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Sebesta v. Davis

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

December 21, 2017

Elizabeth Sebesta, individually, and as parent and next friend to Elizabeth Marie Sebesta, a minor, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
Andrea Davis, in her individual capacity, et al., Defendants-Appellees.

          Argued September 14, 2017

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 12 C 7834 - Gary Feinerman, Judge.

          Before Wood, Chief Judge, and Ripple and Hamilton, Circuit Judges.

          WOOD, Chief Judge.

         A parent has a fundamental right, protected by the Constitution, to "direct the upbringing" of her child. See Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510, 534-35 (1925); Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390, 399 (1923). But like many constitutional rights, this one does not exist in a vacuum. The state has a strong interest in its most vulnerable citizens, including its children. In order to protect their welfare, states have agencies devoted to the task of child and family protection. Those agencies are staffed by people who must investigate possible abuse of children yet at the same time respect parents' rights. The present appeal raises the question whether certain Illinois state actors impermissibly infringed on a mother's rights as they endeavored to protect her child.

         In September 2010, a hospital social worker harbored concerns about Elizabeth Sebesta's ability to care properly for her newborn daughter. The social worker contacted the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services ("DCFS"), which conducted an investigation. Although DCFS employees pressured Sebesta to accept certain at-home services, they never removed Sebesta's daughter from her custody. We conclude, as the district court did, that neither the hospital worker nor the DCFS employees stepped over any constitutional line. They reasonably dealt with a sensitive situation in which they had to decide what would serve the child's best interest. We affirm the district court's grant of summary judgment in their favor.

         I

         A

         Our account of the facts is somewhat truncated because a number of the supporting documents have been maintained under seal for a variety of reasons. But we can offer enough to explain our decision. Sebesta had not been doing well a few weeks before she was due to deliver her baby. On September 1, 2010, she sought medical treatment for a physical problem at Swedish Covenant Hospital. It soon was clear that more than the physical condition was at stake. Sebesta reported that she recently had "trashed" her parents' home and that she had been accused of being suicidal. That report, along with other tests, prompted the hospital to order a psychiatric referral. The psychiatrist provided a diagnosis and recommended that Sebesta be admitted to the inpatient psychiatric unit at the University of Illinois Medical Center ("UIMC").

         Sebesta acquiesced in this course of action and had herself admitted to UIMC. While at the hospital, medical staff observed that she was paranoid and angry, exhibited delusions of grandeur, and lacked insight into her illness. Sebesta's history of psychiatric care, including a prior hospitalization, was recorded. After a few days of treatment, she was discharged on September 7. She declined further counseling. On September 26, Sebesta returned to UIMC because she was experiencing labor pains. The next day, she gave birth to her daughter, Elizabeth Marie.

         The pediatric team wrote a note to Andrea Davis, a licensed social worker at UIMC, and asked her to look into Sebesta's case. Davis did so, beginning on September 28 with a review of the medical chart, which mentioned Sebesta's mental health diagnosis and a psychotic break earlier in the month. Davis then met with Sebesta and her mother, Soonduck. Davis observed, among other things, that Sebesta was hostile and easily angered; exhibited a lack of insight into her psychiatric needs; fought with her mother; and had refused a toxicology screen of her daughter. Davis recommended that Sebesta seek outpatient psychiatric treatment, but Sebesta rebuffed the suggestion.

         Davis became concerned that Elizabeth Marie was at risk of neglect. Under Illinois's Abused and Neglected Child Reporting Act ("ANCRA"), 325 ILCS 5/4, Davis is in the class of persons required to report if they have "reasonable cause to believe a child known to them in their professional or official capacity may be an abused child or a neglected child." Id. 11; see also III. Dep't of Children & Family Servs., Manual for Mandated Reporters (May 2015 rev ed.), https://www.illinois.gov/dcfs/safekids/reporting/Documents/ cfs_1050-21_mandated_reporter_manual.pdf. Davis believed that she was facing just such a situation, and so, at the conclusion of her examination and before Sebesta took her daughter home, Davis contacted DCFS.

         DCFS responded promptly by sending investigator Elysia Childs to the hospital the next day. Childs interviewed Sebesta, Soonduck, Davis, and other UIMC staff members, and she reviewed Sebesta's medical records. Sebesta denied having any psychiatric history, including prior psychiatric hospitalizations, other than her recent stay at UIMC. Soonduck also denied that her daughter had any mental health problems. A pediatric resident told Childs that Sebesta lacked insight and was defensive. Childs learned that Sebesta was refusing medication and counseling. On the positive side, one physician reported that Sebesta seemed to have a good attachment to Elizabeth Marie, and another UIMC provider opined that Sebesta was not a danger to herself or to her baby.

         After meeting the next day with her supervisor, Gloria Bean, Childs informed Sebesta that removal proceedings would be initiated if Sebesta did not agree to intact family services, which involved in-home counseling and child-welfare services. Feeling backed into a corner, Sebesta agreed to accept the services. She left the hospital with Elizabeth Marie on October 1. This was a few days ...


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