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7th Circuit upholds qualified immunity for DCS workers

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Although sympathetic to a couple whose child was temporarily removed from the family’s home on child abuse concerns – a removal that was subsequently found not to be supported by probable cause – the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment for Department of Child Services employees on qualified immunity grounds.

In Mark Siliven, et al. v. Indiana Department of Child Services, et al., No. 10-2701, parents Mark and Teresa Siliven sued the Indiana Department of Child Services, case manager Amber Luedike, and Terry Suttle, director of the Wayne County DCS, claiming the defendants committed federal constitutional and state law violations. Teresa brought her son home from daycare and discovered bruises on his arm. The Silivens filed a child abuse report, suspecting their daycare provider of abuse.

During the investigation by DCS, Luedike found a DCS file from five years earlier indicating that Mark had been accused of abusing his then-15-year-old stepdaughter. That same day, which was a Friday, she and Suttle decided to remove C.S. from the home but did not have a court order. They arranged for Teresa to take C.S. to his grandmother’s house in Ohio. At a hearing held on the following Monday, the judge held that no probable cause existed to believe that C.S. was in physical danger. C.S. returned home and the investigation was eventually closed.

This appeal concerns summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds granted to Luedike and Suttle on the federal constitution claims. The District judge used the second prong of the two-part analysis set forth in Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194 (2001), and didn’t decide whether the defendants’ conduct violated the Silivens’ constitutional rights. Instead, the court concluded that the constitutional rights allegedly violated weren’t “clearly established” at the time of the initial investigation and removal.

The 7th Circuit focused on the first prong of the test in its review. It held that probable cause existed to remove C.S. from his father’s custody, so there was no violation of the Fourth Amendment. The defendants knew there was physical evidence of abuse, that Mark had access to his son during the timeframe in which the injuries could have occurred, and there was a prior substantiated report of child abuse against him.

“We conclude that those facts were sufficient to warrant a prudent caseworker in believing that C.S. was in danger,” wrote Judge Joel Flaum. “Our determination of reasonableness is influenced, in large part, by the fact that C.S. remained with his mother at all relevant times.”

The judge also pointed out that the defendants, instead of putting C.S. in foster care, allowed his mother to take him to his grandmother’s home in Ohio.

“We do not intend to characterize the degree of interference as minimal, far from it. But we believe the state’s legitimate interest in protecting children warranted that lesser degree of intrusion in this case,” the opinion states.

The fact that C.S. remained with his mother during the weekend in Ohio influenced the judges to hold there was no substantive due process violation. They also rejected the Silivens’ claim that C.S.’s removal without a hearing violated the due process clause of the 14th Amendment.

“We are not unsympathetic to the Silivens. One can only imagine their frustration when, after reporting potential abuse of their child by a third party, the investigation came to focus on them. However, for the reasons stated above, we conclude that the particular interference with the Silivens’ constitutional rights that occurred here was reasonable in view of the facts known by defendants and the state’s strong interest in protecting children from abuse,” wrote the judge.
 

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  1. I can understand a 10 yr suspension for drinking and driving and not following the rules,but don't you think the people who compleate their sentences and are trying to be good people of their community,and are on the right path should be able to obtain a drivers license to do as they please.We as a state should encourage good behavior instead of saying well you did all your time but we can't give you a license come on.When is a persons time served than cause from where I'm standing,its still a punishment,when u can't have the freedom to go where ever you want to in car,truck ,motorcycle,maybe their should be better programs for people instead of just throwing them away like daily trash,then expecting them to change because they we in jail or prison for x amount of yrs.Everyone should look around because we all pay each others bills,and keep each other in business..better knowledge equals better community equals better people...just my 2 cents

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  3. I expressed my thought in the title, long as it was. I am shocked that there is ever immunity from accountability for ANY Government agency. That appears to violate every principle in the US Constitution, which exists to limit Government power and to ensure Government accountability. I don't know how many cases of legitimate child abuse exist, but in the few cases in which I knew the people involved, in every example an anonymous caller used DCS as their personal weapon to strike at innocent people over trivial disagreements that had no connection with any facts. Given that the system is vulnerable to abuse, and given the extreme harm any action by DCS causes to families, I would assume any degree of failure to comply with the smallest infraction of personal rights would result in mandatory review. Even one day of parent-child separation in the absence of reasonable cause for a felony arrest should result in severe penalties to those involved in the action. It appears to me, that like all bureaucracies, DCS is prone to interpret every case as legitimate. This is not an accusation against DCS. It is a statement about the nature of bureaucracies, and the need for ADDED scrutiny of all bureaucratic actions. Frankly, I question the constitutionality of bureaucracies in general, because their power is delegated, and therefore unaccountable. No Government action can be unaccountable if we want to avoid its eventual degeneration into irrelevance and lawlessness, and the law of the jungle. Our Constitution is the source of all Government power, and it is the contract that legitimizes all Government power. To the extent that its various protections against intrusion are set aside, so is the power afforded by that contract. Eventually overstepping the limits of power eliminates that power, as a law of nature. Even total tyranny eventually crumbles to nothing.

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