The Court of Appeals in J.C. v. D.C. decided on December 27, 2018, addressed and analyzed the District’s CFSA (Child and Family Services) policy of removal of the children from parental home based on medical report of possible abuse and began the process of scrutinizing the constitutionality of such removals and the limits thereof.
Factually, the parent (J.C.), had brought her child (8 months old) to the Children’s Medical Center for vomiting, retching, and acting uncharacteristically irritable. The child was diagnosed with old and new bleeding in the front left region of her head (subdural hematoma), along with “retinal hemorrhages” in both eyes reported by the acting physician as “most consistent with inflicted head trauma with the most likely mechanism being that of shaking with or without impact,” i.e., injuries consistent with “shaken baby syndrome.”
Based on that reporting alone, and a cursory medical examination, a medical hold was placed on the baby and CFSA initiated a removal proceeding for the child as well as the twin sibling from the home.
After removal, the acting physician issued another report which only indicated that injuries may be consistent with the explanation given by parents and due to heavy vomiting but by then both children had been removed from the home and placed in shelter care.
Two weeks later and after a probable cause hearing including expert witnesses by the parents and another independent medical report supporting the parent’s position, the court held probable cause did not existed for removal and ultimately the agency-CFSA withdrew the case-neglect petition.
The parents sued and rightfully so asserting violations of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments pursuant to § 1983 by the District, and common law tort claims against both the District and individual defendants: negligence and gross negligence, abuse of process, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional
distress, and negligent hiring, training, supervision and retention.
A 1983 claim against the District of Columbia must first demonstrate that a constitutional violation has occurred and that whether that constitutional violation is directly attributable to a District “custom” or “policy.
Generally, the government’s removal of minor children from their parents’ constitutes a seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. Thus, a lawful seizure of children from their parents’ custody requires a court order, e.g., a warrant, probable cause, or exigent circumstances.
Moreover, the “Fourth Amendment presumes that warrantless searches and seizures inside a home are unreasonable absent exigent circumstances,” so if the children are removed from the parental home, the Fourth Amendment requires a warrant or exigent circumstances to justify entry into and removal from home as was executed here with the sibling.
The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the district is dismissing the case as the trial court as well as the Court of Appeals agreed that probable cause had existed to remove the children given the initial medical report filed by the acting physician. However it does not end there and this may be where the constitutionality of the CFSA’s removal process may be tested.
The case was remanded by the Court to the trial judge to specifically address the constitutionality of the District’s actions in seizing the infants, which we conclude are critical to resolving the parents’ § 1983 claims. Specifically (1) whether there were exigent circumstances justifying the warrantless seizure of the sibling from the parental home; and (2) whether probable cause continued to exist for both children N.C. after the second medical report.
Also the matter was remanded for the trial court to explain its decision in granting summary judgment with respect to: (1) the common law tort claims against the District; and (2) dismissal of the individual defendants from the suit on immunity grounds.
Refer to our Family Law Page for more information on this topic as well as other family law related matters.