Friday, October 25, 2013

Qualified immunity for Connecticut child protective workers who took the kids away

In this Section 1983 action against Connecticut child protection officials, a female "Jane Doe" argues that the defendants illegally took away her children after she was caught hanging around with a man who had previously physically assaulted her in front of her children. The Court of Appeals rules for the State, finding that the defendants have qualified immunity.

The case is Doe v. Whelan, decided on October 17. After John Doe assaulted a pregnant Jane Doe (he was the father of her children, who were home when the assault took place), the Department of Children and Families got Jane to agree to stay away from John, who could not have any contact with her children. The authorities later found John running around with his shirt off near Jane's home, with John's car in her driveway (she said he was tucking in the children for bed). The Court of Appeals (Cabranes, Hall and Chin) notes dryly that John "likely ... jumped out of a second-story window." The kids were temporarily taken from Jane under a Connecticut law that authorizes the seizure upon probable cause that the children face immediate risk of physical harm from their surroundings. The kids were later returned to Doe under protective supervision.

In cases like this, "qualified immunity shields from liability state officials tasked with choosing between interrupting parental custody or risking injury to the child provided there is an objectively reasonable basis for their decision, whichever way they make it." This is unlike the "reasonable man" test in common-law torts, which allows liability of the defendant makes a mistake. Under qualified immunity, if the defendant acted objectively reasonably but made a mistake along the way, he cannot be sued.

The contentious history between John and Jane, including the multiple physical assaults and the order prohibiting John from entering Jane's home led authorities to fairly believe that the children were in imminent danger when they saw John's car in the driveway at night. As state court judges agreed at the time that the children were in immediate physical danger and thus removed them from their home, the DCF workers were all the more reasonable in taking the children away from Jane.

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