Judge: County investigators violated Constitution
5-year-old questioned without parents' consent
By Gittel Evangelist
Aug. 21, 2015
A federal judge ruled Wednesday that Orange County violated the U.S. Constitution when it questioned a 5-year-old girl about secondhand child-abuse allegations without her parents’ consent.
Judge Sidney H. Stein of the Southern District of New York in Manhattan granted the girl’s motion for summary judgment against the county. The case will go to trial in January to determine damages, said Stephen Bergstein of the law firm of Bergstein & Ullrich in Chester, which represents the plaintiffs.
Stein also ruled the jury must determine whether the Goshen School District violated the Constitution when it allowed county caseworkers to question the girl at her school.
The lawsuit, filed in 2010 by the girl and her parents, Marie Condoluci and Steven Phillips, arose when a state hotline received a call from Pastor Robin J. Hogle of Hopewell Presbyterian Church in Thompson Ridge, who said parishioner Thresa Falletta had concerns the parents were sexually abusing their daughter. Hogle cited a photo of the child wearing a mermaid costume, seen by Falletta on the family’s refrigerator, according to the suit. Falletta previously worked as a babysitter for the family, according to the lawsuit.
On the basis of this account, the state hotline transmitted the report to Orange County Child Protective Services. CPS then assigned the case to the Orange County Child Abuse Investigation Unit.
While the investigators did not believe the girl was in imminent danger, they questioned her in the assistant principal’s office at her school, without notifying the parents, Bergstein said. Investigators then searched the parents’ home without their consent.
“The investigation into these flimsy allegations was intrusive and totally inappropriate,” Bergstein said. “The county had no basis to embarrass and humiliate the family by pursuing these allegations, and it went over the line when it took the child out of class in order to ask her embarrassing questions about child abuse without her parents’ knowledge.”
Orange County spokesman Justin Rodriguez said, “The county will review its protocol based on the court’s decision. We strive to protect all children who need our services. Our Social Services Department will continue to act in the best interest of all children they serve.”