Lawsuit accuses San Diego County officials of spying on hospitalized teen in abuse investigation
Two parents are suing San Diego County on allegations it opened a child abuse investigation and seized custody of their daughter unlawfully. The lawsuit also names Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego for allowing secret, around-the-clock video surveillance in the girl’s hospital room to try to catch the parents harming the child.
The complaint was filed in U.S. District Court in February by William Meyer and Dana Gascay, who allege civil rights violations.
The complaint accuses county child welfare officials of approving secret video surveillance of the teenage girl in her private hospital room at Rady Children’s Hospital for a month in 2019. County social workers hoped to catch one or both parents committing medical child abuse, the suit alleges.
“The intrusion into plaintiffs’ private affairs was unconsented to physical and/or sensory intrusion, the nature and scope of which is highly offensive to a reasonable person,” said the complaint, which says the girl was born in 2003.
“Defendants intentionally intruded into the plaintiffs’ private affairs by placing, without plaintiffs’ consent or knowledge, the [video] devices in the room set to record 24 hours per day, seven days per week, for an unspecified amount of time believed to be approximately 30 consecutive days.”
Ultimately, a juvenile court commissioner found that the girl had not suffered — nor was she at risk of suffering — physical harm at her parents’ hands, the lawsuit said.
The girl, who was still hospitalized at Rady Children’s Hospital, was ordered released back into the custody of her parents.
The plaintiffs’ lawyer said the parents had been able to visit the girl only at the hospital discretion in the 11 months they were without guardianship, but they were typically denied visits and had no control over her medical care.
County officials did not respond to requests for comment. The county typically declines to comment on pending lawsuits.
Carlos Delgado, a spokesman for Rady Children’s Hospital, said in a brief statement: “Our top priority is providing the highest level of care to our patients and families. The hospital does not comment generally on pending litigation and cannot comment specifically on this case due to patient privacy protections under federal and state law.”
According to the lawsuit, the girl’s doctors suspected abuse because they did not understand her diagnosis, a hypermobile type of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome.
The inherited syndrome causes symptoms such as loose joints vulnerable to dislocation, premature osteoarthritis, muscle soreness, tissue fragility and heart problems. It also is known to cause other clinical manifestations.
Unable to properly diagnose their patient, the doctors became “laser focused” on child abuse as a possible explanation for the girl’s condition and failed to provide the medical care she needed, according to the lawsuit.
“When they could not figure out what to do, they inexplicably leaped to a bizarre conclusion that the parents were responsible,” said Ronald Blumberg, the Solana Beach attorney representing the parents.
“These healthcare providers then used the overwhelming power of [child protective services] to define the cause of this girl’s medical needs, thereby further abdicating responsibility.
“Rady does good things for many, but not this time,” he said.
Blumberg said the facts are disturbing and the fallout is multifaceted.
“Not only has a family been destroyed, but a young girl was denied proper medical attention,” he said. “Had the defendants focused on finding the proper care for this girl, instead of assigning blame to the parents, all of this could have been avoided.”
According to the complaint, the girl’s medical problems started disrupting her life in 2016, when she hurt her shoulder during surf camp. Later that year, the shoulder dislocated again, and her elbow hyperextended while she was doing push-ups in a physical education class.
In 2017, a geneticist referred by the girl’s orthopedic surgeon diagnosed her condition as a hypermobile form of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. The girl had shoulder surgery, but the dislocations became more frequent and her pain harder to control, the lawsuit asserts.
The girl’s physicians referred her to Rady Children’s Hospital’s outpatient pain program, but the treatment was unsuccessful.
By 2018, the girl developed chronic pain and other complications. Her doctors and parents sent the girl to Los Angeles for further treatment but that also proved ineffective, the lawsuit said.
Soon after her return to San Diego, in December 2018, the parents were informed that county Child Welfare Services workers had received an allegation of child abuse against them. About a month later, they were told the investigation was closed without any findings of abuse.
In early 2019, at the recommendation of the girl’s doctors, her parents sent her to New York to be seen by a neurosurgeon, the lawsuit said. But soon after that, doctors at Kaiser Permanente in San Diego began the process of transferring her to Rady Children’s Hospital — without informing the child’s parents.
Once at the San Diego hospital, doctors or others were asked to review the girl’s “medical records for Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, also known as Fictitious Disorder Imposed on Another or Medical Child Abuse,” the complaint said.
Munchausen syndrome by proxy is typically described as a mental health problem in which a caregiver fabricates or causes an illness or injury to a person in their care. It can be extremely difficult to diagnose, so some hospitals sometimes allow covert patient surveillance to determine what is causing the harm.
The lawsuit said the surveillance was not authorized by or consistent with Rady Children’s Hospital policies.
On Feb. 28, 2019, a county child welfare worker told the parents the county had received a complaint alleging the parents were not supporting the girl’s psychiatric and dietary needs.
“Plaintiffs were shocked at the allegations presented, as the plaintiffs were doing everything they could, as parents, to provide the best treatment and care for their child, under the watchful eye of many treating physicians,” the lawsuit said.
A week later, without speaking with the parents, child welfare officials removed the father from the girl’s hospital bedside, telling him there were “judicial orders to temporarily remove the girl from [the parents’] custody,” according to the complaint.
The parents challenged the abuse allegations in juvenile dependency court and prevailed early last year, the complaint said. The plaintiffs learned about the use of hidden cameras through the trial’s discovery process.
At the close of the proceeding, the commissioner overseeing the case “noted his concerns” about the covert surveillance in the girl’s hospital room, the lawsuit said.
Even after the plaintiffs regained custody of their daughter in February 2020, a doctor and officials at Rady Children’s Hospital tried to further limit the parents’ involvement in her medical care, according to the complaint, “including, but not limited to, subjecting [the girl] to medical tests and procedures without [her parents’] knowledge and/or consent, and by restricting [the parents] from accessing” their daughter’s records.
The defendants also placed the parents’ names in the Child Abuse Central Index without adequate investigation or justification, the lawsuit alleges.
The legal complaint asks the court for unspecified damages, attorney’s fees and court costs, along with whatever other relief the court deems proper.
Lawyers for the county and Rady Children’s Hospital have yet to respond in court to the complaint.
Cook writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.
The stories shaping California
Get up to speed with our Essential California newsletter, sent six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.