NEWS- Social dis-services? Dad sues for $4 mil over alleged molestation

A $4 million dollar suit filed in federal court charges Albemarle County Social Services with "malicious prosecution."

Four million dollars. That's the price tag a Nelson County man has placed on his suffering following a two-and-a-half year ordeal with Albemarle County Social Services.

In a civil suit filed in December 2006 in federal court against four social services employees and one Newport News psychologist, the man– using the pseudonym John T. Nelson– charges that beginning in December 2004, four Albemarle County employees "did not simply botch an investigation into highly dubious allegations of child abuse; they used their official positions and the profound powers afforded them to ignore clear evidence of false allegations."

A source familiar with the case says the father is being punished for breaking off an engagement to his pregnant fiancee. The would-be wife denies this.

Among the suit's allegations: that the experts procured a faulty psychological evaluation of the six-year-old girl despite "numerous credible express refutations of it as well as other clear evidence of its false nature."

The suit also alleges that Social Services gave the child's mother, given the pseudonym "Cathy Rio" in the suit, 24 hours advance notice prior to the evaluation conducted by Newport News therapist Viola Vaughan-Eden knowing that the mother was prone to "coaching" the child, an allegation the mother denies.

That allegedly faulty evaluation is what prompted Social Services to render a "founded" disposition, "Level 1," against Nelson, the most serious finding possible and one which permanently places the alleged offender on a public central registry. A neutral hearing officer later overturned the finding, the suit states, after determining the child's psychological evaluation was unreliable.

To this day, the suit says, Nelson is permitted just three hours supervised visitation with his daughter per week. In the interest of protecting the child, the Hook is not releasing the identities of the parents involved, however the mother issued this statement regarding the suit.

 "He's just doing to the county what he's done to my family for years," she says. "He's claiming that everyone is conspiring against him when the truth is he's been allowed to hurt people and bully and harass everyone and has gotten special treatment because of his political connections. My whole family has been through hell, and we pray that this will stop soon."

Nelson declined comment, however the suit says he has taken a battery of tests including a lie detector and one designed to detect sexual interest in children. He passed both, the suit states.

His attorney, Kirk Schroder, declined comment citing a gag order.

Defendant Vaughan-Eden did not return the Hook's calls. The others named are Albemarle employees Lori Green, Cindy Casey, John Freeman, and Kathy Ralston, director of Albemarle County Social Services. Ralston directed all inquiries about the case to attorney John Zunka, who did not return the Hook's calls by presstime. 

Albemarle County employees' legal expenses are paid by a county insurance policy, according to County spokesperson Lee Catlin.

Regardless of the veracity of Nelson's suit, there is little disagreement over the notion that child sexual abuse is a menace. This past fall, a new nonprofit, the Foothills Child Advocacy Center, announced its plan to provide a comfortable place for sexually abused children to tell their stories and, hopefully, find justice with little additional trauma. 

According to Gretchen Ellis, director of the Charlottesville Albemarle Commission on Children and Families, a nonprofit that distributes $15 million from the city and county to foster and other at-risk children, Foothills has treated 59 victims in its first 10 months; 50 of those were victims of sexual abuse.

More than 60 percent of alleged local offenders are parents or other trusted adults, and Ellis expects the number of children the Center has served is below the actual number of abused children. An ongoing investigation by the Bedford, Virginia-based Internet Crimes Against Children task force also shows a serious problem with pedophilia in the Charlottesville area. In January 2007 alone, the task force detected nearly 150 individual computers downloading child pornography in this area.

Lori Green– named in the suit– spoke to the Hook in October for an article on the Foothills Child Advocacy Center and said that getting a conviction against an abuser is difficult.

 "Juries don't want to believe that caretakers can do this to their children," said Green, who added that accusations often come out during divorces and that defendants and their lawyers often claim the other parent is "coaching." Green admitted then that coaching is possible, but she believed it unlikely that one parent could get a child to lie about the other parent on the stand.

The child, said Green, "is risking their whole world and that of their parent." 

Nelson is not the first man to take action with his anger at  Social Services. In the Hook's October 16, 2003 cover story "Saving Sarah: Satan worship, sex abuse, and Dr. Martin Stein," Tom Manuel revealed his nearly decade long struggle to reconnect with his daughter after being accused by his ex-wife– he maintained falsely– of molesting his daughter.

In that case, the psychiatrist who heard his daughter's claims– Washington, D.C.-based Martin Stein– was later stripped of his license for a variety of violations, including showing Manuel's then-11-year-old daughter pictures of animals copulating and touching her developing breasts. Yet even in light of the new evidence, Albemarle Social Services, Manuel claimed, refused to reconsider his case and would not comment on the matter for the Hook's article.

Although Manuel and his daughter, Sarah, reconciled when she was in her early twenties and had repealed all her claims against him, the happy-ever-after ending was cut short. Manuel died in 2005 of colon cancer.

His widow, Kathleen Manuel, says the Nelson case brings back horrible memories of the state's Department of Social Services, or DSS.

"I can't know for sure whether or not this father is guilty of abusing his daughter," she says, "but I do know that my husband and I were entirely innocent and were found guilty, as he has been, by DSS."