A Calhoun County jury ordered a psychologist to pay $1.5 million in damages last week to a couple who lost custody of their child following the psychologist’s evaluation of them.
John and Farrah Lynn were Anniston residents in 2014, when the Department of Human Resources placed their infant son Oliver in foster care. Oliver Lynn, who had been born with a birth defect, died a little more than a month later.
“Everybody, even DHR, said there was nothing wrong with this family,” said the couple’s lawyer, George Monk. “Only the psychologist objected.”
According to court documents, Oliver Lynn’s birth defect required surgery at Children’s Hospital in Birmingham. The hospital contacted DHR before the infant was released back to the Lynns, setting up an in-home visit to determine whether the Lynns were able to care for the child while he was recovering from surgery.
Social workers found no problem at the Lynns’ Anniston home, Monk said, but did request a psychological assessment of both parents. Dennis Sizelove, a clinical psychologist and owner of Faith-Based Psychological Associates in Sheffield, examined both John and Farrah Lynn.
Sizelove recommended removing the child from the home, citing “occupational, social, and emotional functioning” that put the infant at risk of harm. Sizelove also noted a “self-reported inability to read” on behalf of both the parents.
“It is this examiner’s clinical opinion that until the client can demonstrate that he is abstinent from substance abuse, is financially stable, and is able to provide a stable, safe, and appropriate home environment for his child he is to remain out of the client’s custody,” Sizelove’s report wrote.
DHR took Oliver from the Lynns’ home in Saks and placed him in a foster home, with an opportunity for weekly visits, according to court documents. The next month, according to court documents, the infant became unresponsive during feeding, was sent to the emergency room and later died.
A court motion filed by the parents attributes the death to an adverse response to baby formula, unrelated to the birth defect.
Monk said Sizelove’s assessment of the parents was simply wrong. Both of the Lynns are literate, he said. Neither had a drug problem. He claimed Sizelove’s reports on the couple were written from a template the psychologist used — a template that led to reports that were “90 percent identical” to reports he filed on other clients.
“There are hundreds of cases he worked on for DHR,” he said. “There could be a thousand.”
Sizelove’s lawyer said the psychologist’s report on the Lynns wasn’t as severe as it might look to an audience not familiar with foster-care cases.
“The evidence shows that Dr. Sizelove never claimed to DHR that they were proven to be illiterate,” said Aaron McLeod, Sizelove’s attorney. “He reported that they told him they couldn’t read.”
He said it’s typical for a DHR report to say that a parent under investigation will have to prove that he’s drug-free.
“His report says they told him they didn’t abuse substances, and I don’t see anything there to the contrary,” he said.
Monk said by saying the Lynns would have to “demonstrate” they weren’t on drugs, the psychologist presented the impression they were drug users.
“It’s the power of innuendo,” Monk said.
Monk said he’d advised John and Farrah Lynn not to discuss the case publicly in order to avoid affecting the case if it’s appealed. Attempts to reach the Lynns at the Saks address listed in the suit and at a rural Talladega County address listed in later court documents were unsuccessful Thursday.
State records show $52,966 in state payments to Sizelove in fiscal 2013, with $23,669 in payments to Faith-Based Psychological Associates the same year. By fiscal 2018 those payments had dwindled to a few hundred dollars. McLeod said Sizelove has stopped doing contract work for DHR, largely because of the travel involved.
Attempts to reach state-level DHR officials for information on the number of cases Sizelove worked for the agency were unsuccessful Thursday. The suit didn’t seek damages from DHR.
The Lynns have filed a separate suit against the foster parents who had custody of their son, Jeff Swindle and Nicki Arnold-Swindle, as well as against Josh and Cynthia Elders, a couple who were watching the child at the time he was admitted to the hospital. Arnold-Swindle was a Democratic candidate for the Alabama House of Representatives this year, but lost the election.
“Our clients did everything they could do, and complied with all the standards of the Department of Human Resources,” said Brice Johnston, the lawyer for the Swindles. “We believe the court will see that.”