Child Abuse – Part 2

Church Law and Tax 1990-03-01 Recent Developments Child Abuse Richard R. Hammar, J.D., LL.M., CPA

Church Law and Tax 1990-03-01 Recent Developments

Child Abuse

Can a church and church officials be legally responsible for fatal injuries inflicted on a child by a foster parent selected by the church? That was the issue before a Georgia court in a recent case. The child, who was a mentally-retarded eleven-year-old, was left with the church by her natural parents when they moved to Hawaii. The church had difficulty locating a foster family, and was forced to place the child with a family that had received no training in foster parenting and no orientation or guidance regarding the needs of a mentally-retarded child. The foster father soon determined that the child “needed to be disciplined.” One evening, he slapped her and “pushed her head into the floor.” After the child stopped breathing, the foster parents rushed her to a hospital emergency room where the child died following surgery. The surgeon testified that the child died of a blood clot on the brain caused by the rupture of blood vessels, and that such a condition could only have been caused by “a very significant amount of force.” Following the child’s death, her natural parents sued the church and various church leaders for their negligence in placing the child with the foster parents. Specifically, the natural parents argued that the church and church leaders had been negligent in placing their child with foster parents who were not adequately trained or screened. The foster parents were also sued. The jury found the church and certain church leaders responsible, but refused to find the foster parents responsible. A state appeals court ruled that the church and church officials could not be legally responsible if the foster parents were not, and accordingly it dismissed the case against them on the ground that the jury had found the foster parents innocent. The court observed that “the jury reached a verdict in favor of the [foster parents] …. This constitutes a finding that [they] were not liable for [the child’s] death. If [they] were not liable for her death, there can be no liability on the part of those who placed [her] with the [foster parents], or who were responsible for supervising the foster care after placement.” In other words, if the foster parents were innocent, how could the church and church officials be responsible for placing the child with the foster parents? LDS Social Services Corp. v. Richins, 382 S.E.2d 607 (Ga. App. 1989).

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