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Father's estate argues that Fayette County agency 'crushed' his family

| Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A Fayette County agency's threats to permanently take away his children isolated a Smithfield man and drove him to the edge of suicide, an attorney for the man's estate argued today in opening statements in Pittsburgh federal court.

"This is a case about love, the heavy hand of government and the crushing of a family," said Vic Walczak, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union.

The ACLU in 2008 filed a lawsuit on behalf of "John Doe" against Fayette County Children and Youth Services because it forced him to give up custody of his three children in 2006 after he started having sexual relations with a 16-year-old girl. The state police investigated but didn't charge the man because the age of consent in Pennsylvania is 16, Walczak said.

Marie Jones, a lawyer representing the agency, said the case is about a man who decided to have a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old girl.

"I'm not disputing that he loved his kids, but that doesn't mean he made all the right decisions," she told jurors.

The state's legal definition of child abuse includes sex between an adult and someone under the age of 18, so the county agency investigated the man and, during the investigation, required him to give up custody of his children.

Walczak said Fayette County was the only county in the state with such a policy. U.S. District Judge Donetta Ambrose already has ruled in the case that the policy violated the man's constitutional rights.

The plaintiff's wife had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia shortly after the birth of their first child, and her worsening condition left her unable to care for herself, much less the kids, he said. Consequently, he was both father and mother to the children until the agency ordered him to give up custody, Walczak said.

The man, a 32-year-old garbage collector, died Nov. 11, 2010, from injuries he suffered in a motor vehicle accident. The sole question in the jury trial that started today is how much the county agency should pay the man's estate in damages.

Jones urged jurors to consider the plaintiff's actions and award no damages.

Walczak asked jurors to consider how the agency's actions damaged the man's relationships with his children and led to him voluntarily admitting himself to the psychiatric ward at Highlands Hospital in 2007 after he lost all contact with his children.

The agency originally allowed the man to have supervised visits with his children but, with no warning, ordered him in August 2007 to cut off all contact. He wasn't even allowed to ask his parents to pass a message to his children, Walczak said.

The family was so worried about what the agency would do that his parents and brother also curtailed or broke off their contacts with him for fear someone would claim they were passing messages from him to his children, Walczak said.

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