Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Case Law Development: Governmental Immunity for Child Protection Actions

In two recent cases, courts have found immunity for state actors involved in child protection

The US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit granted summary judgment for the county and officers on the basis of qualified immunity because the police and social services agency did not violate the plaintiff's constitutional rights when they temporarily removed her child from her custody.  Mother was under investigation for drug trafficking.  At one point, the police had impounded her car.  When she went with her 7-year-old son to the police station to recover an impounded vehicle, the police believed she was under the influence of narcotics and took her son into protective custody. The police subsequently released the son before 72 hours had elapsed.  The court noted that "In cases where the rights of the parent are balanced against the state's interest in protecting the child, the qualified immunity defense is difficult to overcome."  In cases in which "a state official takes an action that would otherwise disrupt familial integrity he or she is entitled to qualified immunity if the action is properly founded upon a reasonable suspicion of child abuse."  The court found that there was such reasonable suspicion in this case, so that immunity applied.

K.D. v. County of Crow Wing, 2006 U.S. App. LEXIS 1074 (January 18, 2006) Opinion available on the web (last visited January 22, 2006 bgf)

Likewise, the Kentucky Supreme Court affirmed a trial court's dismissal of a negligence claim against the state child protective services agency on the basis of governmental immunity.  The case was brought after the state had removed a child from her mother on the basis of child abuse.  The state was unable to identify the perpetrator and so returned the child to mother with services.  The child then died after mother's boyfriend beat her.  The negligence claim was based on allegations that the division did not conduct a thorough enough continuing investigation.  The court concluded that the department's actions were discretionary in nature, and so were immune from suit.   "Such investigations do have certain mandated statutory requirements as to who shall be interviewed, etc., but they also involve discretionary decisions by the case workers, just as in police investigations.  After performing their ministerial duties, the case workers must determine what action, if any, should be taken to resolve each claim -- which in this case was to remove the child from a potentially dangerous environment -- which they did, even though they could not identify the perpetrator. All such discretionary functions are protected by the doctrine of governmental immunity and do not fall under the waiver outlined by the Board of Claims Act."

Stratton v. Kentucky, 2006 Ky. LEXIS 16 (January 19, 2006)

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/family_law/2006/01/case_law_develo_24.html

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