Adoption Agency May Be Liable for Child's Rape

Relates to:
Date: 2012-06-09

PHILADELPHIA (CN) - A federal judge refused to dismiss claims that an adoption agency is liable for the rape of a 2-year-old boy because it failed to disclose the prior sexual abuse experienced by a teenager the infant's family took in.

Martin and Tracey Stewart adopted their 13-year-old nephew Dalon Holmes in 2009. Before going through with the adoption, however, the Stewarts say they asked for confirmation that Holmes had never been sexually abused - circumstances they needed to know because several young children also lived with the Stewarts at the time. One of those children was their biological granddaughter, identified in the decision as Z.M.

The Stewarts say Holmes raped and molested Z.M. in 2010, and the teenager was removed and charged with various crimes related to the attack. Holmes is allegedly a ward of Pennsylvania because the Stewarts relinquished custodial rights.

They filed suit against the Bethanna adoption agency and the city of Philadelphia, claiming that both entities knew and concealed the fact that Holmes had been molested by his mother and various unidentified males before Social Services took custody of him in 2007. Z.M.'s mother, Shamayra Madison, is a co-plaintiff, suing on behalf of her child.

Bethanna and Philadelphia removed the complaint to federal court and then sought dismissal in March.

U.S. District Judge Ronald Buckwalter dismissed several counts but said the case will still proceed.

Bethanna had claimed that Z.M. and his mother lacked standing "adoption agencies only owe a duty to adoptee children and the parties to the adoption under Pennsylvania Law," according to the court.

But Buckwalter said "this characterization ... misconstrues the law governing standing."

Concluding that Madison and Z.M.'s claims are "fairly traceable to Bethanna's conduct," the judge said monetary relief could "alleviate some degree of their alleged injuries."

The Stewarts have also met the bar at this stage to show claim Bethanna knew about Holmes' history of sexual abuse.

"While the complaint may not contain detailed factual allegations related to these claims, notice pleading only requires a claimant to state a claim upon which relief can be granted by the court," Buckwalter wrote.

The Stewarts can also advance claims of negligence, fraud, misrepresentation and emotional distress, according to the court.

But Bethanna and Philadelphia will not have to face negligence or emotional distress claims from Madison or Z.M, the judge found.

The plaintiffs can seek punitive damages for recklessness as well, according to the court.

"Plaintiffs aver that Bethanna intentionally misrepresented and 'concealed' Holmes's prior history, despite knowing or being able to easily obtain such information and the Stewarts's repeated requests for it,' Buckwalter wrote.

"Plaintiffs allege that this conduct was motivated by Bethanna's self-interest in 'inducing the Stewarts to proceed with the adoption of Dalon Holmes' and 'evidenced a deliberate and willful desire to further Bethanna's own interest and objectives at the expense of the Stewarts,' he added.

"While the evidence unearthed during discovery may ultimately lead to a different conclusion, if these allegations are ultimately determined to be true, they could support a claim of recklessness," the decision concludes.

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