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McClanahan v. Washington County Department of Social Services

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

July 31, 2014

LAUREN MCCLANAHAN
v.
WASHINGTON COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF SOCIAL SERVICES

Eyler, Deborah S., Woodward, Reed, JJ

OPINION

Woodward, J.

In December 2010, appellee, the Washington County Department of Social Services (the "Department"), found appellant, Lauren McClanahan, responsible for indicated child abuse by mental injury of her then five-year-old daughter, Raven H. ("Raven"). The finding of child abuse stemmed from appellant's repeatedly making sexual abuse allegations against Raven's father and taking the child to multiple sexual abuse examinations.

Appellant appealed the Department's finding to the Office of Administrative Hearings ("OAH") in January 2011, and an administrative law judge ("ALJ") affirmed the Department's finding in October 2011. Appellant then sought judicial review of the ALJ's determination in the Circuit Court for Washington County, which affirmed the ALJ's decision on May 2, 2013. Appellant filed a timely appeal to this Court on May 30, 2013, and presents four questions for our review, which we have rephrased and consolidated into three:[1]

1. Did the record contain competent, material, and substantial evidence sufficient to support the ALJ's decision?
2. Did the ALJ err by admitting evidence that violated the privilege laws of Maryland and Pennsylvania?
3. Did the ALJ violate the immunity provisions of the Family Law and Courts and Judicial Proceedings Articles?

For the reasons set forth below, we answer question one in the affirmative, and conclude that questions two and three have not been preserved for our review. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the circuit court.

BACKGROUND

Family Background

On May 6, 2005, Raven was born to appellant and her then-husband John H. Each parent had substance abuse problems and accused the other of domestic violence. Appellant also accused Mr. H. of sexually abusing her. On August 2, 2006, appellant and Mr. H. separated after nineteen years of marriage, and they legally divorced on February 25, 2008.

After her parents' divorce, Raven lived with appellant, who had primary physical custody, and had unsupervised visitation with her father three weekends per month and one weeknight per week. Mr. H. remarried, as did appellant. Appellant's second husband, Michael M., died of a heart attack in December 2009. Appellant now lives with a live-in partner.

Original Abuse Allegations & Investigations

During the approximately three-and-a-half year period from June 2007 to November 2010, appellant took Raven to the hospital nine times for physical examinations related to sexual abuse allegations. The examinations shared two common features: first, the evaluations occurred after Raven made sexual abuse allegations following visitation at her father's home; second, Raven presented with physical symptoms immediately prior to each examination.[2] None of these examinations, however, confirmed that Raven had been sexually abused.

At first, Raven alleged that her father or step-brother had molested her or penetrated her with small objects, and later described assaults involving a needle, cream, or the family's pets. Raven generally made these accusations in the presence of her mother. The allegation Raven made on June 23, 2010 typified the nature of the child's claims. On that day, Raven informed her mother and her babysitter that her father "poked me with a needle in my front bottom." Raven later told a nurse that she felt "sad [because] of how I got hurt, " and that the needle was "blue [with] 5 green stripes."[3]

Raven displayed very similar physical symptoms at the time of each appointment, including genital redness and swelling, and occasionally vaginal discharge, which indicated a urinary tract infection.[4] At the second forensic examination, on February 21, 2008, Dr. Ruth Ann Dwyer diagnosed Raven with "vulvitis–normal variant in pre-pubertal female, " and the terms "vulvitis" and "vaginitis" were often used to described the irritation experienced by Raven.

Both the irritation and the infections observed in Raven are common in children her age, and can often be attributed to poor hygiene. At the February 2008 visit, Dr. Dwyer noted toilet paper on Raven's genitals, an indication of poor hygiene, and discussed "routine good hygiene care" with appellant. On more than one occasion, appellant received education about how to prevent the irritation of Raven's genitals, which included the child's avoiding bubble baths and wearing underwear overnight.

Dr. Dwyer also reported in Raven's medical chart that a "normal exam does not exclude a history of sexual abuse, " and personally explained to appellant that abuse could not be ruled-out. As indicated above, however, no examination revealed definitive signs of sexual abuse. In addition, and importantly, from February 2008 until May 2010, the Department conducted fourteen sexual abuse investigations, all of which ruled out sexual abuse.

Mental Injury Inquiry & Evaluations of Raven

On May 14, 2010, the Department began an investigation into appellant for causing mental injury to Raven. Dr. Carlton E. Munson, a licensed certified social worker with a Ph.D. in clinical social work, evaluated Raven for mental injury on July 16 and August 4, 2010, after receiving a referral from Bruce McCarthy, an investigator from Child Protective Services ("CPS"). Previously, Dr. Munson assessed Raven on July 24 and September 10, 2008 upon referral from CPS.

On October 29, 2010, Dr. Munson finalized his report on Raven, and diagnosed the child as having indications of mental injury. Dr. Munson determined that Raven had a "positive insecure attachment to her mother and father, " and categorized her disorder under Axis I of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) as "Parent-Child Relational Problem." This finding echoed the diagnosis made by Raven's therapist, Amy Hershey, whom Dr. Munson interviewed. Hershey diagnosed Raven under Axis I as having an "Adjustment Disorder with Mixed Anxiety and Depressed Mood, " related to "dealing with parental conflict and disagreement between households." Thus, both professionals determined that Raven had a mental injury that implicated her relationship with her family.

According to Dr. Munson's report, Raven's mental injury manifested itself in various forms of emotional distress. Dr. Munson observed that Raven demonstrated neediness and insecurity around her immediate family, but in particular around appellant. Raven also displayed symptoms of generalized anxiety. Dr. Munson noted that Raven suffered from abnormally severe sleep disturbances and nightmares. Finally, Dr. Munson commented on the unusual nature of the sexual abuse allegations Raven made during his evaluation and the therapy sessions with Hershey. According to Dr. Munson, Raven generally made these disclosures to her family and therapists, but not to investigators, and exhibited a willingness to expose herself.

Dr. Munson further observed that Raven's mental injury had impaired Raven's emotional, social, and intellectual function. Dr. Munson reported that Raven was "currently having functional problems at school." Dr. Munson gave an IQ test to Raven, which revealed a twenty-six-point discrepancy between the child's verbal and nonverbal scores. Dr. Munson theorized that the discrepancy could be caused by familial trauma. Finally, Dr. Munson's testing demonstrated an "overall decline in meeting milestones" since the evaluations he performed in 2008.

At the end of his report, Dr. Munson offered his opinion on the cause of Raven's mental injury and impairment:

Based on the scales administered, the clinical interviews conducted, the collateral interviews conducted, and the documents reviewed, it is my professional opinion that Raven [ ] has been mentally injured and the source of the mental injury gives indication of being due to the mother's engaging in conscious or unconscious suggestive utterances to Raven about abuse by the father and engaging in alienating activities related to the father.

(Emphasis added).

In addition to Dr. Munson, McCarthy contacted Ronald E. Zuskin and requested that he conduct an assessment of Raven. From August 2010 to October 2010, Zuskin, a licensed certified social worker-clinical, reviewed Dr. Munson's report and interviewed appellant, Hershey, Mr. H., and Mr. H.'s second wife, but did not interview Raven.

Zuskin's assessment of Raven was similar to Dr. Munson's evaluation. Zuskin adopted Hershey's diagnosis of "Adjustment Disorder with Mixed Anxiety and Depressed Mood." Zuskin, like Dr. Munson, also determined that Raven had an unhealthy attachment to her mother, which he described in terms of an "extreme over-involvement, intrusiveness and dominance."

Also like Dr. Munson, Zuskin reported that Raven's functioning had become impaired:

Raven's relations with authority figures, her peer relations, and her own reactivity to disruption in the environment indicate that not only is her current level of functioning impaired, but that without treatment and significant environmental changes she is a risk of greater disruption and regression.

Zuskin also concluded that appellant exploited Raven through making repeated sexual abuse allegations, and that such exploitation caused Raven's impairment.

Procedural History

On December 15, 2010, the Department notified appellant that it had determined that she was responsible for indicated child abuse by mental injury. On January 14, 2011, appellant appealed the Department's finding of indicated child abuse-mental injury to the OAH. The ALJ held a contested case hearing on the matter on August 16 and September 19, 2011. On October 25, 2011, the ALJ issued a written decision, in which she concluded that (1) the finding of indicated child abuse-mental injury was supported by credible evidence and was consistent with the law, and (2) appellant was responsible for the indicated abuse.[5]

On November 23, 2011, appellant petitioned the Circuit Court for Washington County for judicial review of the ALJ's decision. On May 2, 2013, the circuit court affirmed the ALJ's decision. On May 30, 2013, appellant filed a timely notice of appeal to this Court.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

In Charles County Department of Social Services v. Vann, 382 Md. 286 (2004), the Court of Appeals set forth in detail the appropriate standard of judicial review of the final decision of an administrative agency:

As a court sitting in judicial review of an administrative agency decision, this Court reviews the decision in the same posture as that of the courts below. That is to say, we reevaluate the decision of the agency under the same statutory standards as would the circuit court, and we do not employ those standards to reevaluate the decision of the circuit or intermediate appellate court.
[Maryland Code (1984, 1999 Repl. Vol., 2003 Cum. Supp.), § 10-222(h) of the State Government Article ("SG")] sets forth standards of judicial review over agency decisions in contested cases and varies those standards depending on the type of agency determination under scrutiny. With regard to agency factual determinations, the standard of review is whether the finding is "unsupported by competent, material, and substantial evidence in light of the entire record as submitted, " also known as substantial evidence review. Under substantial evidence review of an agency's factual findings, a court is limited to ascertaining whether a reasoning mind could have reached the same factual conclusions reached by the agency on the record before it.
With regard to agency legal conclusions, judicial review is less deferential to the agency. When an agency makes "conclusions of law" in a contested case, the [Administrative Procedure Act] permits the court, on judicial review, to decide the correctness of the agency's conclusions and to substitute the court's judgment for that of the agency's. Even with conclusions of law, however, an agency's legal interpretation of the statute it administers or of its own regulations is entitled to some deference from the courts.
Other agency decisions fall within categories that are neither legal conclusions nor factual findings, and some fall within both. These latter sort commonly are known as "mixed questions of law and fact" or applications of law to facts: The agency has correctly stated the law and its fact-finding is supported by the record, but the question is whether it has applied the law to the facts correctly. When the agency decision being judicially reviewed is a mixed question of law and fact, the reviewing court applies the substantial evidence test, that is, the same standard of review it would apply to an agency factual finding.

Id. at 294-96 (citations omitted).

DISCUSSION

I. Substantial Evidence & Legal Error

Appellant's main argument is that the record does not support the factual findings and legal conclusions made by the ALJ. The ALJ concluded her opinion by stating that "[a]ppellant's act of making multiple allegations of sex abuse of Raven by her father and subjecting Raven to repeated sexual abuse exams constitutes child abuse mental injury." The ALJ supported this conclusion with a lengthy review of the evidence, in which she heavily relied upon the evaluations of Dr. Munson and Zuskin:

This matter is complicated from th[e] standpoint [of assessing mental injury, because] the family dynamics and Raven's psychological state are intertwined and complex. I have given significant weight to both Dr. Munson's and [ ] Zuskin's test and reports. Their reports were thorough and provided clear and rational explanations for how the data they collected during their assessments supported their conclusions. . ...

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