Blackwell v. Dept. of Social and Health Services (2006)
The Washington Court of Appeals has decided that Washington law does not permit foster parents to recover damages for a public agency’s negligence in investigating allegations that they abused their foster children. The case isBlackwell v. Dept. of Social and Health Services, 131 Wn. App. 372 (2006).
Over the years, Miller and Mary Blackwell cared for a number of foster children with behavioral problems. They developed an interest in adopting one of them, D.R.
When two of the Blackwell’s other foster children alleged Miller had physically and emotionally abused them, Child Protective Services began an investigation. During the investigation, D.R. and a fourth foster child also made abuse allegations. CPS decided Miller had committed physical abuse, removed all foster children from the Blackwells’ home, and revoked their foster care license.
The Blackwells contested these actions. After two years of hearings, a judge reversed the finding of abuse and ordered reinstatement of their foster care license.
The Blackwells then sued both the State of Washington and the City of Seattle for negligent investigation. The trial court dismissed the Blackwells’ claims before trial. The court of appeals affirmed the dismissal.
The court of appeals observed that the common law does not impose on public investigators any duty to the persons they investigate. Hence, under the common law, those persons cannot recover compensation for negligent investigation. RCW 26.4, though, was construed in earlier cases to impose on investigators a duty to children and their parents to investigate child abuse allegations properly.
In Pettis v. State, 98 Wn. App. 553, 560 (1999), the court of appeals held that the duty imposed by RCW 26.44 does not extend to child care workers investigated for child abuse. The court found no legislative intent to extend it to them. In this case, the court of appeals held it does not extend to foster parents either.
The court noted that the Blackwells had not become legal custodians or guardians of the children in question. Though they had considered adopting D.R., they had not taken steps to do so. Had any of these facts been different, the result might have been different.