Vreeken and another social worker went with a uniformed police officer to to take Kendall’s younger sister, who was “screaming and crying for her mother as she hid under the principal’s desk,” according to Kendall’s lawsuit. Kendall was also forcibly removed, leaving her “devastated.”
The girls were later put in foster care.
Kendall Hardwick’s lawsuit also accuses Vreeken of repeatedly lying in court reports and on the stand to thwart Fogarty-Hardwick’s attempts to regain custody of her daughters.
In a March 31, 2000 letter, a therapist wrote to the agency that “Kendall … shows signs of emotional regression. She was tearful throughout the session, begging to go home. … She doesn’t know how much longer she can cope and visibly shook while relating this.”
“Defendants knew of Plaintiffs emotional collapse,” the suit reads. “Yet, while testifying in the juvenile court trial, Vreeken refused to acknowledge the children were mentally deteriorating.”
The social workers instead reported the children “were doing well,” according to the lawsuit.
Fogarty-Hardwick gave her ex-husband full custody in 2002, hoping to protect her daughters. She was then allowed two supervised visits a month for two years. She eventually won 50-50 custody in 2006.
Fogarty-Hardwick sued the county in 2002, arguing the Social Services Agency and its two social workers violated her civil rights. A jury ruled against her.
She sued again, arguing this time county’s policies violated her constitutional rights, including her Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights.
Fogarty-Hardwick’s accused the county of violating her constitutional rights by removing her children without making a finding of imminent danger or serious physical injury; interviewing her daughters without a parent present; holding her children without cause; fabricating evidence; and failing to properly train employees about parents’ constitutional rights.
The jury voted 10-2 in favor of Fogarty-Hardwick. The county appealed.
In the Fourth District Court of Appeal opinion, Justice William Bedsworth wrote, “the evidence adduced at trial obviously caused both the jury and the judge to conclude not only that something seriously wrong was done to Fogarty-Hardwick in this case, but also that the wrongful conduct was not an isolated incident.”
“Despite Fogarty-Hardwick’s complaints, and the concerns expressed by others about the handling of this dependency case, SSA did not investigate the situation or consider assigning different social workers to the matter. Neither of the social workers involved was disciplined. Instead, Vreeken was promoted to supervisor in 2001,” Bedsworth wrote.
Child Protective Services cases are not open to the public, a fact which Riley says prevents him from providing the whole picture.
“We have no agenda to disrupt families,” Riley said. “Our goal is to keep families together.”