Care and Protection of Walt: Breathing New Life into the Decades-Old Policy of Foster Care as the Last Resort.Posted: February 2, 2018
by Ann Balmelli O’Connor
To many, the Supreme Judicial Court’s holdings in Care and Protection of Walt, 478 Mass. 212 (2017)—that the Department of Children and Families (“DCF”) must comply with the law, that courts must ensure that DCF complies with the law, and that where parents or children are harmed by DCF’s breach of its legal obligations, a court may enter orders to remediate the harm —must seem unremarkable. But to attorneys who represent parents and children in state-intervention child custody cases, the decision is a welcome step towards realizing the law’s expectation that removing a child from his parents will be DCF’s “last resort.” Walt at 219.
Since 1954, the commonwealth’s policy has been to remove a child from his parents “only when the family itself or the resources available to the family are unable to provide the necessary care and protection[.]” Id. at 219, citing G.L. c. 119, § 1. When a court awards custody of a child to DCF, the court must determine whether or not DCF made reasonable efforts to “prevent or eliminate the need” to remove the child from his parent(s). G.L. c. 119, § 29C. There are four exceptions to DCF’s reasonable efforts obligation; unless an exception applies, DCF must make reasonable efforts before removing a child. Id. But for many years, juvenile courts routinely have excused DCF’s failure to make reasonable efforts for reasons beyond the statutory exceptions. Walt was one of those cases.
In Walt, DCF made no effort to avoid removing a three-year-old child from his parents because the investigating social worker believed Walt was at immediate risk of harm in the home. A trial judge, citing that risk, excused DCF’s failure to make reasonable efforts to avoid removing Walt. An Appeals Court single justice deemed that ruling error and, because DCF’s breach of its duty to make reasonable efforts had harmed Walt and his father by hindering their reunification, the single justice entered orders for visits and services in order to facilitate Walt’s return to his father’s custody. The single justice reported the issues to a panel of the Appeals Court, and the SJC transferred the case on its own motion.
On appeal, DCF argued that the trial judge only needed to determine whether DCF made reasonable efforts at an initial (usually ex parte) hearing on DCF’s request for emergency custody, not at a later 72-hour hearing. And at the ex parte hearing in Walt, the judge had determined that DCF did make the required efforts. The SJC rejected DCF’s argument and held that G.L. c. 119, § 24 plainly requires that the determination be made at both hearings. Walt at 223-224. The Court noted that the wisdom of requiring that the matter be revisited at the later (adversarial) hearing was illustrated in Walt, where the social worker’s ex parte claims regarding reasonable efforts were shown at the 72-hour hearing to have been “simply not true.” Id. at 225.
DCF next urged that the Court create an “exigent circumstances” exception to § 29C, which would excuse DCF from its duty to make reasonable efforts to avoid removing a child where a parent subjected the child “to serious abuse or neglect or an immediate danger of serious abuse or neglect.” Id. at 226. The Court declined to read that exception into § 29C, since the Legislature did not include it. The Court noted that “a judge must determine what is reasonable in light of the particular circumstances in each case, that the health and safety of the child must be the paramount concern, and that”—regardless of whether or not DCF made reasonable efforts—“no child should remain in the custody of the parents if his or her immediate removal is necessary to protect the child from serious abuse or neglect.” Id. at 225, 228.
DCF also claimed that the single justice exceeded his authority in ordering DCF to provide multiple father-son visits each week, permit Walt’s father to participate in special education meetings, and explore housing options for the family. The SJC disagreed; because DCF had violated its legal obligation to make reasonable efforts to avoid removing Walt, the single justice properly exercised his equitable authority in ordering DCF “to take reasonable remedial steps to diminish the adverse consequences of its breach of duty.” Id. at 228. Because the single justice acted long after Walt had been removed from his parents, he correctly entered orders designed to facilitate reunification. The Court observed that a juvenile court judge has the same authority. Id. at 228, 231.
As to the order for visitation, or “parenting time,” the Court stated that DCF’s schedule of one-hour visits every other week “imperil[ed] the father-son bond that was essential” to reunification Id. at 230. Accordingly, the single justice properly ordered a schedule “that would enable that bond to remain intact.” Id. (citations omitted). Equity likewise warranted the order that Walt’s father be permitted to remain involved in his education. Finally, because the parents would likely have difficulty obtaining housing benefits because Walt was in DCF’s custody—and housing “was likely a prerequisite to family reunification”—the single justice properly ordered DCF to explore housing options for the family. Id. at 230.
DCF has been removing children from their homes at higher rates over the past several years, and the foster care system is overwhelmed. Too often, DCF has removed these children without offering, let alone providing, any services or other assistance to their families. With this decision, the SJC has helped to ensure that DCF will follow the law, so that separating families and placing children in an overburdened foster care system truly will be the agency’s last resort.
Ann Balmelli O’Connor is the Attorney-in-Charge of the Appellate Unit of CPCS’s Children and Family Law Division. Attorney O’Connor, a former Assistant General Counsel for DCF, represented the child’s father in Care and Protection of Walt.
May a couple’s childrearing practices, which are not illegal and are deeply rooted in their sincere religious convictions, disqualify them from becoming foster and pre-adoptive parents? In the closely watched case Magazu v. Department of Children and Families,[i] the Justices unanimously answered “yes.” Here, I argue that while Magazu may have been correctly decided, the Court’s analysis has troubling implications for the expansion of agency power.
Path to the SJC
Gregory and Melanie Magazu had two biological daughters but wanted a larger family. Concerns about Melanie’s health led them to apply to become foster and pre-adoptive parents. The couple seemed ideally suited to foster and then adopt a child who was in the Department of Children and Families’ (“DCF”) care – until they revealed that they occasionally used physical punishment on their biological children. Believing as a matter of religious faith in the maxim “spare the rod, spoil the child,” Greg or Melanie, on the few occasions when one of their daughters engaged in “a continuous pattern of disobedience,” would spank the child on the buttocks by hand in the privacy of the girl’s bedroom.[ii]
DCF regulations prohibit the use of corporal punishment on a foster child.[iii] Accordingly, the Magazus were prepared to enter into a written agreement not to use corporal punishment on any foster child placed in their home and never to physically punish one of their biological children in the presence of the foster child. The couple would not, however, and for religious reasons could not, agree to forego physical discipline of their biological children. Citing their refusal, DCF denied the Magazus’ application to become foster and pre-adoptive parents. The Magazus appealed. At the administrative hearing, DCF’s witnesses testified that foster children typically have been subjected to abuse and neglect and could be re-traumatized by direct or indirect exposure to corporal discipline. DCF acknowledged that it had no written policy disqualifying parents who physically discipline their biological children from becoming foster parents, but maintained that such was its unwritten policy and practice. First the hearing officer, and then a Superior Court judge, affirmed DCF’s denial of the Magazus’ application. The Supreme Judicial Court transferred the case sua sponte from the Appeals Court.
The Justices faced two questions of law. First, was DCF’s decision arbitrary and capricious, based on an irrational interpretation of its statutory and regulatory authority, and/or ungrounded in substantial evidence, in violation of DCF’s statutory and regulatory mandates? Second, by conditioning the couple’s receipt of a government benefit on their renunciation of their religious practices, did DCF violate the Magazus’ free exercise rights under the Federal and Massachusetts Constitutions?
The Justices dismissed both claims. The Court deferred–almost without scrutiny–to DCF’s policy of not placing foster and preadoptive children in homes where parents physically discipline their children. Notwithstanding that the policy was “not . . . articulated in express terms,” the Court held that “such a policy falls squarely within the parameters of the department’s enabling legislation and companion regulations, and is rationally related to the department’s objectives in the placement of foster children.”[iv] The Court next applied the familiar “balancing test” of Wisconsin v. Yoder[v] and Attorney Gen. v. Desilets[vi] to the constitutional claim. The Court concluded that DCF had substantially burdened the Magazus’ practice of their sincere religious convictions by presenting them with an untenable choice: the couple could become foster parents by abandoning their religiously-motivated practices, or they could continue their faith-based disciplinary practices and abandon any hope of becoming foster and pre-adoptive parents. Nonetheless, the Court held that the substantial burden on the Magazus’ constitutional rights was outweighed by the State’s “first and paramount duty,” rooted in its ancient parens patriae authority, to protect children from actual or potential harm.[vii] The decision shut the door on the Magazus’ hopes to foster and adopt children through DCF.
Judging By Unwritten Rules
It is easy to assume that Magazu was correctly decided. Both common sense and compassion argue for taking every precaution to protect emotionally fragile children from further harm. Nonetheless, the Court’s reasoning is troubling on at least two fronts.
First, the Court extended unwarranted deference to DCF’s “unwritten” policies and procedures. A fundamental objective of the Administrative Procedures Act, G. L. c. 30A, which governs DCF’s actions, is to ensure the agency’s objectivity, accountability, transparency, predictability, and uniformity in its application of policies and other practices.[viii] Permitting DCF, or any agency, to rely on unwritten rules severely limits judicial oversight of agency discretion. How does a court distinguish between a legitimate unwritten policy and post hoc rationalization? How is a court to know, for instance, when the unwritten rule was adopted, by whom, for what reason, and how it was communicated?
The Court’s deference to DCF’s unwritten policies rested on the thinnest of precedents. In both cases on which the Court relies, Anusavice v. Board of Registration in Dentistry[ix] and Arthurs v. Board of Registration in Med.,[x] the agency’s position on the unethical or criminal characteristics of the conduct at issue could readily have been foreseen from prior published agency decisions. Here, the Magazus’ disqualifying conduct was legally permissible: within limits, one may spank one’s child. See, e.g., Commonwealth v. Dorvil; Cobble v. Department of Soc. Services.[xi] The Magazus had no notice that their lawful conduct would disqualify them to be foster parents.
Justice Cordy’s concurrence, joined by Justices Botsford and Duffly, gives voice to this concern about unfettered deference to unwritten agency policy.”[xii] Justice Cordy begins by acknowledging two stark realities: the increasing need for good Massachusetts foster homes in light of DCF’s growing caseload, and “the highly publicized tragedies of the last two years regarding children under the supervision of the department in foster homes,” including a recent horrific case in the western region where the Magazus reside.[xiii] He also reiterates the uncontested evidence demonstrating “that in every respect (but for one) [the Magazus] were ideal foster and preadoptive candidates.”[xiv] In light of the department’s woeful record of investigating recent notorious cases of foster placements, where the warning signs of danger were writ large, Justice Cordy wrote that one is “left to wonder . . . whether the high standards and intensive assessment and scrutiny applied to the plaintiffs is the exception rather than the norm,” or “whether the real problem in this case was not so much the department’s concern for child safety, but rather a disagreement with the plaintiff’s beliefs regarding the upbringing of their children.”[xv] He queries whether, whatever the unwritten licensing standard actually is, it will be uniformly applied.[xvi] If an agency may impose significant burdens on individuals based on unwritten policies, the concurrence suggests, meaningful judicial review of the conduct of State bureaucracies is all but eviscerated.
The Paternalistic State
A second reason for concern in Magazu is the Court’s reliance in the parens patriae doctrine to justify burdening the Magazus’ constitutional rights. The doctrine of parens patriae endows the State with inherent authority to protect the vulnerable, particularly children, from harm. See, e.g., Petition of Catholic Charitable Bureau of the Archdiocese of Boston, Inc., to Dispense with Consent to Adoption.[xvii] Massachusetts appellate courts have invoked the doctrine in countless child-related cases.
Parens patriae, however, like its kindred “best interests of the child” standard, is a doctrine increasingly criticized as inchoate and infantilizing.[xviii] Recently, in Guardianship of L.H.,[xix] a case involving substituted judgment for an incompetent adult, Judge Agnes (dissenting) implored courts to “be cautious and critical of signs of paternalism legitimized by the parens patriae doctrine, where State actors purport to have an absolute understanding of what is in the best interests of an individual, whose liberty, dignity and privacy are at issue, and whose voice is muted by the swift and overriding authority of court-appointed professionals.”[xx] Judge Agnes’ dissent is particularly cautionary for Magazu, where DCF presented no hard data on actual or prognostic harm, where the prospective foster parents pledged to abide by DCF regulations concerning the discipline of children placed in their care, and where their credentials were otherwise stellar.
Of course, the Magazus are not the only parents ensnared here by parens patriae. The decision summarily disqualifies an entire class of people whose religious convictions lead them to physically discipline their children from even becoming foster and preadoptive parents. Regardless of one’s views on the corporal punishment of children, the use of parens patriae in Magazu to preclude any foster child from finding love and care in a loving family invites speculation about just what the limits of parens patriae, if any, may possibly be.
Magazu closes the door to foster parentage to the Magazus and all those similarly situated. How widely it opens the door to bureaucratic over-reach will be tested in the line of cases that follow.
Sandra E. Lundy is an appellate and domestic relations litigator at Tarlow, Breed, Hart & Rodgers, P.C., Boston. She is Board Member of the Women’s Bar Association and a former member of the BBA Family Law Section Council. Attorney Lundy received her J.D. from Yale Law School and her Ph.D. from Columbia University.
[i] 473 Mass. 430 (2016).
[ii] Id. at 433.
[iii] See 110 Code Mass. Regs. §§ 7.104 (1) (q) and 7.111(3).
[iv] 473 Mass at 440-441.
[v] 406 U.S. 205 (1972).
[vi] 418 Mass. 316, 321-323 (1944).
[vii] 473 Mass at 445-446. See also 418 Mass at 321-323.
[viii] See, e.g., G. L. c. 30A, §§ 2-6.
[ix] 451 Mass. 786, 795 (2008).
[x] 383 Mass. 299, 312-313 (1981).
[xi] 472 Mass. 1 (2015); 430 Mass. 385 (1999).
[xii] 473 Mass. at 446-449 (Cordy, J., concurring).
[xiii] Id. at 448.
[xiv] Id. at 447..
[xv] Id. at 448.
[xvi] Id. at 448-449.
[xvii] 392 Mass. 738, 740-741 (1984).
[xviii] See, for example, Charlow, Awarding Custody: The Best Interests of the Child and Other Fictions, 5 Yale L. and Pol’y Rev. 267, 269-273 (1986), available at http://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/ylpr/vol5/iss2/3.
[xix] 84 Mass. App. Ct. 711 (2014),
[xx] Id. at 734.