False Accusations of Child Abuse

Can reporters of child abuse be sued if the alleged abuse did not actually occur?

Can one who reports a suspected case of child abuse be sued by the alleged offender if the report later proves to have been false? That was the issue before a California state appeals court. A two-month old child suffering from a congenital defect (arteriovenous malformation of the brain) was taken to a local hospital, and then transferred to a regional children's hospital. A doctor employed by the children's hospital failed to recognize that the infant was suffering from a congenital defect, and instead diagnosed the child as suffering from injuries of a nonaccidental nature which could only have resulted from a violent shaking or a fall.

Because of the suspicion of child abuse, the doctor filed a report with the state. The infant died from the condition four days later, and his remains were transferred to the coroner for an autopsy. The autopsy described the cause of death as a "subdural hematoma" caused by a blunt injury to the side of the head. As a result of the doctor's report and the coroner's findings, the district attorney recommended that dependency proceedings be commenced with respect to another child in the same home.

Based on this recommendation, the police removed the other child from her parents' custody, and dependency proceedings were begun. The parents hired an attorney and their own medical expert to review the autopsy and the infant's remains to determine the true cause of death. This medical expert was able to convince the coroner that the true cause of death was the congenital defect. The coroner amended his autopsy report, and the parents were cleared of all charges. The parents then sued the doctor on a number of grounds, including medical negligence, infliction of emotional distress, and civil rights violations.

They also alleged that the doctor's false report caused the district attorney to initiate dependency proceedings, depriving them of their constitutional right to family unity undisturbed by unwarranted governmental interference. The doctor asked the court to dismiss the case no the ground that state law grants "immunity" to reporters of child abuse. The trial court agreed with the doctor's defense, and the parents appealed. The parents argued that state law grants immunity only to reporters who have a "reasonable suspicion" of child abuse, and not to reports that are made negligently or recklessly. The appeals court rejected the parents' claim, noting that state law granted absolute immunity to those reporters, including doctors, under a mandatory duty to report child abuse.

The court emphasized that mandatory reporters were given absolute immunity in order to encourage them to report without fear of being sued if their reports turned out to be false. The court acknowledged that its decision denied the parents "from any relief or compensation for the grievous injury" that they sustained. It concluded: "We do so because we are obligated to honor the determination of the legislature that protection of one innocent segment of society warrants occasional injury to another. The mute and powerless victims of child abuse have long suffered at the hands of their tormentors.

Society's protective voice, the legislature has found, has been silenced by the fear of retaliation. The protection of the young victims, the legislature has determined, requires that uncompensated injury occasionally result to an adult. In this war on child abuse the legislature selected absolute immunity as part of its arsenal …. The tragedy of war, whether it be against child abuse or between nations, is that the nature of its drastic measures is such as to inflict injury on some innocents while producing the general benefit of a desired end result."

Few states, like California, grant absolute immunity to mandatory reporters of child abuse. Most states provide only limited immunity—meaning that reporters can be sued only if they act "maliciously" in filing a knowingly false report. Even this limited form of immunity is quite extensive, and is intended to further the governmental objective of encouraging persons to report suspected cases of abuse without fear of being sued if their reports prove to have been false. Thomas v. Chadwick, 274 Cal. Rptr. 128 (Cal. App. 4 Dist. 1990).

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