Federal court dismisses Stanley family’s lawsuit

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A federal judge ruled Friday that county and state officials had reasonable suspicion to suspect abuse when they removed seven children from their Garland County home in January 2015, dismissing the lawsuit the children’s parents filed more than three years ago.

U.S. District Senior Judge Robert T. Dawson’s 21-page opinion and order dismissed claims against Garland County Sheriff Mike McCormick, Under Sheriff Jason Lawrence, Deputy Terry Threadgill and former Sgt. Mike Wright. Dawson also dismissed claims against Katherine Finnegan, a former civilian investigator with the Arkansas State Police’s Crimes Against Children Division.

Joe Churchwell, the attorney for Hal and Michelle Stanley, the parents of the children, said Friday he plans to appeal Dawson’s ruling granting the state and county’s motions for summary judgment and denying the Stanleys’. The couple regained full custody five months after the removal.

“I expect the (8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals) to recognize the clear violations of this family’s rights,” he said, noting that he plans to file the appeal next week. “In fact, procedurally it’s better to have a final appellable order now, which includes all of the adverse rulings, so that when we do proceed to trial everything will be heard at once.”

According to court documents, Wright put the children in Arkansas Department of Human Services custody under a 72-hour protective hold based on Finnegan’s recommendation and his belief that DHS was not inclined to take action. Finnegan interviewed two of the children, a 16-year-old boy and 14-year-old girl, during the sheriff’s department, Garland County Drug Task Force and State Police’s execution of a search warrant at the home.

According to court documents, about 30 law enforcement and investigative officials participated in the search. A doctor and ambulance were also on site to examine the children.

The search warrant Division 3 Circuit Judge Lynn Williams signed earlier that day was based on allegations Hal Stanley forced the children to consume Miracle Mineral Supplement, or MMS. Court records said the Food and Drug Administration warned consumers in 2010 about the dangers of MMS, cautioning that consumption can lead to nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration and liver failure.

Hal Stanley told officials he used the substance to promote his own health and balance the pH in the family’s aquaponics system. The search confirmed MMS was in the home, but the Stanleys denied they forced the children to take it.

Other allegations reported by neighbors and family friends, who, according to court records, partly based their claims on conversations with the Stanleys’ 16-year-old son, included excessive corporal punishment, medical neglect, inadequate nutrition and educational neglect. Court records said Hal and Michelle Stanley’s refusal to allow the boy to attend public school had created tension in the home.

Dawson said the court’s job wasn’t to determine if child abuse had occurred, but if it was reasonable for law enforcement officials to remove the children. The 8th Circuit, in affirming the district court’s ruling denying Finnegan’s petition to dismiss the case against her prior to the discovery process, said reasonable suspicion must be present at the time of removal.

Dawson said it existed on the night of the search, entitling officials to the legal doctrine that protects them from civil liability if they’ve acted reasonably and responsibly.

“State officials who remove a child from the custody of parents are entitled to qualified immunity, so long as their actions are supported by a reasonable suspicion of child abuse,” Dawson said. ” … Reasonable suspicion requires more than a hunch but less than probable cause.

“On the other hand, when a child is removed in the absence of reasonable suspicion, the decision constitutes an arbitrary abuse of government.”

Dawson said the 16-year-old boy and 14-year-old girl’s confirmation of MMS exposure during Finnegan’s on-scene interview, which was consistent with allegations made in earlier complaints and in an interview with the Stanleys’ adult son, who had moved out of the home a month before his siblings were put in foster care, supported reasonable suspicion.

“After talking with the Garland County defendants in this case, every one of them expressed a sincere attitude of gratefulness that this case was dismissed by Judge Dawson,” Ralph Ohm, who represented the county litigants as general counsel for the Arkansas Public Employees Risk Management Association, said. “Although they always knew that they acted to protect the Stanley children in this whole process, they are extremely glad that the federal court agreed with their position.

“This has been hanging over their heads for five years, and they’re relieved that this case is finally over.”

Citing case law asserting investigators aren’t obligated to investigate further once reasonable suspicion is established, Dawson said the Stanleys’ argument that they’d been deprived of due process as a result of an incomplete investigation was false.

“Neither Wright nor Finnegan were obligated to complete their investigation prior to the removal, such as by interviewing the parents or the other five children, because (the 16-year-old boy and 14-year-old girl’s) allegations provided a reasonable basis to suspect abuse,” he said.

Reasonable suspicion also made a court order to remove the children unnecessary, Dawson said.

Finnegan testified in a deposition last year that Maj. Ron Stayton, the former CACD commander, pressured her into making true findings of abuse and neglect against the Stanleys, telling Churchwell that her superiors instructed her to make the findings because of the attention the case had attracted.

She said Arkansas State Police wanted the case closed because it had become a “political issue,” and that she had been coached by CACD’s head of investigations on how to use DHS’ Division of Children and Family Service’s child abuse assessment protocol to support the true findings.

CACD used the two teenage children’s accusations to justify the true findings, despite the DCFS assessment protocol stipulating claims of alleged victims are insufficient on their own to sustain a true finding.

An administrative law judge overturned the nine true findings of physical abuse in late 2015 for lack of sufficient evidence. The following year, the state chose not to defend 12 true findings of educational neglect related to the children not being registered as home-schooled, removing the couple from the state’s child maltreatment registry 21 months after their children were placed into protective custody.

Finnegan said she was deprived of her corroborating witnesses when Churchwell advised the two children whose allegations prompted the investigation not to testify. Churchwell said he advised them to invoke their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, warning them that repeating what he said was the false report they made to Finnegan on the night of the search would expose them to criminal jeopardy.

DHS’s attorney raised the issue of the conflict created by Churchwell’s advocacy for the parents and the children who made allegations against them, but the judge allowed him to represent both parties.

Dawson said Finnegan’s testimony during the deposition wasn’t relevant to the children’s removal, as the true findings were made months later.

“Although Finnegan’s admissions reflect poorly upon CACD and its investigators, her comments do not provide a basis for liability in this case,” he said. “The Stanley children were in DHS custody for approximately two months by the time Finnegan submitted CACD’s findings. DHS continued to maintain custody pursuant to family court orders. The question of whether the children should have remained in DHS custody rested with the sufficiency of the family court’s judicial proceeding.”

Local on 03/22/2020

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