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Parents suing over listing on child abuse index

A year after George and Bette McFetridge adopted a troubled teenage girl, the Irvine couple contends, her behavior grew increasingly disconcerting. She neglected her grades, kept company with grown men and ran away repeatedly.

On her camera, the Orange County deputy district attorney and his wife found a photograph of a pentagram, and of words written on pavement: "Torture." "Agony."

To punish her for lying about her whereabouts, Bette McFetridge took a pair of scissors and cut off locks of the girls' hair in early 2008 — a snip for each lie.

The "tough love" punishment led to an allegation of emotional abuse that a social worker deemed "inconclusive" but nevertheless landed the couple on the state's Child Abuse Central Index, where they remained for 11 months.

Now, the McFetridges are suing the Orange County Social Services Agency and Bridget Hannegan, the veteran social worker who handled their case. They allege their inclusion on the list damaged their reputations, stigmatizing them as child abusers, and that they were not afforded due process to fight the label.

Though George McFetridge is a county prosecutor, he is bringing the lawsuit as a private citizen and representing himself in court. In the suit, he alleges the social worker's confidential report about the case was forwarded to the district attorney's office, damaging his reputation, and that having his name on the abuse index impeded his attempt to become a court appointed special advocate.  

In Orange County Superior Court on Friday, he told jurors that he used to prosecute child abuse cases in California and Nevada. "I have sent people to prison for child abuse," he said. Of himself and his wife, he added: "We are experienced, successful parents."

The girl, referred to in court only as "Holly," was 15 at the time of the hair-cutting incident. McFetridge said that his wife, concerned about their daughter's behavior, issued multiple warnings to tell the truth or risk punishment. After each lie, she cut another strand. "She cut a third strand, and then Holly started telling the truth," he told jurors. "We made a breakthrough."

He said he received a letter in April 2008 that he and his wife had been reported to the abuse index, but 12 weeks passed before he was able to see the social worker's report. He said the social worker falsely alleged the girl's hair was cut to within an inch of her scalp, leaving silver dollar-sized chunks missing.

The girl is now 18 and no longer living with the McFetridges, who acknowledge the adoption failed. "We're Facebook friends," Mr. McFetridge told jurors.

The couple is seeking $28,000 they spent to send the girl to a residential program, plus $1 a month for each month they spent on the abuse index.

Daniel Spradlin, attorney for the Social Services Agency and the social worker, told jurors the agency's actions were "reasonable and appropriate."

He described the girl as "a very emotionally troubled child," adding: "Nobody is saying Mr. and Mrs. McFetridge are bad people.… Maybe they did not appreciate how deep her troubles were." He said the girl believed herself a failure in her parents' eyes. "Mom wanted a daughter who was an avid reader," he said, which the girl was not.

Spradlin said Mrs. McFetridge grew resentful that the girl did not seem to appreciate the life they were trying to give her. He said the girl "had nothing" when they adopted her, but that her appearance — particularly her hair — was a large part of her identity.

"They used what the child's most precious possession was" to discipline her, he said.

The case is expected to continue next week.

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