November 01, 2013

Removing Father from Home Violated Parents’ Due Process Rights

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.

Isbell v. Bellino, 2013 WL 4516475 (M. D. Penn.).

Parents’ procedural due process rights were violated when they were asked to agree to a safety plan requiring the father to leave the home, on threat of a dependency petition, with no notice of procedural safeguards they had to contest the plan. Notices of rights to contest the abuse and subsequent family service plan did not cure the lack of notice since the safety plan was a separate action. 

The case began when the mother went to the hospital because she was concerned about her child being excessively drowsy and dehydrated. The child was found to have rib fractures and head trauma and the doctor called child protective services’ ChildLine intake number. 

The caseworker had parents sign a series of safety plans over the next few weeks. The latter of these required the father to move out of the home and have supervised visitation. The caseworker indicated that if they did not agree to the safety plan a dependency petition would be filed.

The parents were sent letters during this time detailing their rights regarding the child abuse allegations, including their right to administrative appeals, possible consequences of indicated, founded, or adjudicated child abuse incidents, and their right to an attorney.

The father was charged criminally in connection with the physical abuse. He was arraigned and his bail was conditioned on him complying with agency guidelines and directives. 

Next, the case was opened for ongoing prevention services and a letter was sent to the parents informing them of their rights to appeal the family service plan. 

Several months after the incident, a dependency petition was filed. The parties stipulated to the dependency adjudication and an in-home disposition. Approximately a year later, the case was closed with the court finding that the mother was capable of providing a safe home for the children. 

The parents filed a § 1983 claim alleging substantive and procedural due process violations and intentional infliction of emotional distress. All but the procedural due process claims were dismissed preliminarily. 

The United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania took up the competing motions for summary judgment from the child welfare officials, the county, and the parents on the remaining claim. 

The court first addressed whether procedural protections were required in the case of a voluntary safety plan that involved removing a parent from the home. 

The court analyzed Starkey v. York County, which found that Fourteenth Amendment procedural protections were required when a parent was removed from the home. The court found the facts were indistinguishable from Starkey in all respects, thus overcoming the first prong of qualified immunity—that the right was clearly established. 

Next the court examined the defendants’ arguments that the parents were given two letters spelling out administrative appeal rights. The court found these lacked merit because the letters were related to the child abuse report and findings and the family service plan, not the safety plans requiring the father to leave the home.

The court found no procedural protections were offered to the parents regarding the safety plans and that a reasonable jury could not find in defendants’ favor. 

The defendants also argued the father was given the opportunity to challenge the safety plan through the bail proceeding in his criminal case. The court rejected this, noting there was no authority for a criminal court to modify the child welfare agency’s safety plan.

Finally, the court addressed the argument that, because the parents agreed to a similar safety plan at the dispositional hearing, there was no evidence that a different result would have occurred if there had been other process protections in place. The court rejected this citing precedent that, at a minimum, nominal damages would be available. 

The District Court denied the defendant’s motion and granted the parents’ motion for summary judgment. The case was set for trial on the issue of compensatory damages.