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Caseworker crossed ethical line in pursuing adoption, DCFS says

Published May 14, 2012 1:23 pm

Jury later found worker guilty of official misconduct in adoption of a baby.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

This is a story about a baby. But it is also a story about the abuse of power, about being able to trust the government and about doing what's right — especially during the some of the most vulnerable moments in life.

In the city prosecutor's view, the story is one that "shocked the conscience," while a defense attorney said it was unfairly being characterized as "baby stealing." To the director of the Utah Division of Child and Family Services, what happened jeopardized the division's credibility. The two caseworkers at the center of this saga? One says they are victims of discrimination and unclear state policies.

It began when Christine LaPorte, a DCFS social service worker, was assigned a case involving a woman who had just given birth at Intermountain Medical Center. The woman, alleged to have used drugs during the pregnancy, previously had given up or lost rights to four other children.

LaPorte visited the mom at the hospital on Feb. 9, 2011, and, according to Murray City Prosecutor Brittany Huff, later that night talked about the case with Monique Mackay, her partner and also a DCFS caseworker.

Because they were not on the same team at DCFS, that violated confidentiality policies, said Liz Sollis, spokeswoman for DCFS. In the case of related individuals — whether spouses or partners — the division makes sure they are not assigned to the same projects, she said.

But LaPorte claims caseworkers are always sharing information.

"When you work for DCFS, everyone is bound to the same confidentiality," LaPorte said. "We'd never been told to not work together."

On Feb. 10, the two women attended a training class and then — since they'd traveled together, according to LaPorte — went to visit the birth mother's sister. Huff said both women identified themselves as caseworkers and asked the sister whether she would be able to take the infant. The sister told the caseworkers she could help temporarily, but not permanently and had rented an apartment to share with the mother and infant. The caseworkers told the sister that wasn't a good idea given the mother's history, according to Huff.

Huff said Mackay then contacted an assistant Utah attorney general and, falsely identifying herself as the assigned caseworker, asked that the case be screened. Based on incorrect information Mackay gave, the assistant AG said the infant should be placed in state custody and no reunification services provided to the mother.

The pair next went to the hospital and were allowed to visit the mother. Huff said the caseworkers told the mother there was no hope she'd be allowed to keep her baby because of "her behavior"; they also told the mom once the infant was placed in state custody, she would never see him again.

They also told nursing staff to cut off contact between the mom and her baby.

"And the hospital did," Huff said.

LaPorte said the mother had already heard from her sister before the caseworkers arrived and was "freaking out," screaming and swearing to such an extent LaPorte worried she might hurt or take off with the baby — which is why she asked hospital staff to restrict access to the infant.

As the distraught mother sought a discharge from the hospital, the caseworkers tried to comfort her. LaPorte said Mackay asked if there was anything she could do for the mom and then Mackay and the mom walked outside so the mom could smoke a cigarette.

Meanwhile, LaPorte stayed behind and said she tried unsuccessfully to reach her supervisor.

"I can't tell you what the conversation was between them,"LaPorte said.

In court, Huff said Mackay suggested during the conversation that the mother consider a private adoption and told her she'd even quit her job so they could have an open adoption, which would allow the mother to have ongoing contact with her child.

According to LaPorte, who learned later what went on, the mom and Mackay bonded during that brief smoke break, as Mackay shared her own history as an adoptive mom and the birth mother repeated her hope to have continued contact with the child. LaPorte said it was the mom, not Mackay, who initiated the private adoption idea.

LaPorte said that when the two returned, the mom said she wanted to pursue a private adoption so the state could not take custody of the baby.

"In a million years, I didn't think she meant Monique," LaPorte said.

LaPorte said it was only when she spoke moments later to a hospital social worker that she realized Mackay was adopting the baby.

But, Huff said when the two caseworkers presented relinquishment papers, the mother balked, saying the situation didn't make sense.

Hospital staff, who knew Mackay was a caseworker, also asked whether there was an ethical concern since DCFS was prepared to take custody of the infant, Huff said. But Mackay told them there was no problem since she was merely there as a trainer and it was worth losing her job to get a baby, Huff said.

"Hospital staff tried one more time to overcome the clear ethical problem," Huff said.

Unaware of the relationship between the two women, staff asked LaPorte whether DCFS was OK with Mackay stepping in to adopt the baby, Huff said, and the answer was yes.

In fact, DCFS would have given the mother a chance to parent the child, Huff said. Drug tests on the infant were negative and the mother's test was positive only for marijuana.

The mom "should have had the system in support of her," Huff said, but because of Mackay's actions, that didn't happen. "The system failed to protect and preserve [this] family."

DCFS has policies and procedures to guide employee adoptions, which Mackay could have followed, Huff said.

"Get in line like everyone else and follow the rules," Huff said. "This case is about taking responsibility for what you've done."

The next day, Mackay picked up the baby and brought it to the couple's home, where the infant remained for about a week.

But someone tipped off DCFS and, on Feb. 17, 2011, the division placed both women on leave while it investigated; it also took custody of the infant. Murray City prosecutors launched a criminal investigation of the women.

In March, a jury acquitted LaPorte of official misconduct, a class B misdemeanor. A different jury found Mackay guilty of the same charge. Both women lost their jobs.

At a sentencing hearing last week , Huff told Justice Court Judge Paul Thompson that Mackay had abused her power to "break this family up." She asked the judge to send Mackay to jail for six months to "help her understand what she's done."

"Every step of the way, she has not taken responsibility," Huff said.

Given her background as a social worker and in law enforcement, "She knew better. She knew what she was doing," Huff added.

Mackay spent about a decade working in law enforcement before joining DCFS in 2007 as a social service worker. LaPorte said Mackay had an "impeccable record" and many commendations as a caseworker.

LaPorte said she believes her and Mackay's sexual orientation led the division and the city prosecutor to target them. She also claims Mackay's rights were violated when, as the infant's legal guardian, she wasn't allowed to participate in a shelter hearing to decide what was best for the baby once it was removed from her care.

The mother stated, while free of drugs or coercion, to numerous people at the hospital that she wanted Mackay to adopt the baby, LaPorte said. She added that the division policies are unclear and "very broad reaching."

"I understand if DCFS believes what we did was uncomfortable for them," LaPorte said. "If it was policy, that's their right [to terminate the caseworkers] but violating a policy is not a crime, being a lesbian or a gay man is not a crime, adopting as a single person is not a crime, the mom had the right to give her baby up to private adoption, and that is not a crime. ... Monique was doing what she felt was in the best interest of the baby."

Rebecca Hyde, Mackay's defense attorney, said at sentencing that her client's misstep had been using her position to get information she otherwise wouldn't have been able to learn. But that did not undo her history of public service in the community, Hyde said.

The consequences for Mackay's action are far reaching and can't readily be undone — and some can never be undone, Hyde added, including the loss of her job.

The judge suspended Mackay's six-month jail sentence and gave her one-year probation, 48 hours of community service and a fine of $882.

In its investigation, DCFS found the women's version of events did not hold up and that they had violated numerous policies, including confidentiality, since Mackay wasn't assigned to the case.

And contrary to the caseworkers' assertions, family was willing to take custody of the baby — and did so after he was removed from the women's home.

"Under no circumstances is it ever acceptable for a DCFS caseworker, either in an official or personal capacity, to take a client's child into their personal residence for adoption or any other purpose," the division wrote in a March 2, 2011, letter to Mackay. "Your actions were unethical and jeopardize the credibility of the Division of Child and Family Services, potentially weakening the public confidence and trust in the agency."

DCFS employees can't act as a caseworker and be a foster or adoptive parent for the same client, said division spokeswoman Sollis. That doesn't mean they are precluded from adopting children who enter the system, but there can't be a conflict of interest and they must follow detailed procedures to do so, she said.

The division also cited the misinformation Mackay gave the AG's Office.

"Had you informed the [assistant AG] or your management of your involvement in the case, you would have been informed that it was not acceptable for you to be involved in the case or to obtain guardianship for the purposes of you procuring a private adoption of this child," wrote Palmer DePaulis, executive director, in a letter officially terminating Mackay's employment in April.

The division interviewed the biological mother, who has not been publicly identified, who felt Mackay used her "position of authority to coerce her to relinquish her parental rights of her newborn to you as a private individual for the purposes of you privately adopting her child for yourself," the letter said.

"It is unfortunate that emotion and personal interest interfered with your professional discretion and impartial judgment, which resulted in you violating these practice guidelines and this client's rights," DePaulis wrote, noting his responsibility to "maintain public trust and provide children and families with responsible employees."

brooke@sltrib.com

Editor's note

This story is based on interviews, public records and documents available on the Internet, the sentencing hearing and records released by the Department of Human Services in response to a GRAMA request.