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Decision To Remove Children From Father's Custody Not Unlawful Given Compelling Interest in Protecting Minors

This article by Greene Espel attorneys John Baker and Kate Swenson first appeared on on June 17, 2020. 

The Eighth Circuit recently affirmed the Rule 12 dismissal of a lawsuit brought by a father, his three children, and an association against a Minnesota county, its social-services agency, and several state and county officials. The case, Mitchell v. Dakota County Social Services, No. 19-1419 (8th Cir. May 19, 2020), involves troubling factual allegations, including that the county’s child-abuse investigation was motivated by racial animus, which must be taken as true at the motion-to-dismiss stage. Ultimately, the Eighth Circuit’s decision reflects that the removal of the children from their father’s custody was not unlawful given the evidence of physical harm to the children and the government’s “compelling interest in protecting minor children, especially when it is necessary to protect them from their parents.” Mitchell, slip op. at 7 (citing Dornheim v. Sholes, 430 F.3d 919, 925-26 (8th Cir. 2005)).

The case arises from a babysitter’s call to law enforcement in February 2014. The babysitter had been watching two of plaintiff Dwight Mitchell’s three children (the eldest was away at school in another state). The babysitter called police at the request of the middle child to report that Mitchell had used corporal punishment on the child. The child told the responding police officers that his father had beaten him with a belt and punched him multiple times in the hip. The child’s younger brother told the police that their father had hit him recently with a belt, too. The officers saw multiple bruises on both children’s bodies.

The officers took the two children to the police station, where the children told police and social-services workers that Mitchell had spanked them in the past. One of the social workers contacted the children’s biological mother (Mitchell’s ex-spouse), who stated that Mitchell had previously abused the children. The ex-spouse urged that legal action be taken against Mitchell. Social services would later learn from police and court records that Mitchell and his ex-spouse had a hostile relationship and that the ex-spouse had attempted to kidnap the children.

The social worker started a CHIPS (child in need of protective services) proceeding two days after the babysitter’s call. Mitchell alleged that the social worker told him that she would “do everything in [her] power to see that the children are never returned to your custody.” Mitchell also alleged that when he told the social worker that his ex-spouse and the children were lying, the social worker said: “Why are all black families so quick to spank their children? You are unfit to be parents and don’t deserve to have children.” A different social worker was assigned to the case in March 2014.

Mitchell regained physical custody of two of his children in July 2014, after five months of separation, and after he entered an Alford plea to one count of malicious punishment of a child and agreed to the entry of a court order prohibiting him from using corporal punishment. The third child (who had asked the babysitter to call the police) was returned to Mitchell’s custody in December 2015 after 22 months of separation, when the state dismissed the CHIPS petition.

Mitchell, his three children, and an association called Stop Child Protection Services from Legally Kidnapping, brought a federal lawsuit. The corrected amended complaint comprised 631 numbered paragraphs with 88 accompanying exhibits, and asserted 25 constitutional, federal, and state law claims. The district court (Judge Wilhelmina M. Wright, District of Minnesota) granted the defendants’ motions to dismiss.

The Eighth Circuit affirmed the dismissal in its entirety.

First, the panel (Judges Ralph R. Erickson, L. Steven Grasz, and Jonathan A. Kobes) concluded that the plaintiffs’ facial constitutional challenges to several Minnesota child-welfare statutes failed for lack of standing. Mitchell (a resident of New Jersey) and his children had been living in Minnesota only temporarily due to Mitchell’s employment; the panel rejected as speculative the argument that Mitchell and the children might one day return to Minnesota. With regard to the association, the panel held that the group’s allegations (i.e., that members had had experiences with the Minnesota child-protection system in the past and might face investigations in the future) also were insufficient to establish standing.

Second, the panel addressed Mitchell’s §1983 claims. With regard to due process, the panel acknowledged that “[p]arents have a recognized liberty interest in the care, custody, and management of their children.” Mitchell, slip op. at 6 (citing Webb ex rel. K.S. v. Smith, 936 F.3d 808, 815 (8th Cir. 2019)). But “the right to family integrity does not include a constitutional right to be free from child abuse investigations.” Id. at 7. “The government has a compelling interest in protecting minor children, especially when it is necessary to protect them from their parents.” Id. Mitchell’s procedural due-process claim failed because he did not allege that he “was denied a meaningful opportunity to present his case or that any procedural safeguards were lacking.” Id. at 7-8. His substantive due-process claim failed because Mitchell’s allegations did not demonstrate that the conduct of any official shocked the conscience. Although the panel acknowledged that the social worker’s statements were “disturbing,” “unprofessional, inappropriate, and unacceptable,” the statements did not meet the standard because they were related to the child-abuse investigation. Id. at 9; see Folkerts v. City of Waverly, 707 F.3d 975, 981 (8th Cir. 2013) (“Only a purpose to cause harm unrelated to the legitimate object of the government action in question will satisfy the element of arbitrary conduct shocking to the conscience, necessary for a due process violation.”). The panel also determined that Mitchell’s conclusory allegations about the fabrication of evidence did not pass the Iqbal/Twombly standard, and that Mitchell failed to allege a sufficient nexus between the social worker’s threats to his then-spouse and an effect on their marriage.

With regard to Mitchell’s racial-discrimination claim, the panel upheld the dismissal of that claim because Mitchell did not dispute that sufficient evidence existed to support the filing of the CHIPS petition, and did not allege that the petition would not have been filed but for the social worker’s racist statements to Mitchell. The panel also noted that Mitchell did not allege any racial animus in the decision of the court that ruled on the CHIPS petition. In short, the social worker’s racist statements to Mitchell did not impact the outcome of the CHIPS proceeding.

Mitchell’s municipal liability and conspiracy claims failed because the underlying constitutional claims failed.

Third, the panel considered the children’s §1983 claims. The procedural due-process claims failed because the children failed to allege or identify the denial of any procedural safeguard. The children’s substantive due-process claims (based separation from their father that was disproportionate considering the circumstances) failed because “the children were removed from their home based on a reasonable suspicion of child abuse”—namely, “the children’s own statements and bruising.” Mitchell, slip op. at 13. The children’s additional §1983 claims (equal protection, municipal liability, and conspiracy) failed for the same reasons that Mitchell’s claims failed.

Fourth, the panel held that even if any constitutional violations had been sufficiently pleaded and established, qualified immunity would protect the defendants from the federal claims and official immunity would protect them from the state law claims.

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