California Supreme Court Unanimously Backs LA County Child Custody Case, While Iowa Supreme Court Gives Absolute Immunity to Department of Human Services Social Workers

From the Los Angeles Times:

 

BY MAURA DOLAN
LOS ANGELES TIMES
LOS ANGELES — Parents who transport a youngster without a car seat and lose the child in a fatal traffic accident may have their surviving children removed by social welfare authorities, the California Supreme Court decided unanimously Thursday.

The state high court ruled in favor of Los Angeles County social workers who placed two young boys in foster care after their 18-month-old sister, held on the lap of an aunt, was killed when a driver ran a stop sign and plowed into the car their father was driving.

The ruling permits counties to remove children in such cases even if the child’s death was not caused by criminal negligence or abuse. Social welfare agencies also are not required to show that the fatal conduct posed a risk to the surviving children, the court said.

Lawyers for Los Angeles County’s Department of Children and Family Services said Thursday’s decision would make it much easier to win legal control over children who have lost a sibling because of a parent’s lack of care. “It’s a big case for us, and it is a big case for the child welfare community,” said James M. Owens, assistant county counsel.

But Christopher Blake, an attorney for the father in the case, complained that the ruling was overly broad and would encourage social workers to wrest away control of children simply because they were transported without a car seat or seat belt.

“It will make it too easy for children to be removed from their parents when their parents make a tragic mistake,” Blake said.

The case was brought by the father, identified as William C., after his two young sons were put in foster care following the death of his daughter.

William and his three children lived in South Los Angeles with his mother and extended family. He had been separated from the children’s cognitively impaired mother.

William was en route to a hospital in June 2009 after his daughter, Valerie, fell off a bed and injured her arm, according to court records. William said he had loaned his car, which contained a car seat, to someone else and drove another vehicle to the hospital with the injured daughter on her aunt’s lap. He suffered “extreme remorse” after the accident, the court said.

County social workers received a report a week later that Valerie’s siblings, Ethan, 3, and Jesus, 8 months old, were being neglected.

The county investigated and determined that the children lived in a household with about 20 people. They also found evidence of unsanitary conditions and reported that the children were dirty and appeared unsupervised. Ethan was suffering from severe developmental delays and had rotten teeth that required extraction, according to the court.

In removing the boys, the county invoked a law that says children may be taken from their parents if negligence has caused a child’s death. William contended that the law should apply only if the negligent act was criminal and posed a risk to the surviving children.

But the court said a “breach of ordinary care” was enough to trigger government intervention.

“When a parent’s or guardian’s negligence has led to the tragedy of a child’s death, the dependency court should have the power to intervene … even if the parent’s lethal carelessness cannot necessarily be characterized as sufficiently ‘gross,’ reckless, or culpable to be labeled ‘criminal,’” Justice Marvin R. Baxter wrote for the court.

The court said social welfare agencies were not required to show a connection between a child’s death and potential harm to the surviving children. A parent’s responsibility for a death “inherently” poses concerns for the safety of other children, it said.

Blake, William’s attorney, said the ruling would affect other parents more than William. After more than a year in foster care, his children were returned to him after he took several parenting courses.

Kim Nemoy, principal deputy county counsel, said the county had sympathy for the grief-stricken father and worked to ensure he would be able to regain custody once his parenting skills improved.

“This was a family that was greatly in need of social services,” she said.

 

 

From the New England Cable News:

 

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Two social workers with the Iowa Department of Human Services have immunity against a lawsuit filed by a mother who sued after her daughter was temporarily removed from custody, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday.

The high court, in upholding Linn County District Court’s dismissal of the case, said that social workers are entitled to absolute immunity when filing a petition to protect a child in need of assistance as well as when a social worker acts as an ordinary witness in a child custody case.

Absolute immunity protects government workers from civil liability to ensure that their duties are performed with independence and without fear of consequences.

The decision stems from a case in which social workers removed Vania Minor’s daughter from her home in 2005 after they became concerned about the child’s care. The case was dismissed and the child returned to Minor’s care about three months later.

Minor sued, claiming the social workers violated her right to the care, custody, and control of her child and a child’s right to adequate medical care, protection, and supervision.

The suit was dismissed in 2009 in Linn County District Court, as the judge found the workers were covered by protections in federal law providing immunity to government workers when performing certain acts. Minor appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court.

Minor’s attorney, Matthew Reilly said an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court is being considered because considerable constitutional legal questions remain about whether DHS workers should be given absolute immunity, protecting them from civil lawsuits. It has to be filed within 90 days, Reilly said.

“It’s basically telling them that they are above the law and they’re not accountable to anybody,” Reilly said.

The court said it has never considered whether social workers are entitled to absolute immunity and pointed out that other courts have ruled both ways. It concluded absolute immunity applies when social workers are performing those specific duties.

The court says social workers are entitled to qualified immunity when acting in the role of a complaining witness, such as when the social worker files court documents in child custody cases, and when investigating a case.

Qualified immunity protects government officials from liability for civil damages as long as their conduct does not violate clearly established laws or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.

 

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