Family Awarded $1.1 Million After Kids Were Removed From Home

Beth Greenfield
·Senior Editor
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The Swartwood family. Photo courtesy of the Swartwoods.

Four years after their two children were removed from their home by child protective workers, a California family has received a $1.1 million settlement from San Diego County.

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"I’m very glad it’s over,” mom Joanna Swartwood tells Yahoo Parenting about the saga that began back in 2011. That’s when her children — Riley, 1, and Dale, 3 — were attending daycare near their San Diego home. Swartwood began noticing troubling signs, such as broken capillaries under Riley’s eyes, and a lot of crying from Dale whenever they headed to daycare. When Riley came home with a bruise on her face one day, she and her husband Steven took her to a doctor, who said he believed the injury was not accidental and instructed her to follow abuse protocol by taking her daughter to an emergency room. She recalls feeling “devastated” and filled with guilt over the assessment of the doctor, who filed a report (indicating no fault to the parents) with Child Welfare Services, as he was required to do by law.

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But late that evening, after they had returned home from the hospital, CWS officials showed up at the family’s home with three police officers in tow. “They need a search warrant, but we didn’t know that at the time,” she says. And within an hour, the two children were escorted from their home. “We were so lost, it was just unfathomable,” Joanna recalls. “We were crying our eyes out, just begging and pleading with her.”

The children were placed into protective custody for a two-day investigation, during which time they underwent physical exams.

After her children returned home, Joanna says she began searching for a way to get justice, but was told at every turn that CWS workers have immunity. Finally, she found attorneys to take her case and filed suit against the county. In October, a judge handed down what her lawyer Donnie Cox called a “blistering” decision against Child Welfare Services (a state investigation had already shut down the daycare provider). In the ruling, the judge said that removing Riley and Dale from their home was unconstitutional.

"What the court found is the county basically did no investigation before they removed the children,” Cox told KGTV, noting that the case was similar to many others over the past 15 years in which social workers “did not have probable cause.” Joanna says it was “the biggest point of redemption when that summary judgment came out.”

A representative of Child Welfare Services did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Yahoo Parenting.

The settlement deal, finalized this week, will compensate the family with a $1.1 million payout; what’s left after lawyers’ fees, Joanna says, will go into a trust for her children. The deal will also bring with it a series of policy changes at CWS, such as allowing parents to be present during their child’s exams or to refuse them altogether.

The Swartwoods’ settlement comes in the midst of an ongoing national conversation about parental rights and the judgment of child protective workers, with recent stories focusing on the Meitivs, the Maryland family placed under investigation for letting their children walk to the playground, and the Stanleys, of Arkansas, which saw seven children removed from their home last month over a dispute regarding their medical welfare. When speaking to Yahoo Parenting about those and other cases recently, Martin Guggenheim, a New York University professor of clinical law and expert in child welfare and children’s rights, said it can be challenging for social workers to hit the perfect balance between parental and child rights.

“The baseline question [in such cases] always is: Is this behavior that permits the state to intervene and trump parental choice?” he noted, adding that if the answer is yes, then it should also be shown that the child in question is “at risk of suffering substantial harm, imminently.”

But Joanna contends it was the welfare worker’s decision that’s caused them harm that lingers to this day. “Having our children ripped away from us by policemen? That’s hard to get over,” she says.