Maryland’s highest court has ruled that the state can be held liable for negligence if a child dies after social service workers mishandle reports of child abuse or neglect.
“It is great news. The Court of Appeals joins the majority of states that have answered in the affirmative whether the Department of Social Services has a duty to a child who died as a victim of abuse or neglect,” said Stephen B. Mercer, the lawyer for the Texas father who sued.
Mercer said that his client repeatedly reported to St. Mary’s County social service workers that his toddler son was being physically abused while in the care of the boy’s mother, but that they failed to intervene and the child was beaten to death.
The boy’s mother was never charged. Her boyfriend was charged with murder and found not guilty. But the high court was not ruling on the couple’s or DSS’ responsibility, but on whether a civil case could continue against the state.
Attorneys defended the actions of the DSS workers.
“The allegations bear very little relationship to reality,” said Assistant Attorney General Shelly E. Mintz, representing the state Department of Human Resources, which includes St. Mary’s DSS. “The social workers did an exemplary job; they did a thorough investigation.”
Writing for the majority in the 5-2 ruling, Court of Appeals Judge Alan M. Wilner said the law creates a duty to protect children identified as the possible victims of “harm likely to occur if the statutory duty is ignored” by social workers.
“We cannot conceive that the legislature intended, when a child is killed or injured, at least in part because DSS fails to perform the duties clearly cast upon it to make a site visit within 24 hours and a thorough investigation, for the only sanction to be the placement of a reprimand in some social worker’s personnel file,” he wrote.
Dissenting judges expressed concern about the public policy ramifications of the ruling. “The department does not make parents kill their children,” Judge Dale R. Cathell wrote in a dissent joined by Judge Lynne A. Battaglia.
He called the majority’s opinion a “bonanza for trial attorneys” because the court has never before given a green light to lawsuits based on deciding that a “special relationship” exists between the state and a group of its residents.
Mercer said the goal is to examine how the St. Mary’s County Department of Social Services handled repeated reports by Eric Horridge that his toddler son, Collin, was being abused by Tiffany Fairris, the mother, and her boyfriend, Daniel Fowkes, after they moved to St. Mary’s County. The child was 19 months old when Horridge began making reports in December 1999; Collin was beaten to death Feb. 25, 2000.
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