The DC Court of Appeals in J.C v. D.C., reversed and remanded some of the constitutional claims raised by the biological parents after the removal of their eight months old twins due to the allegations of abuse and neglect.

Factually, the parents had taken one of the babies to the Children’s hospital due to excessive vomiting, retching, and general irritability.  At the hospital, the treating physician had diagnosed the child as suffering from “shaken baby syndrome” and the contacted Child Protection Services (“CPS”).  CPS thus removed also the twin baby from the home in the middle of the night and commenced a neglect petition for both children while placing both babies in shelter care.

After the probable cause hearing and only two weeks later the trial court dismissed the neglect petitions as the court found more credible the parent’s expert witness who testified that subdural hematoma and retinal hemorrhages diagnosed at the hospital were not consistent with “shaken baby syndrome” and provided an alternative medical explanation.

The parents subsequently sued the agency and the individuals involved. They asserted violations of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments, violation of § 1983 by the District, and common law tort claims of negligence and gross negligence, abuse of process, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional.

The trial had dismissed all constitutional claims concluding that the District was not subject to liability because it was entitled to a blanket qualified immunity on the § 1983 claims and a sovereign immunity on the common law tort claims.

The Court of Appeals disagreed and essentially ruled that the blanket dismissal was not warranted nor supported by trial court’s factual analysis.

To make out a § 1983 claim against the District of Columbia, the plaintiff must make a two-part showing.

  • The plaintiff must demonstrate that a constitutional violation has occurred, and only
  • If there is a constitutional violation, the court must determine whether that constitutional violation is directly attributable to a District “custom” or “policy.

In reversal of the trial ruling, the Court of Appeals remarked that the government’s removal of minor children from their parents constituted a seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.  Thus, a lawful seizure of children from their parents’ custody requires a court order. Either a warrant, probable cause, or exigent circumstances.

That is, the Fourth Amendment presumes that warrantless searches and seizures inside a home is categorically unreasonable absent exigent circumstances.

The Court of Appeals remanded the case to the trial court to determine:

  1. Whether exigent circumstances existed justifying the seizure of the twin child apparently safe and unharmed from the home in the middle of the night
  2. Whether the government reasonably believed an exigency existed.
  3. Whether the District had a policy that securing a warrant was not required in circumstances such as these.
  4.  Whether the facts surrounding the manner and circumstances under which the twin was removed from the home violated the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable seizures.
  5.  Whether granting of summary judgment was appropriate with respect to: 1) the common law tort claims against the District; 2) dismissal of the individual defendants from the suit on immunity grounds.

This case is remarkable as it clearly opens the door for the biological parents to hold the District and CFSA responsible for half-baked allegation of child abuse and neglect and unreasonable removals of the children in violation of the parent’s constitutional rights.

The Court of Appeals clearly validated the constitutional claims and required the trial court’s to carefully address the claims before a blanket dismissal.

Refer to our Child Abuse and Neglect page for more information on this topic.

Categories: Family Law.