Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Suit Filed Over Wrongful Child Abuse Allegation

By John Sullivan
Times Herald-Record
Published: 2:00 AM - 09/16/11

Goshen — A local couple wrongly accused of sexually abusing their child are taking the unusual step of drawing attention to themselves and their legal fight against the questioning of their daughter by Orange County Child Protective Service investigators.

Marie Condoluci and her husband, Steven Phillips, claim that CPS caseworkers had no good reason to question their daughter, then a student at Scotchtown Avenue Elementary School, without their permission in 2010. The investigation, which did not result in charges, stemmed from hearsay allegations that the child's father sexually abused her.

Condoluci and Phillips struggled with anxiety, isolation, and even physical revulsion after the investigation, Condoluci said.

Condoluci, who is a lawyer, filed a federal lawsuit in U.S. Southern District Court in White Plains. Parties named include the county and the Goshen School District. She says that CPS and the school district failed to vet the allegations against the couple before taking their child aside and asking her questions such as "whether Mommy or Daddy ever fight," whether they ever "touched her down there," and who sleeps with her.

Condoluci initially declined to identify herself, her husband or their daughter for fear of the impact on their child. The couple have since removed their daughter, now 7, from the school and taken their fight public. "I thought it's the only way to clear our names," she said.

The lawsuit raises a rare challenge to the practice of hastily conducting child abuse investigations, often on the basis of an anonymous tip to the state's child-abuse hotline.

In Condoluci's case, officials failed to question the fact that the call to the state hot line came from a pastor reporting hearsay about her family from a third-party source, Condoluci said. Condoluci allowed that reasonable cause, such as visible bruises or telling statements by a child, might justify an unfettered CPS investigation. But "that's different from somebody calling and saying I heard from someone else that there were concerns of abuse," she said. Defense lawyers in the case argue that their clients were just following state law. "The law was not violated," said Lewis Silverman, the Manhattan lawyer representing the school district.

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