Meadville Tribune

Local News

January 24, 2014

Man awarded $45K in local civil rights suit with police, child services

No admissions of wrongdoing involving child custody dispute

An out-of-court settlement has been reached in a federal civil rights suit filed against Crawford County Office of Children and Youth Services and the Meadville Police Department in connection with a child custody dispute more than four years ago.

Arnold Johnson III, 57, of Meadville has settled his civil rights suit for a total of $45,000. While there is payment under the terms of the agreement, there is no admission of any wrongdoing, either past or present, by any of the defendants, according to a copy of the settlement agreement which was given to The Meadville Tribune by Johnson and his attorney, Tim McNair, of Erie.

The civil rights suit alleged Johnson’s rights to free speech, protection from unreasonable search and seizure, and due process under law and citizenship were violated when Children and Youth Services (CYS) workers and Meadville police officers came to his home to remove his stepdaughter on June 19, 2009, because of alleged child abuse.

However, those allegations of child abuse eventually were determined to be unfounded by the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare. Johnson and his then-wife, Christine Johnson, were cleared of all child abuse allegations by the Department of Public Welfare in 2012.

The Johnsons and another relative also won appeals to expunge reports filed with the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare’s Child Line Registry that they had committed child abuse.

In clearing the Johnsons and the other relative of child abuse allegations in 2012, a DPW administrative law judge found the DPW charges were without merit because DPW relied on examinations by Rhonda Henderson, a registered nurse, who was later discredited as a forensic examiner. The DPW judge found Henderson’s testimony wasn’t credible as it related to physical injuries to the child following an examination.

In clearing the Johnsons, the DPW judge also found “it was only after being isolated from her family, after many leading questions during therapy sessions, and being instructed to repeat statements back to Licensed Psychologist (Donna) Ziegler over a period of several weeks that subject child responded with an allegation that she was touched by (the other relative).”

Suit background

Of the $45,000 being paid to Johnson for the civil rights suit settlement, $20,000 will be paid by the county and $25,000 by the city with those payments to come from their respective insurance carriers, according to the agreement.

County and city officials have declined all comment, but Johnson said the settlement isn’t about the money.

“What I want is to see things change with CYS,” Johnson said in a Tribune interview about the settlement. “There was misuse of authority.”

McNair, Johnson’s attorney, said he was glad to be able to resolve it on behalf of his client.

“The documents filed tell the story of the case,” McNair said in a telephone interview. “I don’t have a lot to add beyond that.”

Johnson and his then-wife, Christine Johnson, filed suit in U.S. District Court in Erie in June 2011 alleging their civil rights were violated on June 19, 2009, when county CYS workers and Meadville police went to the couple’s home that day to remove Christine Johnson’s then-7-year-old daughter.

The Johnsons’ civil suit named Conni Crum, Jeff Barnhart and John Doe No. 1 of Crawford County Office of Children and Youth; and officers Eric Young, Kevin Lippincott, Glenn Peterson, Gregory Beveridge, Craig Gump and John Doe No. 2 of Meadville Police Department as defendants.

Christine Johnson, Barnhart, John Doe No. 1, Craig Gump and John Doe No. 2 later were dismissed as parties to the suit by a court order.

According to the Johnsons’ civil suit, CYS was investigating allegations of abuse against the girl by others, including the girl’s relatives. The Johnsons alleged CYS failed to properly investigate those allegations of abuse.

The suit claimed Arnold Johnson was displeased with the way the case was handled by Crawford County Court of Common Pleas and made complaints about case worker Crum and the CYS staff to the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare. Johnson also posted flyers critical of the way the case was being handled, the suit said.

Johnson’s civil suit claimed that on June 19, 2009, Crawford County Office of Children and Youth (CCOCY) got a court order from Crawford County Court of Common Pleas authorizing the agency to take custody of the girl and put her in foster care based on the agency’s conclusion that the Johnsons weren’t adequately protecting the girl. However, Johnson’s suit said the merits of the custody order weren’t an issue in the civil suit.

According to Johnson’s suit, Crum had falsely alleged to Meadville police that Arnold Johnson made threats against her and other CCOCY employees.

The Johnsons “had forcefully and perhaps angrily expressed dissatisfaction with CCOCY, but no threats of violence were ever made,” the suit said.

According to Johnson’s suit, on June 19, 2009, Arnold Johnson was in poor health, suffering from prostate cancer, anemia and a partial muscle tear in his right arm that limited his mobility when authorities arrived, the suit said.

The suit claimed Arnold Johnson was weak and resting in bed, groggy from pain medication, while Christine Johnson was next door at a neighbor’s home when CYS workers and police arrived to enforce the custody order, according to the suit.

The suit claimed the statements by the defendants were calculated to and did destabilize the situation, leading to serious injury of Arnold Johnson, who was “unnecessarily tackled, his arm pulled, he was held to the floor of the porch of his own house and beaten and kicked.”

The suit alleged Arnold Johnson was confronted in a hostile manner and he became angry.

“At no time did Plaintiff (Arnold Johnson) threaten anyone with violence, assault anyone or take any action which could be objectively viewed as presenting a threat or physical danger to anyone,” the suit claimed.

It alleged police attacked Johnson as he reached down to give his stepdaughter a hug as she was leaving.

The suit claimed Arnold Johnson “was choked to the point where he almost lost consciousness. Plaintiff did not resist, nor did he strike any of the defendants.”

The suit alleged the attack caused serious bodily injury to Johnson including a complete tear of the supraspinatus muscle in one of his wrists and tears of the triangular fibrocartilage in both of his wrists.

Settlement reaction

While he filed the civil rights suit, Johnson said he has no lingering hostility toward the Meadville Police Department or the officers involved.

“I didn’t do anything wrong, why carry it around inside and be angry?” Johnson asked. “How can I heal without forgiving them on a personal level?”

Johnson did plead no contest to criminal charges associated with the incident.

In 2010, Johnson pleaded no contest in Crawford County Court of Common to charges of simple assault, obstructing the administration of law and a summary count filed by Meadville police. A no contest plea, while not technically a guilty plea, has the same immediate effect as a guilty plea and is often offered as a part of a plea bargain.

Johnson entered the no contest plea in a plea bargain with the Crawford County District Attorney’s Office.

At sentencing, Judge John Spataro gave Johnson 20 days to 12 months in county jail followed by six months probation, but he credited Johnson for 20 days already served following his arrest and immediately paroled Johnson. Johnson also was ordered to pay court costs plus $700 in fines and $90 in restitution for ripping two police uniforms during the incident at his home.

As for the Crawford County Office of Children and Youth Services, Johnson said he wants to see reforms.

“I forgive them, but their methods need to be examined,” Johnson said. “I wanted to come out with my dignity. I would not allow the slander and libel to continue.

“Crawford County would do well to look at the methods (to investigate) used by CYS,” Johnson said. “There’s a dark side to it — not just in Crawford County but all over the U.S.”

Johnson claims the fallout from the entire incident has been that his marriage eventually dissolved and his stepdaughter was adopted.

Meadville and Crawford County officials had little or no comment on the settlement with Johnson.

Both Meadville City Manager Joe Chriest and the police officers referred questions to attorney Patrick M. Carey, who represented the Meadville police officers. Carey offered no comment on the settlement.

Francis Weiderspahn Jr., chairman of Crawford County Board of Commissioners, said the settlement was based on “information we received from our attorney. If we agreed to this amount, the case would be settled.”

Repeated calls to Jeffrey Millin, the county’s attorney, weren’t returned.

Emails were sent by the Tribune to both Crum and Mark Weindorf, the head of CCOCY, for comment. Weindorf had no comment, noting that acknowledging either a case or a participant in a case would be a violation of federal law. There was no response from Crum.

Meadville Tribune Executive Editor Pat Bywater contributed to this story. Keith Gushard can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at kgushard@meadvilletribune.com.

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