July 22, 2018

Tenth Circuit: Foster Care Case Worker Did Not Abdicate Professional Responsibilities when Placing Abusive Child in Home

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in J.W. v. State of Utah on Wednesday, July 27, 2011.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision. The case arises from a situation of child-on-child abuse within the foster care system. Petitioners are “a foster couple and their now-adopted foster children who allege they incurred injuries after an abusive foster child was placed in their home in August of 2002. In this § 1983 action, Plaintiffs raised several state and federal claims against the State of Utah and the various State employees and entities involved in placing this child in their home. The district court dismissed several of [Petitioners]’ claims under Rule 12(b)(6) and granted summary judgment to [Respondents] on [Petitioners]’ remaining federal claims. [Petitioners]’ remaining state claims were then remanded to the state court for disposition. On appeal, [Petitioners] challenge the Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal of their negligence claims and the grant of summary judgment to the children’s caseworker and her direct supervisor on [Petitioners]’ Fourteenth Amendment due process claim.”

“Under Utah law, a battery is committed if (1) the actor deliberately makes a physical contact and (2) this contact is deemed harmful or offensive at law, regardless of whether the actor was aware of the harmful or offensive nature of the contact. See Wagner v. State, 122 P.3d 599, 603-04 (Utah 2005).” Although the abusive child may not have been aware of the harmful or offensive nature of his contact with A.W., the types of contacts alleged in Petitioners’ “complaint—repeated physical and sexual abuses—were of a deliberate nature, and they certainly fall within the definition of harmful or offensive contacts.” The Court was therefore persuaded that the Utah Supreme Court would apply the Wagner test to cases involving children as well as adults, and concluded that the abusive child’s “alleged conduct fell squarely within the definition of battery.” The Court then affirmed the district court’s dismissal of Petitioners’ negligence claims on governmental immunity grounds.

Petitioners also contend that the children’s caseworker abdicated her professional responsibilities when she placed the abusive child in the Petitioners’ home because she neither considered the child’s history nor deliberated on whether this placement would be in A.W. and M.W.’s best interests. “However, the undisputed evidence in the record refutes these contentions. The record reflects that the caseworker knew of the children’s histories and had observed their interactions, considered their safety, and received reports from [Petitioners] regarding W.C.C.’s pre-placement visits when she decided that this placement would be safe and appropriate for all involved.” The Court therefore affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment to the caseworker on Plaintiffs’ due process claim against her.

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