United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division
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For Jeanelle Hughes, Plaintiff: Diane L. Redleaf, Family Defense Center, Chicago, IL; Michael Wesley Weaver, McDermott Will & Emery, Chicago, IL.
For Sandra K Jones, Child Protection Investigator, DCFS, Pamela M. Foster-Stith, Supervisor, DCFS, Defendants: Barbara Lynn Greenspan, LEAD ATTORNEY, Attorney General's Office, Chicago, IL.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
John J. Tharp, Jr., United States District Judge.
Plaintiff Jeanelle Hughes, a school teacher certified to teach in Illinois, filed this civil rights lawsuit against Sandra Jones and Pamela Foster-Stith, two investigative employees of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (" DCFS" ), in their individual capacities. Hughes alleges that the defendants violated her constitutional right to due process when they indicated a finding of child neglect against her. The Defendants now move to dismiss the suit for failure to state a claim, or alternatively, on qualified immunity grounds. For the following reasons, the motion is granted in part and denied in part.
A. The Illinois DCFS System for Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting
This case involves the investigation and reporting system for child abuse and neglect in Illinois, which is administered by DCFS. The framework for the system is described in the Illinois Abused and Neglected Child Reporting Act, which requires DCFS to " protect the health, safety and best interests of the child in all situations in which the child is vulnerable to child abuse or neglect." 325 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/2.
To achieve this mandate, DCFS operates the Child Abuse and Neglect Tracking System (" CANTS" ), which involves a child abuse and neglect hotline, investigations into allegations of child abuse and neglect, recordation and disclosure of (in limited circumstances) the findings of its investigations, and a system for appealing findings.
When investigating a report of child abuse or neglect, DCFS investigators must determine whether credible evidence supports the allegation. DCFS regulations define " credible evidence" to mean " the available facts when viewed in light of surrounding circumstances would cause a reasonable person to believe that a child was abused or neglected." Ill. Admin. Code, tit. 89, § 300.20. The Seventh Circuit has interpreted the " credible evidence" standard to require DCFS investigators to " take into account all of the available evidence that tends to show that abuse or neglect did or did not occur," including both inculpatory and exculpatory evidence, because " [o]nly then may the investigator decide whether that totality of evidence would cause a reasonable individual to believe that a child was abused or neglected." Dupuy v. Samuels, 397 F.3d 493, 506 (7th Cir. 2005). If DCFS determines that credible evidence exists to support the allegation, the report is designated as " indicated." If there is no credible evidence to support the allegation, DCFS designates the report as " unfounded." 325 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/3. DCFS maintains the indicated reports on a state central register subject to a reticulated retention schedule. 325 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/7.7.
Because the potential ramifications of an indication of child abuse are so severe for child care providers, such workers subject to DCFS investigation are entitled to special process. In their initial investigations, DCFS investigators are required to determine whether the alleged perpetrator is a child care worker. Ill. Admin. Code, tit. 89, § 300.160(c)(1). State regulations define a " child care worker" as " any person who is employed to work directly with children and any person who is an owner/operator of a child care facility," which includes " schools, including school teachers and administrators, but not tenured school teachers or administrators who have other disciplinary processes available to them." Ill. Admin. Code, tit. 89, § 300.20. Under the state regulations, a person is to be considered a child care worker if she " has applied for, or will apply within 180 days for, a position as a child care worker; is enrolled in, or will commence within 180 days, an academic program that leads to a position as a child care worker; or has applied for a license as a child care worker." Id.; see also Dupuy, 397 F.3d at 510 (finding license holders and people entering child care careers are entitled to heightened protections).
Investigators are to provide the alleged perpetrator with a notice of the investigation (" CANTS Notice" ) and explain the information contained in the required CANTS Notice forms, including the special rights to which child care workers are entitled. Alleged perpetrators who are childcare workers are entitled to a one-hour administrator's teleconference before any decision to indicate is made. " The administrator's teleconference provides the alleged perpetrator the opportunity to present documentary evidence or other information that supports his or her position and provides information to assist the Department in making the most accurate decision regarding the allegations." Ill. Admin. Code, tit. 89, § 300.160(c)(1)(A). If a DCFS investigator intends to make a recommendation to designate a child care worker's report as " indicated" for abuse or neglect, the investigator must, prior to the administrator's teleconference, schedule an in-person
meeting to inform the alleged perpetrator of the decision that the case be indicated and to provide a CANTS Notice form and a redacted investigative summary. Ill. Admin. Code, tit. 89, § 300.160(c)(2)(D).
A person may appeal an indicated report to an administrative law judge (" ALJ" ), who determines at a full administrative hearing whether the report should be amended or removed from the state's central register. During the hearing, both DCFS and the alleged perpetrator may present evidence and call and cross-examine witnesses. DCFS bears the burden of showing that the indicated finding is supported by a preponderance of the evidence. Ill. Admin. Code, tit. 89, § 336.100(e). The DCFS Director can accept, reject, or modify the ALJ's recommendation and enter the final administrative decision. Child care workers are entitled to expedited administrative appeals, to be completed within thirty-five days of the receipt of the request for the appeal. Ill. Admin. Code, tit. 89, § 300.160(c)(1)(B).
While an appeal is pending, however, the " indicated" report remains in the central register. School superintendents are permitted to access the central register to do background investigations. See 325 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/11.1(a)(11). Prospective employees of a child care facilities who would have " any possible contact with children in the course of their duties" must, as a condition of employment, authorize prospective employers to check the central register " to ascertain if such applicant or employee has been determined to be a perpetrator in an indicated report of child abuse or neglect." 225 Ill. Comp. Stat. 10/4.3, 10/4.2; see also Lyon v. Dep't of Children & Family Servs., 209 Ill.2d 264, 273, 807 N.E.2d 423, 431, 282 Ill.Dec. 799 (Ill. 2004) (discussing the potential impact of an indicated report on a teacher's licensing and employment prospects).
B. Factual Background
On March 25, 2011, the DCFS child abuse hotline received an anonymous call regarding the plaintiff, Jeanelle Hughes. The caller reported that Hughes' car smelled like alcohol and that Hughes was " usually intoxicated" when she picked up her seven-year-old daughter, V.V., at the bus stop. The caller also stated that Hughes left her daughter and another child outside and unsupervised in sight of the Des Plaines River for long periods of time. Compl. ¶ ¶ 42-44. On March 26, 2011, DCFS conducted a follow-up interview (apparently by phone) with the anonymous caller, in which the caller stated that she had seen Hughes at the bus stop with dilated pupils, smelling like alcohol. The caller explained that she was in nursing school and thus was " able to decipher" that Hughes was intoxicated. Id. ¶ 45. The caller had no relationship with Hughes and did not know her name; she did, however, know the daughter's address.
Defendant Sandra Jones, a DCFS child protection investigator, was assigned to investigate this hotline report. On March 28, 2011, she went to Hughes' home but no one was there. Jones neither left a copy of the CANTS Notice for Hughes nor mailed it to her (though at this point, so far as the complaint reveals, Jones had no basis to know that Hughes was a child care worker). Id. ¶ 46. On April 11, 2011, Jones ...