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Caseworker crossed ethical line in pursuing adoption, DCFS says

Jury later found worker guilty of official misconduct in adoption of a baby.

First Published May 13 2012 11:51 pm • Last Updated Aug 28 2012 11:33 pm

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.

At a glance

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.

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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.

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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.

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