Darrell Dougherty, a former Stillwater city councilor is suing the City of Stillwater and the Department of Human Services, claiming they failed to properly investigate charges of child abuse.
He had alleged his minor child was abused by an ex-wife and a member of her family, and has named employees of the Stillwater Police Department and OKDHS in the suit.
A Payne County judge denied a motion to dismiss by the City and DHS, meaning the suit will move forward, though a date has not been set.
Dougherty was previously going through a divorce and custody dispute prior to the lawsuit being filed. He and the ex-wife were initially granted joint custody. He filed a motion to modify custody in April 2018, asking the court to give him sole custody of the child.
Judge Michael Kulling ultimately awarded the ex-wife sole custody on the grounds of the best interest of the child. This decision was finalized in March 2021.
“The court hereby finds that the petitioner was well within his right, and duty to make referrals related to the safety of his child, but that he continued to either make referrals or solicit others to do so after being told by several OKDHS investigators and Stillwater Police Detective Sherae LeJuene that the issues of concern had been extensively investigated and ruled out,” Kulling ruled.
Dougherty’s civil suit claims the child was examined by a physician who expressed concerns over a black eye, injured nose and back injury and that the minor didn’t disclose how the injury occurred.
In his petition Dougherty states that in March 2018, June 2019 and October 2019, he reported the abuse allegations to DHS. DHS was aware of the allegations, but refused to take action to protect the child, he claimed.
Dougherty’s suit named DHS Investigators Jesse Anderson and Denise Armstrong.
He took issue with the person he accused of abuse having regular custody of the child and being notified of the allegations in all three instances, according to the filing. Dougherty is asking for damages in excess of $75,000 from DHS and the City for mental anguish, emotional distress, anxiety, sleeplessness and loss of enjoyment of life.
A guardian ad litem – meaning a courttroom advocate for the child – report was issued in June 2020 concerning the welfare of the child. The report, which Kulling referred to in his custody order, concluded that the child is loved by both parents.
The parties recently appeared in court before Judge Stephen Kistler to discuss the motion to dismiss filed by the City and DHS. Attorneys for the City of Stillwater, requested a dismissal arguing that there was no actionable negligence claim based on a failure to investigate Dougherty’s allegations of abuse.
They also said they are exempt from liability for the allegations under the Oklahoma Governmental Tort Claims Act. Attorney’s for DHS argued that the petition may be dismissed for lack of cognizable legal theory to support the claim or insufficient facts. The GTCA exempts DHS from liability for losses resulting from the failure to perform or the performance of discretionary acts, the DHS motion to dismiss said.
Dougherty’s lawyer, Travis Harrison, argued that the City’s dismissal should be denied because it ignores the correct legal framework for determining whether they had a legal duty to protect.
Harrison made a counter-argument that his client wasn’t claiming tortious acts concerning DHS’ entity-level or supervisory decisions to enforce laws or formulate policies, but rather made complaints against the DHS employees, and the allegations of their negligence.
After reviewing all arguments, Kistler denied the motions to dismiss the petition.