Parents sue authorities over civil rights

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Parents sue authorities over civil rights

Postby quietsteve » Tue Sep 15, 2009 10:52 am

News
Parents sue authorities over civil rights
Daughter made sex abuse claim, then said she made it up


By Zachary K. Johnson
August 16, 2009
Record Staff Writer
STOCKTON - A federal lawsuit filed in Sacramento last week alleges local authorities violated the civil rights of two parents after their teenage daughter said she was being sexually abused by her father.

The suit, filed by Stephen and Alma Moortgat, accuses San Joaquin County social workers and Stockton police officers of violating constitutional protections in May 2008 when they allegedly took the Moortgat's unnamed daughter into protective custody, then entered the family home and forced Stephen Moortgat to leave. The suit goes on to accuse county social workers of inappropriately prohibiting the father from contacting his wife and children, forcing the family to participate in "voluntary" counseling and disclosing to the teen, who is now 15, that Stephen Moortgat was not her biological father.

The teen wrote a letter in June 2008 to authorities that she made up the allegations to take revenge on her father, who had punished her by taking her cell phone away, according to the complaint. Stephen Moortgat was not charged with a crime, but his inclusion on a state database could endanger his ability for him to obtain security clearance as a computer engineer, according to the suit.

"It is a case of the exertion of power and influence in a corrupt manner," said Robert Powell, the Moortgats' attorney.

A Stockton Police Department spokesman referred requests to the city's legal department, which was served with the suit on Thursday. "I'm not going to have a comment on it until I review it," Assistant City Attorney Shelley Green said.

County officials would not discuss details of the suit, saying the county can't comment on child welfare cases. "By law, we have to protect our clients' confidentiality," said Kathy Stanley, San Joaquin County deputy director of Children's Services. When there are allegations of child abuse, due process and a thorough investigation follows, she said. Unless a child is in immediate danger, that child cannot be removed from a parent without court action, she said.

The complaint filed by the Moortgats in the U.S. District Court in Sacramento includes the following account of events beginning on May 19, 2008:

A friend of the teen told a counselor at East Union High School in Manteca that Stephen Moortgat was abusing or molesting his teenaged daughter, also a student at the school. While still on the campus at East Union, the daughter told a Child Protective Services worker that her father had inappropriate contact with her, including fondling and touching, as she slept during vacations to Reno and Oregon and in her room at home.

The teen was taken to Stockton, where she waited in a patrol car while officers from the Police Department and social workers entered the family home without permission, explanation or warrant when Stephen Moortgat opened the door. The Moortgat parents told them their daughter was likely retaliating against her father, who had taken her cell phone away because she had racked up hundreds of dollars in charges and had been sending text messages during class at school.

During the interview in the home, Alma Moortgat was told her children would be taken away if she "support(ed) your husband instead of your daughter." The Moortgats have a second child, who was 4 years old when the complaint was filed.

By the end of the evening, Stephen Moortgat was in a hotel, the teen was in protective custody and Alma Moortgat was home alone with their youngest child. The three foster children under their care also were removed. The following day, the teen was taken to the home of Stephen Moortgat's mother.

When the family was reunited about a month later, the Moortgats were told they would have their children taken away from them if they did not participate in a "Voluntary Family Maintenance" program.

Finally, the account in the lawsuit accuses a CPS worker of telling the teen that Stephen Moortgat was not her biological father, which was true, but unknown to the teen.

The lawsuit requests an unspecified amount for damages. In addition to the city and the county, the suit names Ralph Guerrero, Robin Heringer, Karen Muehlenberg, Renee Smith, Ronald Ealunardo, Michael Dixon and up to 20 unknown defendants.

Contact reporter Zachary K. Johnson at (209) 546-8258 or [email protected]. Visit his blog at recordnet.com/blogs.
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