Federal judge dismisses lawsuit against agencies in girl's starvation death

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A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed against child protective service agencies in Westmoreland and Armstrong counties, finding that the agencies were not responsible for the circumstances that led to a 4-year-old's death.

Kristen Tatar's 111/2-pound body was found wrapped in garbage bags inside a trash can in August 2003. She had been locked in her parents' attic and starved to death a month earlier.

Her mother and father, Janet Crawford and James Tatar, were both convicted in 2004 of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

In June 2004, Kristen's aunt, Kathy Fondrk, filed a lawsuit against Westmoreland County; caseworkers with the county's Children's Bureau; Armstrong County; caseworkers with Armstrong's Children & Youth Services; and Penn State University's Cooperative Extension and Outreach Center in Westmoreland County.

She claimed that those agencies failed to protect Kristen from her abusive parents.

The social services providers were involved in Kristen's life from early on, when she was diagnosed with failure to thrive. The girl was first placed into foster care through Westmoreland County in December 1999, when she was less than a year old.

When a judge later ordered that Kristen be returned to her parents in September 2001, the case was transferred to Armstrong County because her parents had moved there.

In his 23-page opinion filed Sunday morning, U.S. District Judge Gary L. Lancaster granted each defendant's motion for summary judgment, finding that to sustain the claim, Ms. Fondrk must be able to prove that the caseworkers or agencies took some kind of affirmative action that led to the child's death.

"The harm to Kristen was hardly a direct result of defendants' inaction, singularly or in concert," the judge wrote. "The unfortunate reality is that the danger to Kristen was her parents' incomprehensible, criminal conduct. The defendants did not create any new dangers to Kristen or cause Kristen to be any more vulnerable to her parents' inhumane treatment."

Judge Lancaster quoted a precedent-setting, 1989 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court found that the purpose of the due process clause cited by Ms. Fondrk to file her claim, is "to protect people from the state, not to ensure that the state protected them from each other."

He found that the Westmoreland County defendants hadn't been involved in Kristen's case for more than 14 months before she died.

"Due to the sheer passage of time, the Westmoreland County defendants' failure to act could not have been a 'fairly direct' cause of Kristen's harm,'" he wrote.

Tom Pellis, who represented Westmoreland County, concurred with the judge's evaluation.

"It's an impossible task to put the burden on government to protect the public from private acts of violence," he said.

But James Hankle, who represented Ms. Fondrk, said he believes they were able to prove the overt acts of the caseworkers led to Kristen's death.

He argued that Westmoreland County's botched transfer of the case to Armstrong County, and its failure to provide necessary documentation of the danger she was in to the new caseworkers, were contributing factors.

Mr. Hankle and his client have 30 days to file an appeal.

"We're obviously disappointed with the decision, but also the lack of analysis in it," he said. "There are many acts there, and it's unfortunate a jury won't get to hear that."

During discovery in the case, Mr. Hankle found that copies of Westmoreland County records had been altered to minimize Kristen's risk assessment. He also learned that the Penn State cooperative extension destroyed its service provider's handwritten notes on Kristen's treatment.

"It's very disheartening," Mr. Hankle said.

In his opinion, Judge Lancaster agreed the case was tragic, much like a number of others in which abused children try to hold social services agencies liable for harm suffered at the hands of their parents or caretakers.

"We know of no instances in which the courts have found the governmental agency liable," he wrote.

Paula Reed Ward can be reached at pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.


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