It is an accepted principle that a parent has a constitutionally protected interest in the custody and care of his or her child. This interest does have exceptions, especially when the child may be in immediate or apparent danger. This is when child protection services gets involved. Crucial to every child protection investigation is to establish the facts and circumstances of the case. When these are presented to the court at a dependency hearing, the evidence may become proof.
The best professional judgment of child protection workers may, in hindsight, be wrong. For this and other reasons, child protection workers usually have some level of immunity from prosecution.1 When individual government officials are sued for monetary damages they generally are granted either absolute or qualified immunity. The United States Supreme Court has stated that qualified immunity is the norm, absolute immunity is the exception.2
Should that immunity disappear when, in their official capacities as child protection workers, they make knowingly inaccurate or false statements which result in the wrongful removal of a child? California law provides for public employee immunity from liability for an injury caused by the employee instituting or prosecuting any judicial or administrative proceeding within the scope of their employment, even if he or she acts maliciously and without probable cause.3 However, a public employee has no such immunity if he or she acted with malice in committing perjury, fabricating evidence failing to disclose exculpatory evidence or obtaining evidence by duress.
Generally, whether an employee is acting within the scope of his or her employment is ordinarily a question of fact to be determined in light of the evidence of the particular case. Some courts hold that immunity for child protective workers exists as long as they act responsibly in the performance of their duties. The immunity applies even where a complaint alleges caseworker misconduct or intentional wrongdoing.4 Others hold that the worker must be involved in a function critical to the judicial process itself. In either case, the more outrageous the employee’s alleged tortuous conduct, the less likely it could be described as foreseeable, and the less likely the social service agency could be required to assume responsibility for the act as a general risk of doing business.
In Doe v. Lebbos (later overruled)5 the Ninth Circuit held that a social worker was entitled to absolute immunity for allegedly failing to investigate adequately the allegations of abuse and neglect against a father and in allegedly fabricating evidence in a child dependency petition because those actions had the requisite connection to the judicial process to be protected by absolute immunity (at 826). In Van Emrik v. Chemung County Dep’t of Soc. Servs. 6 the court found that child protective caseworkers were entitled to qualified immunity in connection with the removal of a child from the custody of her parents during a child abuse investigation. In the Sixth Circuit and the District of Columbia Circuit the type of immunity depends on the particular task the worker is doing. In Gray v. Poole 7 the court held that qualified immunity covers social workers acting as investigators, while social workers testifying as witnesses are protected by absolute immunity. In Rippy ex rel. Rippy v. Hattaway 8 the court ruled that absolute immunity protects social workers who initiate proceedings on behalf of a child. In Austin v. Borel 9 the court ruled that child protection workers were not entitled to absolute immunity when they filed an "allegedly false verified complaint seeking the removal of two children" from the family home (at 1363).
There is, of course, a difference between misrepresentation of a piece of physical or verbal evidence and the actual creation of false evidence. Misrepresentation involves the willful giving of a misleading representation of the facts. Creation of false evidence involves the act of improperly causing a fact to exist. More often, critics and attorneys accuse workers of a willingness to misrepresent, selectively quote, and misconstrue information to support their claims and therefore to present an entirely misleading case. Rather than sticking to agency protocols and training the workers sensationalize their documentation and findings in a misleading fashion.
To what extent are such allegations true? Do workers consciously or unconsciously misrepresent evidence, and selectively engage in systematic distortion? How often do they make deliberate efforts to mislead, deceive, or confuse their own supervisor or the court in order to promote their own personal or ideological objectives? How frequently are workers omitting or concealing material facts? Under the guise of vigilance, are there child protection workers whose adherence to rules and procedures is purposely excessive?
From a social work, legal, or judicial perspective, making a knowing misrepresentation in a child protection case is a serious ethical breach. The NASW Code of Ethics, 4.01(c), notes that: Social workers should base practice on recognized knowledge, including empirically based knowledge, relevant to social work and social work ethics. At 4.04 the Code goes on to state: Social workers should not participate in, condone, or be associated with dishonesty, fraud, or deception. Dishonesty, shading the truth, or a lack of candor cannot be tolerated in child protection services, a field of endeavor built upon trust and respect for the law. Whether or not child protection workers deserve immunity from prosecution when they misrepresent or fabricate evidence is a question each states courts are dealing with. Similarly, each court must decide whether such misconduct warrants setting aside the decision to remove the child from his or her home. In the final analysis, the question might soon find itself before the U.S. Supreme Court.
A workers misrepresentation or fabrication of evidence is particularly pernicious because it puts the whole field of child protection in a negative light. Whether or not immunity is granted, there is simply no excuse for this kind of willful and egregious conduct.
Daniel Pollack, MSW, JD, is professor at Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University in New York City, and a frequent expert witness in child welfare cases. Click here to learn more about the author, or to read the endnotes click here
Next week, we will be posting a follow-up piece focusing on Ohio cases written by Shawn Hooks titled Should Ohio Social Workers Be Looking Over Their Shoulders?
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Guest Contributor, Daniel Pollack
Daniel Pollack, MSSA (MSW), JD is a full professor at Yeshiva University's School of Social Work in New York City and Senior Fellow, Office for Foster Care and Adoption, University of Massachusetts Medical School, Worcester, MA.