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TAAHIRA W. v. TRAVIS

November 20, 1995

TAAHIRA W., a minor, by her next friend CHERYL McCORD-SALLEY, Plaintiff,
v.
FELICIA TRAVIS, ALINE KNIGHT, GLORIA BROWN, and BEATRICE BERRY, Defendants.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: NORGLE

 CHARLES R. NORGLE, SR., District Judge:

 This case arises from the tragedy visited upon Plaintiff Taahira W. ("Taahira") while she was in the custody of a licensed foster parent. Before the court is the motion to dismiss of Defendants Felicia Travis, Aline Knight, and Gloria Brown (collectively "Defendants"). The suit was filed pursuant to 42 U.S.C. ยง 1983 on Taahira's behalf by her grandmother, Cheryl Mccord-Salley ("Salley"). The moving Defendants, named in their individual capacities, are sued for committing constitutional violations through their incompetence and conscious disregard in dealing with a ward of the state while under the employ of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services ("DCFS").

 I.

 Taahira was born September 9, 1984, to neglectful parents. In February 1992, the DCFS took custody of Taahira. In July of that year, the DCFS assigned Taahira to Defendant Beatrice Berry. While in Berry's home at seven years of age, Taahira was beaten and raped three times by Larry M. ("Larry"), a foster child assigned to Berry.

 This case, the amended complaint avers, does not involve random acts of violence. As alleged, Defendants were aware of Larry's criminal sexual history, yet forced Taahira to live under the same roof as a known delinquent ward, thereby breaching their affirmative duty to Taahira.

 The DCFS took custody of Larry on June 23, 1973, and assigned him to Berry's foster home. The amended complaint alleges that on January 6, 1992, Larry sexually assaulted a six year old foster child, named Vernisha, while both were under Berry's care and in Berry's home. On March 3, 1992, Larry was released from the juvenile detention center and returned to Berry for a few days. The six-year-old victim, Vernisha, still resided there. On March 10, 1992, Larry was adjudicated a delinquent for sexually assaulting Vernisha. After Vernisha and her siblings were finally relocated, Larry was again assigned to Berry on March 20, 1992. On that date, Defendant Felicia Travis, Larry's caseworker, noted on Larry's file that Berry was generally unable to supervise foster children.

 Later that month, on March 31, 1992, the juvenile court sentenced Larry to thirty days in juvenile detention followed by two years probation for sexually assaulting Vernisha. In addition to the sentence, moreover, the court order directed the DCFS not to entrust any small girls to Berry. The court further specified that DCFS should "keep watch" to ensure that no girls under twelve years were placed in that house. Some of the individuals personally present at the hearing, thus, personally aware of the court's order, included Defendants Travis and Berry, and DCFS court liaison John Horvath.

 On June 5, 1992, Adrienne Giorgolo, an assistant public guardian assigned to Larry's case, contacted Defendant Gloria Brown, the DCFS licensing representative for Berry. Giorgolo asked Brown about the status of Berry's license given Larry's sexual assault of Vernisha. Brown agreed to reevaluate Berry's license and to investigate whether any foster children were under Berry's care. On the same day, Defendant Aline Knight communicated to Giorgolo that Larry had again been assigned to Berry's custody. Knight assured the assistant public guardian that no girls would be placed in the foster home with Larry. Knight's guarantee proved hollow.

 The juvenile court appointed the DCFS legal guardian of Taahira on February 5, 1992. From February to July 1992, Taahira stayed with her grandmother, Salley. In early July, Salley returned Taahira and her siblings to the DCFS. Despite Knight's pledge and the court's explicit declaration, DCFS team supervisor Michael Barry approved the placement of Taahira and her brother Charles in the Berry foster home.

 On July 22, 1992, Salley informed Kenneth Walsh, the Uhlich Children's Home caseworker (DCFS had contracted with Uhlich to provide placement and other services for Taahira and Charles), that the children had not been with her, but rather had stayed at another foster home for the preceding two weeks. The next day, Salley explained to Walsh that she needed two more weeks before she again could tend to the children. After Walsh obtained Berry's consent to keep the children and DCFS supervisor Michael Barry approved the extension, Taahira and Charles remained in Berry's house for two additional weeks.

 Two years later, when she was nine, Taahira revealed to Salley that Larry had sexually assaulted her three times while she had been under Berry's care as a foster parent. Taahira recounted that, on the first occasion, Larry entered her bedroom and put his penis into her vagina. On the second occasion, Larry beat her and then raped her in a closet. On the third, Larry raped her on a couch in Berry's living room--indeed, while others were present in the foster home. Taahira was seven years of age when she was raped by Larry.

 Salley took Taahira to a hospital a week after learning about the attacks. On January 25, 1994, the staff at Columbus Hospital performed a genital examination of Taahira. They made findings consistent with sexual abuse. On August 30, 1994, Larry pleaded guilty to the aggravated sexual assault of Taahira. The court this time sentenced Larry to six years imprisonment in the Illinois Department of Corrections.

 Travis and Knight filed the instant motion to dismiss, in which Brown joined. Berry, who is not represented by counsel, is not a party to this motion. Defendants raise three arguments. First, Defendants contend that the amended complaint does not allege a constitutional violation; rather it claims a broad right which the law does not recognize. Second, that even if the court recognizes a potential violation of a constitutional right, then the court should dismiss the amended complaint for failing to plead that Defendants violated the standard of deliberate indifference. Third, Defendants submit that the doctrine of qualified immunity operates to shield them from liability.

 II.

 On a motion to dismiss, the court accepts all well-pleaded factual allegations as true, as well as all reasonable inferences drawn from those allegations. Stephenson v. Stone, 21 F.3d 159, 161 (7th Cir. 1994). Because federal courts simply require "notice pleading," this court must construe pleadings liberally. Leatherman v. Tarrant County Narcotics Intelligence & Coordination Unit, 507 U.S. 163, 113 S. Ct. 1160, 1163, 122 L. Ed. 2d 517 (1993). A complaint's mere vagueness or lack of detail is not sufficient to justify a dismissal. Strauss v. City of Chicago, 760 F.2d 765, 767 (7th Cir. 1985). A complaint need not specify the correct legal theory or point to the right statute to survive a motion to dismiss. Tolle v. Carroll Touch, Inc., 977 F.2d 1129, 1134-35 (7th Cir. 1992).

 In Early v. Bankers Life & Casualty Co., 959 F.2d 75, 79 (7th Cir. 1992), the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals explained how courts must liberally assess the merits of a complaint for purposes of a motion to dismiss. When responding to a motion to dismiss, a plaintiff may "allege without evidentiary support any facts he pleases that are consistent with the complaint, in order to show that there is a state of facts within the scope of the complaint that if proved (a matter for trial) would entitle him to judgment." Id. The court will interpret ambiguities in a complaint in plaintiff's favor, not defendant's. Canedy v. Boardman, 16 F.3d 183, 188 (7th Cir. 1994). In fact, federal standards for notice pleading are so lenient that, on appeal, the Seventh Circuit will allow an appellant to present facts which were not in the ...


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