Judicial Notebook

On April 27, 2000, Richard Hatch took his adopted son John on a long run to help the boy slim down after he had gained a great deal of weight. The boy complained and reacted by throwing a temper tantrum during which he fell to the ground, bumped his head and suffered scratches on his neck. Prior to his adoption, the boy had demonstrated frequent temper tantrums, which all but disappeared under Hatch's parenting.

When John arrived at school after the run, his teacher noticed the bump and sent the boy to the school nurse. At first, John explained the injuries by describing an accident during the run. However, later in the day the boy told his teacher and the principal that he suffered the injuries at his father's hand, that this was not the first time his father hurt him, and he was afraid to return home.

The principal called the Department of Child, Youth and Their Families (DCYF). An investigator assigned to the case suggested that the principal call the police. At the police station, the investigator met the boy and Hatch, who was immediately arrested for felony child abuse. A doctor concluded that John's injuries could have been sustained in a manner consistent with the boy's story.

The investigator interviewed the boy, took photographs of his injuries and tried to interview Hatch, but the father was warned by his attorney not to talk to the DCYF agent. At the end of the day, the investigator obtained an order from family court awarding temporary custody to DCYF.

At an adjudicative hearing a month later, the family court found no probable cause that the boy had been abused and rescinded the provisional custody order. Under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 42, Hatch filed a complaint against DCYF for monetary relief--and later against the investigator and his fellow DCYF worker for alleged violation of "his constitutional right to familial integrity and to freedom from undue interference in the care, custody and control of his child."

In Hatch v. Department for Children, Youth, and Their Families (2001), the district court granted summary judgment against Hatch stating that the doctrine of qualified immunity (see Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 341) bars suit against an official acting under state law in the First Circuit when the official "had an objectively reasonable basis for believing that his conduct would not abridge the rights of others."

The First Circuit turned down Hatch's invitation to adopt a higher standard used in the Ninth Circuit, which requires a caseworker to have "reasonable cause to believe the child is in imminent danger of serious bodily injury" and to first complete all "reasonable avenues of investigation" before the state gains qualified immunity against a Section 1983 suit (Wallis v. Spencer, 2000). Instead, the First Circuit held that a caseworker who removes a child from his or her parents' home on a temporary basis is immune from suit provided that the caseworker has a "reasonable basis for suspecting abuse."

Hereafter, caseworkers in the First Circuit, as in most other jurisdictions, need not conduct a full investigation after finding a reasonable suspicion based upon reliable hearsay that a child is in danger of abuse. The evidence does not need to include an interview of the alleged offending parent.

Outside the Ninth Circuit, family courts assign less weight to parental rights compared with the best interests of the child and society's concern for child welfare. Nonetheless, granting the state temporary custody can be the first step in the termination of parental rights.

Forensic psychologists in the juvenile justice system should be aware that recent attempts to challenge this jurisprudence have failed. Research psychologists might benefit the field by studying the antecedents of caseworkers' "reasonable suspicion" as well as by investigating the impact temporary custody orders have on the outcome of termination of parental rights trials.