Callie Thornton
March 8th, 2010, 3:00 am · 68 Comments · posted by Teri Sforza, Register staff writer

George and Bette McFetridge were living in a great big house in Las Vegas. Their son was grown and gone, with a family of his own. There were all those extra bedrooms… .

And so the TV ads saying that Las Vegas dearly needed foster and adoptive parents lingered in their minds.

George, a deputy district attorney, and Bette, a nurse, didn’t feel they could handle a small child at this stage of their lives. But a teen – well, they could take in a teen for a few years, show her what it’s like to live in a real family, and hopefully, give her a better shot at succeeding in life.

Soon, they were introduced via brochure to a “cute-as-a-button” 14-year-old girl with beautiful long hair. Her biological mom had a drug problem and her biological dad was in jail, but she liked to read, enjoyed school and was doing well in her classes. That’s how George and Bette McFetridge took a 14-year-old they call H into their family.

One might argue that every teenager is a handful, even those with the most placid of backgrounds. But never did the McFetridges expect the trials they were in for - culminating when their names appeared on California’s Child Abuse Central Index, because of what they say were the girl’s false accusations.

The McFetridges’ fought back, and after about a year, were removed from the child abuse registry. But they were so outraged by the experience that they filed suit against the Orange County Social Services Agency last month for violating their civil rights, seeking damages to be decided at trial – and, more than anything, seeking to change a system that they say shoots first and asks questions later.

“It was probably the most stressful thing I’ve ever experienced in my life,” Bette said. “I’m a nurse. My whole life has been about helping people. To walk into a school and have two cops in a conference room berating me, and the principal, teachers, child psychologist – everybody’s staring at you, it’s an awful feeling. I wanted to crawl in a hole and die. How do you make people believe you? How do you get help for this kid?

“You should get a trial,” Bette said, “before you’re convicted.”


The controversy arises from how California handles complaints. An investigator is sent out, asks the people involved lots of questions, and then decides – pretty much unilaterally – whether the complaint is valid or not.

Once the investigator makes this decision, it enters the official record. Only after that information becomes public – potentially ruining a person’s reputation, or a business’s reputation – does that person or business get to mount a challenge.

The issue is identical to one that’s been raised by businesses subject to state inspections, such as nursing homes, child care centers and drug treatment facilities. The state’s investigator is essentially prosecutor, judge and jury, and the “accused” has no chance to formally challenge the accusations or mount a defense until after the “verdict” is handed down – and after incredibly damaging information is made public.

A furor erupted last year after a state investigator found that a manager at a Costa Mesa drug treatment center had sexually harassed patients. Attorneys for the center argued that the state process itself was greatly flawed, and caused great harm.

The McFetridges are acting as their own attorneys. George McFetridge is a deputy district attorney for Orange County. The county he is suing.


One can read wrenching details of the McFetridges’ life with their new charge in the suit itself (Complaint). Suffice to say their new daughter did a lot of lying, ran away, was cavorting with a man she refused to identify and sneaking out at night.

Bette McFetridge said she quit her job to tutor her daughter, and tried traditional discipline – taking away privileges – to no avail. The family is firmly opposed to corporal punishment and never struck the girl, she said, but one of the girl’s complaints against them was, indeed, true. It’s one that may raise eyebrows with many parents.

After H. returned home after running away, Bette tried to find out who was aiding her, where she had been, and what she had done. Bette warned H. not to lie; and after a time, said that every lie would be paid for with a snip of H.’s lovely, long hair. Locks were cut until H. began telling the truth.

Bette is sure that it is this incident that the investigator found so distasteful. But she was just trying to impress upon H. that lying was not acceptable, she said.

After the McFedridges’ learned that both of them had been placed on the child abuse registry, the deputy D.A. and his wife threw themselves into the fight, and ultimately were removed. “ We got off their list, but there are a lot of people out there who don’t have the resources we have,” Bette said. “ They don’t’ have a husband who’s an attorney, they don’t know what the law is. To me, it’s a really sad state of affairs when your liberties are taken away from you and you have no recourse. We want the public to know that this situation exists. Is there anyone else who’s been in this situation?”

The county does not comment on pending litigation, and so had nothing to say about the suit. In general, though, if something is in question, the county will err on the side of caution, said TerryLynn Fisher, spokeswoman for the county Social Services Agency.

In the end, the adoption did not hold. It turned out that H. has a legal guardian, in California, but she will not stay with that guardian, either. She is living in Las Vegas with a man, turns 18 next month, and still keeps in touch with the McFedridges. But usually when she needs something, Bette said.

The whole experience was a great heartache. Says the McFetridge’s suit:

“This case amounts to an unconstitutional abuse of power by county social workers and county policies that both violate and demonstrate a deliberate indifference to the constitutional rights of Plaintiffs, parents and others who work with children. County social workers, acting as judge and jury, and without meeting any burden of proof, have the ability and authority to arbitrarily and falsely stigmatize individuals as ‘child abusers’ and without providing any pre-deprivation procedural due process, then blacklist their names by reporting them to a central registry maintained by the California Department of Justice without prior notice or an opportunity to be heard. In doing so, the (county and state) trample on the constitutional rights of parents to raise their children and maintain family integrity, do irreparable damage to the reputations of those stigmatized as child abusers, deny them procedural due process guaranteed under the 14th Amendment nad ultimately harm the very children the defenders are supposed to protect.”

We’ll be following up.
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