BANGOR — A Northport husband and wife whose parental rights to their adopted son were terminated in 2007 have filed a 15-count lawsuit in federal court alleging state and county officials violated their civil rights, took part in life-threatening harassment and manufactured false evidence.

Russ and Ellie Handler assert their parental rights to David were wrongly terminated after a Department of Health and Human Services investigation that was riddled with misconduct.

In September, Russ Handler, who formerly worked at MBNA in Belfast, vowed, “It’s not going to be your average complaint (lawsuit). It’s going to blow the doors off the building in Augusta.”

Bangor attorneys Joseph Baldacci and Eric Mehnert represent the Handlers. Maureen Flatley, a lobbyist and child advocate also working on the case, said Wednesday that the state agency’s treatment of the Handlers “is an absolute case study in how not to do things.”

Flatley said she has not seen a case where a family was more maliciously targeted.

Defendants named in the suit are Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew, who succeeded former Commissioner Brenda Harvey; Debra Potter, Claudia Kjer, Martin Smith and Christine Theriault, all department employees; and Bryant White and Bob Tiner, employees of the Waldo County sheriff’s office.

The Handlers adopted David in 1999 after Elizabeth R. Spiess of the Maine Adoption Placement Service conducted a home study.

In 2005, Russ Handler was arrested on a charge of assault that alleged he choked Ellie Handler and forced her to climb nude into a Dumpster. In 2006, the charge was dismissed. The Handlers have said while they were not perfect parents, they love the child and that the department unjustly removed their son.

They allege the department didn’t adequately follow its procedures during a time when they, as a couple, faced significant medical difficulties — the couple both battled cancer, and Ellie Handler experienced a period of documented mental incapacity from 2002 to 2008. She said her accusations of abuse against her husband stemmed from delusions.

The Handlers assert state employees systematically violated Ellie Handler’s civil rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act because they failed to acknowledge and address her mental-health issues.

The suit also alleges that state officials manufactured false evidence to cast Russ Handler as a danger to his wife and child.

The Handlers’ parental rights were terminated in 2007 amid concerns their marriage was, according to court documents, “severely afflicted by domestic violence perpetrated by the father against the mother” and that David Handler was both a witness to and victim of domestic violence.

Court documents released by the Handlers show the state accused Russ Handler of putting his son in a “cold shower with his clothes on after the child had wet his pants.”

The Handler’s lawsuit also asserts Russ Handler faced life-threatening harassment while he was incarcerated at Waldo County Jail in Belfast. Flatley said a side-by-side comparison is being done of treatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib, the Iraqi prison that became well known after photos surfaced of U.S. soldiers abusing detainees there, and of Handler at the jail.

When Russ Handler battled cancer, he recieved his nourishment from a feeding tube. In one month at the jail, he lost 40 pounds because of unsanitary conditions, Flatley said. On weekends, Flatley said Handler was placed in the “drunk tank” with offenders and was subjected to brutal treatment.

The suit also alleges a possible breach of fiduciary duty on the part of the state. The Handlers claim the state has accepted payment of Social Security benefits for David Handler totaling more than $80,000 but, despite repeated requests of the attorney general, no proof has been provided that he has received the money.

Flatley said the Handlers’ prime reason for the lawsuit is to see that David Handler is alive, well cared for and receiving money due him. The Handlers also want to revisit the termination of their parental rights.

If the Handlers were to win a monetary settlement, Flatley said they do not need the money but could choose to use it to help reform the child welfare system.

Beth Staples — 861-9252

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