Social Workers Have Qualified Immunity in Guardianship Dispute

By Robyn Hagan Cain on August 21, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Monday that a trio of Missouri social workers are entitled to qualified immunity after recommending a guardianship arrangement for a child that allegedly led to the child's death.

Lynn and Jason Hutson filed a civil rights lawsuit against Jude Walker, Julie Baumgardner, and Sallie West -- the social workers -- after the employees recommended that custody of their son, A.H., be granted to his grandparents, Carolyn and Patrick Cattin. According to the Hutsons, this recommendation resulted in the A.H.'s untimely death.

The Hutsons were the biological parents of A.H. and his sisters, H.H. and D.H. In 2001, the Jackson, Mo. Division of Family Services (DFS) began receiving calls alleging that the children were not getting medical care and were not being properly supervised by their parents. There were also allegations that Jason had physically abused H.H. and thrown A.H. down a hall, and that Lynn had burned A.H. and H.H.

The children were placed with Lynn's mother, Carolyn, in 2002, and the case was referred to Walker for evaluation of whether the children should be placed with the Cattins. Walker, his supervisor, Julie Baumgardner, and Sallie West were all involved in the case.

Though Lynn claimed that Carolyn should not get guardianship because she had a history of child abuse, the court ultimately concluded that the Hutsons lacked adequate housing and employment to care for the children, and awarded guardianship of A.H. and his siblings to Carolyn and Patrick in 2003.

Records show that the agency later received calls alleging that Carolyn had hit A.H. and H.H. and threatened Patrick with a gun. There was apparently no further contact between the agency and the family until after A.H.'s death on June 20, 2006.

A.H.'s older sister testified that she saw Carolyn physically abuse A.H. that day, and heard Carolyn yell for someone to call the police after the boy became unresponsive. Carolyn committed suicide approximately one week after A.H.'s death.

The Hutsons claimed that Walker, Baumgardner, and West are liable for violation of A.H.'s substantive due process rights because Walker and his supervisors failed to complete the required checks and background investigation on Carolyn and Patrick Cattin before making a guardianship recommendation.

The district court granted summary judgment to the state employees, concluding that they were entitled to qualified immunity on the civil rights claims because the record did not show that the supervisors could have inferred that A.H. was in actual danger.

The facts did not support the Hutsons' arguments that the action or inaction of the state employees shocked the conscience, and the Hutsons' failed to provide evidence on their substantive due process claim. Therefore, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court's qualified immunity finding.

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