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

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

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

Defendants named in the lawsuit are Mary Mayhew, DHHS commissioner; Debra Potter, Claudia Kjer, Martin Smith and Christine Theriault, DHHS employees; and Bryant White and Bob Tiner, employees of the Waldo County Sheriff’s Office.

The Handlers adopted David in 1999 after Elizabeth 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 they were not perfect parents but they love the child and the DHHS 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 – both had cancer, and Ellie Handler had a period of documented mental incapacity from 2002 to 2008. She said her accusations of abuse against her husband stemmed from delusions.

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

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

The lawsuit also says Russ Handler faced life-threatening harassment in the Waldo County Jail in Belfast.

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 subjected to brutal treatment.

The lawsuit also alleges a possible breach of fiduciary duty by 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.

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

Morning Sentinel Staff Writer Beth Staples can be contacted at 861-9252 or at:

[email protected]