A US couple’s decision to take photos of their young children at bath time resulted in a decade-long legal battle after they were accused of child pornography.
Lisa and AJ Demaree from Peoria, Arizona, took their three daughters on a holiday to San Diego in 2008. Among the many family photos taken on the trip, several showed the girls – who were aged five, four and 18 months old at the time – playing together while taking a bath.
Upon returning home the parents took their camera’s memory stick to Walmart for their 144 photos to be professionally developed. In a tragic misunderstanding, a Walmart employee reported the bath time photos – one of which showed the girls’ exposed backsides – as pornographic.
Less than a day after dropping off the photos, Mr and Mrs Demaree found themselves being questioned by police. They defended the innocence of the holiday snaps, saying they were typical family photos of the children playing together.
“As crazy as it may seem,” Mrs Demaree told ABC News, “What you may think are the most beautiful innocent pictures of your children may be seen as something completely different and completely perverted.”
Police were unconvinced, and interviewed the three children as well as giving them medical exams to check for signs of sexual abuse. Police also raided the family home looking for evidence of child pornography.
They found photos and videos of the girls without clothes, which Ms Demaree says were evidence only of the family’s free-spirited approach to nudity.
“We have told our girls that they have freedom to be in their home and feel okay about their bodies and their nudity, but that there is a time and a place for it,” she told ABC News.
When the girls’ exam results came back normal, they were returned to their parents. But the Demarees’ nightmare was far from over.
An investigator from Child Protective Services (CPS) decided to take the three children into emergency temporary custody. Her supervisor approved the decision despite having neither a court order nor warrant.
The two older girls were taken to a different foster home to their 18-month-old sister, before all three were moved to their grandparents’ house.
Mr and Mrs Demaree found themselves the subjects of a full-blown sexual abuse investigation. Police interviewed more than 30 friends and family members about whether or not they thought the couple could have been abusing their children. The couple also underwent psychological evaluation.
A judge who examined the photos ruled that they were not pornographic, and the three girls were returned to their parents after a month.
But despite no charges being brought against them, both parents’ names appeared on a sex offender registry, according to ABC News. Mrs Demaree was suspended from her job at a school for a year, and the couple had to spend $US75,000 ($NZ102,000) on legal bills.
The Demarees later sued the two CPS employees – as well as the detective who initially questioned them, the state attorney general and the town of Peoria – for violating the Constitution by taking away their children for no good reason.
They also sued Walmart for failing to tell them about the company’s ‘unsuitable print policy’, and that photos could be given to police without their knowledge.
The Demarees tried to sue retail giant Walmart for not disclosing its ‘unsuitable print policy’, which was dismissed. Photo credit: Getty
The lawsuit dragged out over 10 years, with the Demarees settling with the detective and the other parties being dismissed, the Washington Post reports. A lower court dismissed their case against the CPS employees in 2014, ruling that social workers are entitled to ‘qualified immunity’.
However, a federal appeals court ruled on Tuesday (local time) that the Demarees have the right to sue the social workers because they violated the couple’s rights by taking their children without a court order.
The court said the CPS employees did not have sufficient evidence that the Demaree children were in danger of being abused to justify taking them from their parents. The court also noted that none of the photos taken on the fateful holiday in 2008 were sexually suggestive nor showed the children’s genitals.
Almost a decade after a family’s innocent holiday photos were reported to police, the Demarees’ ordeal is finally over.