February 01, 2016

Couple’s Use of Corporal Punishment with Their Own Children Justified Denying Their Foster Parent Application

Eva J. Klain

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

Magazu v. Dep’t Children & Families, 2015 WL 9587644 (Mass.).

Applicants to become foster and preadoptive parents sought judicial review of final decision of the child welfare agency denying their application because they used corporal punishment to discipline their biological children in their home. The court found the agency’s decision to deny the parents’ application was not arbitrary or capricious, and was supported by substantial evidence. Prohibiting use of corporal punishment in a foster home outweighed the burden on applicants’ religious beliefs.

Gregory and Melanie Magazu filed an application with the child welfare agency to become foster and preadoptive parents. The married couple with two young daughters was guided by their deeply held Christian beliefs. As part of the license study, the Magazus stated they used physical discipline on their daughters to address a continuous pattern of disobedience and only when necessary, and that the punishment was carried out in private.

 They acknowledged the agency’s policy against corporal punishment and were willing to refrain from using physical discipline on a foster child placed in their home. Because they discipline their own daughters in private, the Magazus believed a foster child would not witness any corporal punishment. 

The agency denied the Magazus’ application. Despite their awareness of the agency’s policy against corporal punishment, the couple had made clear that physical discipline was an important, although infrequent, part of their parenting. The agency was concerned that a foster child placed with and later adopted by the Magazus would eventually be subjected to physical discipline once the agency no longer had oversight. The agency reasoned that children placed in its care have been exposed to neglect and abuse, and their awareness of the use of physical discipline in their foster homes could trigger “the very trauma the placement was intended to mitigate.” Simply placing a child who had not been physically abused with the Magazus was not sufficient because foster children often do not disclose the full extent of their experiences until after they are placed in care. 

The Magazus alleged that their substantial rights had been prejudiced because the agency’s decision violated constitutional provisions, exceeded the department’s authority, was not supported by substantial evidence, and was arbitrary or capricious. They also alleged the agency had violated their right to the free exercise of religion under federal and state constitutions. 

In claiming an unconstitutional burden on their free exercise of religion, the Magazus needed to show a sincerely held religious belief that conflicted with, and was therefore burdened by, the agency requirement. Once that showing was made, the agency had to show the requirement furthers an important governmental goal and an exemption would substantially hinder fulfilling that goal.

The court found the agency’s decision to deny the Magazus’ application did not exceed its authority, was not arbitrary or capricious, and was supported by substantial evidence. The policy of not placing a foster child with applicants who used corporal punishment on their own children fell within the agency’s enabling legislation and associated regulations and was rationally related to its objectives in placing children in foster care. 

The child welfare agency has a compelling interest to protect children from actual or potential harm, especially with foster children who need safety, security, and stability. Creating an exception to the policy not to place a child in a home where corporal punishment is used as discipline based on the foster parents’ religious beliefs would severely undermine the agency’s interest in protecting the well-being of foster children.