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S.B.T. v. Miller

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

November 1, 2016

S.B.T., Plaintiff,
KAREN MILLER, MISTY HUFF, DIANE WOODS, ALEXIS CARLISLE, and CYNTHIA TATE, in her official capacity as Acting Director of DCFS, Defendants.


          NANCY J. ROSENSTENGEL, United States District Judge

         This matter comes before the Court on the cross-motions for summary judgment filed by Plaintiff S.B.T. and Defendants Karen Miller, Misty Huff, Diane Woods, Alexis Carlisle, and Cynthia Tate, in her official capacity as Acting Director of the Department of Children and Family Services (“DCFS”) (collectively, “Defendants”) (Docs. 51 and 54). S.B.T. brought this civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claiming Defendants deprived her of her liberty interests without due process of law, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. S.B.T. seeks compensatory damages, along with interest, costs, and fees. For the reasons discussed below, the motions are granted in part and denied in part.


          A. The Illinois Abused and Neglected Child Reporting Act

          The Illinois Abused and Neglected Child Reporting Act, or ANCRA, 325 ILCS 5/1, et seq., authorizes DCFS to take certain actions to protect the health, safety, and best interests of Illinois children in all situations in which the child is vulnerable to abuse or neglect. Id. at 5/2(a). Under ANCRA, DCFS is obligated to receive and investigate reports of suspected child abuse or neglect. See Id. 5/2(b), 5/7.3(a). Initial reports of suspected abuse or neglect may take the form of “hotline” calls made to the agency. See Id. 5/7.6.

         In investigating an initial report, DCFS must determine whether there is credible evidence of abuse or neglect. To do so, the DCFS investigator must evaluate every piece of information and evidence obtained during a child abuse and/or neglect investigation, including both inculpatory and exculpatory evidence.[1] 89 Ill. Admin. Code § 300.160(c)(2)(A). In child neglect investigations, inculpatory evidence means evidence showing or tending to show that a person neglected a child. Id. Exculpatory evidence is evidence tending to establish a person's innocence or evidence that tends to justify or clear a person from alleged fault or guilt, i.e., evidence showing or tending to show that a person did not neglect a child. Id.

         If credible evidence of child neglect exists after considering all inculpatory and exculpatory evidence, DCFS labels the report as “indicated.” 325 ILCS 5/3, 5/7.12. If there is no such credible evidence, the report is deemed “unfounded.” 325 ILCS 5/8.1, 5/7.12. Final determinations of “indicated” are recorded in the Central Register maintained by the agency. 325 ILCS 5/7.12. Indicated reports of most types of neglect, including the allegation at issue in this case, are registered for a period of five years and include identifying information about the perpetrator. 325 ILCS 5/7.14.

         Additional procedures are provided if the individual accused of child neglect also works with children. Once the DCFS investigator and her supervisor recommend that a report should be indicated, the alleged perpetrator is entitled to an “administrator's teleconference” before a neutral person. 89 Ill. Admin. Code § 300.160(c)(1)(A). During the teleconference, the alleged perpetrator may be represented by counsel and may present to the presiding DCFS administrator any documents, statements, or other information that she believes will help tell her side of the story. Id. The administrator is also provided with a copy of all evidence gathered and reports drafted by the investigator concerning the purported abuse or neglect. Id. § 300.160(c)(3)(C). The administrator then makes a decision to uphold or decline the investigator's recommendation to “indicate” and notifies the alleged perpetrator of that decision. Id. § 300.160(c)(4)(D). Once a child care worker has been formally indicated, she may request an expedited appeal before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). 325 ILCS 5/7.16. The ALJ may uphold the finding of indicated or amend an indicated report to be “unfounded, ” in which case the accused's identifying information is expunged from the Central Register. Id. If the indicated finding is upheld, the child care worker can appeal to the Illinois Circuit Court.

         B. Allegation 60

         Before DCFS will accept a report of child abuse or neglect, a specific incident of harm to a child must be alleged to have been caused. 89 Ill. Admin. Code. § 300, App'x B. The Administrative Code provides a series of numbered “allegations” that meet this requirement. See Id. All neglect allegations of harm are coded with a two digit number greater than 50. Id. “Allegation 60” is an allegation that neglect has occurred because the child's environment is “injurious to the child's health and welfare.” Id.; Julie Q. v. Dep't of Children & Family Servs., 995 N.E.2d 977, 979 (Ill. 2013).

         On December 22, 2011, an Illinois appellate court determined that Allegation 60 exceeded the scope of authority granted to DCFS under ANCRA, and therefore was void ab initio. See Julie Q., 963 N.E.2d 401, 413 (Ill.App.Ct. 2d Dist. 2011). The Illinois Supreme Court affirmed this decision in March 2013. Julie Q. v. Dep't of Children and Family Servs., 995 N.E.2d 977, 986 (Ill. 2013). Prior to 1980, ANCRA listed several circumstances that constituted a “neglected child, ” including when the child was placed in “an environment injurious to the child's welfare.” In 1980, the Illinois legislature removed the “environment injurious” language from ANCRA because it was deemed vague and overbroad. Despite the decision to remove this language from ANCRA, in 2001 DCFS adopted Allegation 60, which gave DCFS investigators authority to investigate individuals under the “environment injurious” standard. The Illinois Supreme Court determined that DCFS was without authority to include a definition of neglect in Allegation 60 that the legislature explicitly removed from ANCRA; thus, Allegation 60 was void. Julie Q., 995 N.E.3d at 985.

         Effective July 13, 2012, Illinois adopted an amended provision of ANCRA, which provided that a “neglected child” includes a child “who is subjected to an environment which is injurious insofar as (i) the child's environment creates a likelihood of harm to the child's health, physical well-being, or welfare and (ii) the likely harm to the child is the result of a blatant disregard of parent, caretaker, or agency responsibilities.” 325 ILCS 5/3 (emphasis added).

         Even after the legislature amended ANCRA to revive the “environment injurious” language and add the “blatant disregard” requirement, DCFS did not promulgate a new Allegation 60 until an emergency rule was issued on January 1, 2014. Even still, the emergency rule did not include the “blatant disregard” requirement. After the normal rulemaking process, DCFS issued the final version of revised Allegation 60, which finally added the “blatant disregard” requirement, on June 14, 2014.[2] The final version of revised Allegation 60 also includes domestic violence as an example of circumstances that may create a risk of harm, but specifies that the adult victim of domestic violence is presumed not to be neglectful “so long as he or she has exercised precautionary measures to prevent or mitigate the real, significant and imminent risk of moderate to severe harm to the child.” 89 Ill. Admin. Code. § 300, App'x B.

         C. S.B.T.'s Indication for Child Neglect

         In February and March 2013, S.B.T. was the subject of an investigation under ANCRA for child neglect. S.B.T. is a certified child welfare specialist and the mother of two living children and one stillborn child. Broche Taylor (“Taylor”), S.B.T.'s ex-husband and the father of her children, is an alcoholic who suffers from Bipolar Disorder. Taylor also has a 13-year history of domestic violence against S.B.T. (Doc. 55-1, p. 9, Doc. 55-13).

         On February 13, 2013, DCFS received an anonymous hotline call indicating that S.B.T. locked Taylor out of her home because he was drunk. Taylor then threw a brick through the bedroom window, landing only a foot away from where S.B.T. and her five-month-old son were sleeping (Doc. 55, p. 2). As a result of this incident, DCFS began investigating Taylor. Defendant Karen Miller, a child welfare advanced specialist with DCFS, was initially assigned to the investigation, but went on leave after only two weeks (Doc. 53-2, pp. 3, 9). Defendant Miller knew S.B.T. professionally, but she did not think there was a conflict of interest (Id., p. 4). When Defendant Miller went on leave, the investigation was assigned to Defendant Misty Huff, who also knew S.B.T. professionally (Doc. 53-3, p. 4). Defendant Huff alerted her investigative supervisor, Defendant Diane Woods, to the potential conflict (Doc. 56-5), but noted that she could handle the case objectively. Accordingly, Defendant Huff remained assigned to the investigation (Id.).

         As her investigation of Taylor proceeded, Defendant Huff became concerned with S.B.T.'s pattern of behavior with regard to Taylor (Doc. 53-3, p. 41). Police reports from 2000 to 2013 showed Taylor assaulted S.B.T. numerous times, yet she continued to allow him around the children. In August 2010, S.B.T. filed for divorce and later sought an order of protection, reporting that Taylor abused and sexually assaulted her. S.B.T. subsequently dropped the order of protection when her divorce became final. On another occasion in 2012, S.B.T.'s then 11-year-old daughter reported an incident involving Taylor where he told her to clean up dog poop in the middle of the night. When she refused, Taylor grabbed her by the throat and neck, scratching her face in the process (Doc. 55-8, p. 5-6). Defendant Huff learned that S.B.T. would sometimes press charges against Taylor; other times she refused. After the incident on February 13, 2013, S.B.T. obtained a second order of protection, but later dropped it so Taylor could see the children if he was sober (Ex. 1 at 2232-33). Numerous times, police offered S.B.T. a packet on domestic violence services, which she refused. (Id., pp. 41-42). In each instance, S.B.T. allowed Taylor back into her home as long as he was sober.

         On March 22, 2013, S.B.T. was added as an alleged perpetrator under Allegation 60 for providing an environment injurious to the health and welfare of her children (Doc. 56-7). At 1:10 p.m. that same day, Defendant Huff met with S.B.T. and notified her that she was the subject of a child neglect investigation (Doc. 53-4). During the meeting, Defendant Huff explained to S.B.T. that she had a right to an immediate teleconference because of her status as a child care worker. She also explained S.B.T.'s right to appeal any unfavorable decision (Id.). Defendant Huff also claims she gave S.B.T. a required notification form called a CANTS 8 form at that time, although S.B.T. asserts she never received a CANTS 8 notification[3] (Doc. 56-2, p. 6).

         During the meeting, Defendant Huff and S.B.T. went over the many police reports demonstrating the history of domestic incidents and Taylor's problems with alcohol. S.B.T. explained why she dropped two orders of protection against Taylor (she wanted to help Taylor get services and for Taylor to be able to come to the home if he was not drinking) (Doc. 53-4). Defendant Huff talked to S.B.T. about the cycle of domestic violence and being a victim, but S.B.T. did not see herself as a victim. Defendant Huff also offered voluntary intact, in-home services, but S.B.T. denied any services. S.B.T. told Defendant Huff she had been going to counseling since the stillbirth of her child in December 2009, and she signed a release of information form for Defendant Huff to speak with her counselor. S.B.T. also gave Defendant Huff the names of collateral contacts who could provide evidence in S.B.T.'s favor (Doc. 53-4). Directly after this meeting, at 2:09 p.m., Defendant Huff conferred with her supervisor, Defendant Woods, and a decision was made at that time to recommend that S.B.T. be indicated for child neglect (Doc. 53-3, p. 50-53; Doc. 55-21).

         After recommending that S.B.T. be indicated for child neglect, Defendant Huff spoke with the collateral contacts S.B.T. provided (Doc. 53-3, pp. 51-52). Although Defendants Huff and Woods recommended a finding of indicated, that decision could be changed up until the investigation was closed by “restaffing” the investigation (Id., pp. 60-61). At 3:40 p.m. on March 22, 2013, Defendant Huff spoke with S.B.T.'s father, who acknowledged that Taylor has a problem with alcohol and that he often verbally abused S.B.T. However, S.B.T.'s father did not believe the children were at risk (Doc. 56-14). Defendant Huff spoke with contact Monique Stuckey at 4:03 p.m. Stuckey agreed that Taylor was a problem and that S.B.T. should “get rid of him while [she] can.” Stuckey further stated that Taylor manipulates S.B.T. and says he needs her; S.B.T. then tries to fix or mother him. Stuckey also verified that S.B.T.'s daughter does not like Taylor (Doc. 56-15). Defendant Huff also spoke with the children's primary care physicians that afternoon (a Friday) and on the following Monday morning. (Docs. 55-28, 55-29, 55-30). That Monday she also spoke with Sharon Reed, S.B.T.'s counselor at the Angela Center for Behavioral Health, who confirmed S.B.T. was in counseling for the loss of a child and “the domestic issues” (Doc. 56-16). Defendant Huff later testified that at the time she recommended the indicated finding, she had already made up her mind and none of the information provided by the collateral contacts was going to change it (Doc. 56-5, pp. 19, 20). Defendant Huff further stated that regardless of what the contacts would have said, “the evidence was already there to indicate” S.B.T. (Id., p. 16).

         Because S.B.T. was a child welfare worker, she was entitled to an additional layer of review by way of the administrator's teleconference. On April 4, 2013, Defendant Alexis Carlisle held the teleconference with S.B.T. Prior to the call, Defendant Carlisle told S.B.T. to send any documents S.B.T. wanted her to review. S.B.T. submitted a 12-page, single-spaced letter in support of her position. During the administrator's teleconference, Defendant Carlisle considered the documents S.B.T. submitted, the police reports, the investigative summary (which included information from S.B.T.'s collateral contacts), the fact that S.B.T. declined domestic violence services, and the safety of the children. Defendant Carlisle then made a final finding indicating S.B.T. for child neglect pursuant to Allegation 60. As a result of being “indicated, ” S.B.T.'s name was placed on the Central Register.

         Upon notification of the indicated finding, S.B.T. filed an expedited administrative appeal on May 7, 2013. On July 22, 2013, the ALJ issued his Recommendation and Opinion. The ALJ recommended that the indicated finding be affirmed based on evidence that S.B.T. was allegedly denying and minimizing past incidents of domestic violence, which placed S.B.T.'s children in an injurious environment.

         In a letter dated July 24, 2013, Richard H. Calica, then Director of DCFS, issued the final administrative decision and informed S.B.T. that he was adopting the ALJ's decision to indicate her under Allegation 60, and that S.B.T.'s request for expungement of her record from the Central Register was denied.

         On August 16, 2013, S.B.T. filed a pro se Complaint for Administrative Review in the Circuit Court of the Second Judicial Circuit, Jefferson County, Illinois. On February 6, 2014, the Circuit Judge found that the Director's decision to indicate S.B.T. was against the manifest weight of the evidence and reversed the Director's decision, thereby removing S.B.T. from the Central Register. At no point during the investigation or review of S.B.T.'s indication for neglect were her children removed from her custody.

         D. ...

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