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7th Circuit upholds qualified immunity for DCS workers

March 16, 2011

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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