A Meadville man and his wife, who filed a federal civil rights suit against the Crawford County Office of Children and Youth and Meadville Police over a child custody dispute, have been cleared of child abuse allegations by the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare.

Arnold Johnson III, 56, and his wife, Christina Johnson, 48, and another relative, have won appeals to expunge reports filed with the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare’s Child Line Registry that they committed child abuse.

Child Line, run by the Department of Public Welfare, maintains records of child abuse complaints and reports. It also conducts background checks for child abuse and criminal history for child care providers and employees.

The child abuse reports on the Johnsons centered around Christina Johnson’s then 7-year-old daughter. Arnold Johnson is the girl’s stepfather, while Christina Johnson is the girl’s biological mother.

The rulings by DPW Administrative Law Judge Sara Fisher handed down recently found the DPW failed to prove the accuracy of a report that the girl was sexually abused by another relative in the Johnson household and the Johnsons knew about the abuse; and that there was no substantial evidence that the other relative or either of the Johnsons had mentally abused the child.

The Johnsons have since separated and the girl is residing with her mother, according to Tim McNair, Arnold Johnson’s attorney.

“It’s all in the judge’s ruling — Crawford County Children and Youth Services made serious accusations that were without merit,” said McNair, who declined further comment.

Arnold Johnson, who recently provided a copy of the ruling to the Tribune, could not be reached for additional comment.

Mark Weindorf, head of Crawford County Human Services, which oversees Children and Youth Services, declined comment Wednesday.

Crawford County Office of Children and Youth Services had the girl removed from the Johnson home June 19, 2009, and placed her in foster care after obtaining a Crawford County Court of Common Pleas order.

The Johnsons allege their civil rights were violated June 19, 2009, when three Children and Youth Services workers and six Meadville police officers were at the Johnsons’ home to remove the girl under the court order. They filed a civil rights suit in U.S. District Court in Erie in June 2011, alleging their rights to free speech, protection from unreasonable search and seizure, and due process under law and citizenship were violated when the girl was removed.

Crawford County Court authorized Children and Youth Services to take custody of the girl and place her in foster care based on CYS’s conclusion that the Johnsons weren’t adequately protecting the girl, according to the Johnsons’ federal civil suit. The federal civil suit said the merits of the custody order aren’t an issue in the civil suit.

The Johnsons’ federal civil suit alleges a CYS worker falsely claimed to Meadville police that Arnold Johnson had made threats against her and other Crawford County Office of Children and Youth employees.

On May 17, 2010, Arnold Johnson pleaded no contest in Crawford County Court of Common Pleas to Meadville police charges of simple assault, obstructing the administration of law and a summary count filed in connection with the June 19, 2009, removal of the girl from the Johnson home.

A no-contest plea, while not technically a guilty plea, has the same immediate effect as a guilty plea, and is often offered as part of a plea bargain.

At the time of this plea, Judge John Spataro sentenced Johnson to a total of 20 days to 12 months in county jail followed by six months probation. Johnson was credited with 20 days already served following his arrest and then paroled by Spataro. Johnson also was ordered to pay court costs plus $700 in fines and $90 in restitution for ripping two Meadville police officers’ uniforms during the incident.

However, the Johnsons’ federal civil rights violation suit still is pending in U.S. District Court in Erie.

Abuse charges

In the child abuse allegations, the DPW had argued that the other relative living in the Johnson household had sexually abused the girl and that the Johnsons allowed that relative and the girl to have out-of-sight contact even after the Johnsons were informed of the sexual abuse. The DPW also contended the girl was subjected to mental abuse for not being taken to psychotherapy sessions, undermining psychological treatment for the child.

The Johnsons and the other relative argued the child was removed from the home by Crawford County Children and Youth Services prior to any disclosures of abuse; they all had no knowledge of sexual, emotional or mental abuse of the girl; and that the girl was unduly influenced to say things that weren’t true.

They argued DPW relied on examinations by Rhonda Henderson, a registered nurse, who was later discredited as a forensic examiner.

Doubts about Henderson’s testimony in sexual assault cases across northwest Pennsylvania began to surface in 2010. Henderson’s findings in 39 Erie County sexual-assault cases from 2000 to 2010 have been contradicted by other medical experts.

Henderson’s work in Crawford County — involving a total of 44 criminal cases — was reviewed in 2011 by Francis Schultz, Crawford County’s district attorney. While Schultz notified all defense attorneys and defendants involved in those cases of Erie County’s findings and actions, Schultz said no charges would be dismissed in Crawford County because Henderson’s testimony alone didn’t make up the primary evidence in the local cases.

In issuing her ruling on whether to expunge the DPW’s child abuse allegations against the Johnsons and the other relative, Judge Fisher wrote “that the totality of the evidence as presented by the Department (of Public Welfare) has not satisfied their (sic) burden of substantial evidence of sexual abuse or exploitation” by the other relative, or that the Johnsons had sexually abused the child by omission, or by failing to report the abuse.

Fisher also wrote that testimony provided by Henderson wasn’t credible as it related to physical injuries to the child described from an examination completed on Aug. 20, 2008.

“The ALJ (administrative law judge) finds subject child’s disclosure to Licensed Psychologist (Donna) Ziegler of alleged sexual abuse by (the other relative) was not credible or consistent when reviewed individually or compared to all of the therapy sessions that were provided,” Fisher wrote in her opinion. “The subject child’s testimony that she was sexually abused by (the other relative) was not credible or consistent. The subject child made no disclosures during interviews with CYS (Children and Youth Services) or with RN Henderson.”

Fisher found there is no way to accurately assess what was real or not real to the girl as she initially had no memory of being touched by anyone.

Fisher 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 Ziegler over a period of several weeks that subject child responded with an allegation that she was touched by (the other relative).”

The judge found Ziegler’s opinions came about “from an adverse inference that was drawn by the Department based on RN Henderson’s Aug. 20, 2008, forensic examination alleging sexual abuse” of the girl.

‘Not credible’

The judge found Ziegler’s opinion “was not credible and not supported by the totality of the evidence presented at the administrative hearing that subject child was mentally abused by (the other relative or the Johnsons).”

“There was no evidence presented by the Department sufficient to establish that (the other relative or Johnsons) actually did cause a serious mental injury to subject child,” the opinion continued. “The totality of the evidence presented does not support substantial evidence that the subject child exhibited a psychological that seriously interfered with her ability to accomplish age-appropriate developmental and social tasks. In fact, she did well in school and participated in gymnastics.”

Judge Fisher concluded the DPW had not proven the girl was mentally abused by the other relative or the Johnsons.

Keith Gushard can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at kgushard@meadvilletribune.com.

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