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Jury Awards Parents Just $2 for Son's Improper Removal

Jury Awards Parents Just $2 for Son's Improper Removal

Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Utah child-welfare workers suspected a 12-year-old boy in a wheelchair who was rapidly losing weight was a victim of a mother who was making him sick in a bid for sympathy from doctors and others.

By their account, Rusty Roska, who had lost 70 pounds and was unable to feed himself, quickly improved during the week he was taken from his parents' house into state custody.

But a social worker and two supervisors had failed to obtain a warrant eight years ago for the child's removal. A federal appeals court ruled they violated the parents' civil rights and ordered a trial to determine damages.

On Monday, after a six-day trial in U.S. District Court, the jury awarded just $2 to the parents, who had turned down a $100,000 settlement.

"This case is bizarre. It's like a drug trip. It's been bizarre from day one," Assistant Utah Attorney General Matthew Bates said Tuesday.

The case prompted the Utah Legislature to require caseworkers to obtain a court order before removing a child from a home, except in emergencies.

In 1999, Connie and James Roska sued Shirley Morrison, a caseworker for the Utah Division of Child and Family Services, and two supervisors, Colleen Lasater and Melinda Sneddon.

Bates asked the jury to minimize any damages by arguing the state workers honestly believed they were dealing with an abused or neglected child. He said the Roskas couldn't show any harm from having their civil rights trampled. "The verdict will be paid," said Morris Haggerty, attorney for state Division of Risk Management. "There have been dollar verdicts before; nominal damages are not unusual."

The Roskas, who live In Layton, refused comment after the verdict, and they weren't talking Tuesday, one of their advocates said. Messages left at their lawyer's office weren't returned.

An alternate juror who sat through the trial but didn't participate in deliberations believes the Roskas were exaggerating. "I don't think they deserve any money at all. I did not believe the Roskas," Lisa Barr of Salt Lake City told the Standard-Examiner of Ogden.

Joyce Kinmont of the Utah Families Association, a group that promotes parental rights, said the allegation that Connie Roska sent her son into a spiral of sickness "never happened." "That kid had a number of things wrong with him physically, but it took doctors a long time to figure it out," Kinmont said Tuesday.

Bates, however, said a team of UCLA doctors determined the man, now 21, never had more than a minor kidney problem that could cause pain if left untreated.

Bates believes the boy was a victim of an unofficial condition in which a parent can make a child sick or act sick -- or nurse a minor ailment into a major one -- to get sympathy. It is called Munchausen's Syndrome by Proxy. "It's incontrovertible that this behavior does exist," said Dr. Marc Feldman, a University of Alabama professor, author of several books, including "Playing Sick," and specialist in false disorders. He offered no opinion on the Roska case.

Bates said the case underscored the "extremely hard" choices child-welfare workers have to make under pressure "with very little hard information."

In another case, Daren and Barbara Jensen are suing Utah's child-welfare division and Primary Children's Medical Center. The Jensens refused to give their son Parker chemotherapy for cancer, sparking a fierce custody battle in 2003. The state gave up trying to force chemotherapy on Parker, who by his family's account remains healthy. His parents settled charges of felony kidnapping and medical neglect -- they took him to Idaho -- by pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge of custodial interference.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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