The opinion of the court was delivered by: Thomas I. Vanaskie United States District Judge
Plaintiff Odetta A. Todd has brought this action against Defendants Luzerne County Children and Youth Services and its Executive Director, Eugene N. Caprio, alleging violations of due process and equal protection under the Pennsylvania and United States Constitutions.*fn1 Ms. Todd's claims are set forth in the context of her unsuccessful quest to obtain kinship foster care parent status for the care of her sister's four (4) children. Kinship foster care status would have entitled Plaintiff to monthly payments for each of her sister's children.
Presently before the Court is Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment. (Dkt. Entry 41.) As explained below, the Court will grant Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment with respect to Plaintiff's substantive due process and equal protection claims because Plaintiff cannot establish that foster care payments fall within the narrow class of interests protected by the substantive component of the due process clause, and she has not shown that she was treated differently than other similarly situated persons. Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment will be denied with respect to Plaintiff's procedural due process claim because a genuine issue of material fact exists as to whether Plaintiff abandoned her application, thereby obviating consideration of the procedures made available to her, or had her application denied without being offered the opportunity to appeal, as required by applicable regulations.
Luzerne County Children and Youth Services ("C & Y Services") is a state-mandated agency with a goal "to ensure for each child in this Commonwealth a permanent, legally assured family which protects the child from abuse and neglect." 55 PA. CODE § 3130.11. C & Y Services is "designed to keep children in their homes; prevent abuse, neglect and exploitation; and help overcome problems that result in dependency and delinquency." 55 PA.
Kinship Foster Care is a program administered by C & Y Services that places dependent children with approved relatives, friends, or neighbors. (Eugene Caprio Dep., Dkt. Entry 44-2, at 12.)*fn2 As explained in an "Information Sheet" on Welfare Reform and Kinship Care:
Kinship Care is the full time care of a child who is separated from his or her parents and placed in a home of a caregiver who may be a relative or a family friend or neighbor. Kinship Care can be formal or informal.
Formal Kinship Care exists when a child welfare agency has legal custody of a child and provides supervision to the caregiver and services to the child. The child is not usually eligible for cash assistance through the County Assistance Office (CAO), since the caregiver receives foster care payments for the child. Informal Kinship Care arrangements are made by parent(s), or a child welfare agency with the parent's consent, for an adult relative, friend, neighbor or someone else known to the family to care for the child. Legal custody has not been transferred to the child welfare agency, and no foster care payments are made. Also legal custody dos not have to be transferred to the caregiver. Social services may be available through the child welfare agency, if the caregiver desires them. The caregiver and/or the child may be eligible for cash assistance and other benefits through CAO. (Dkt Entry 47-7 at 47.)
At issue in this case is Formal Kinship Care and the payments attendant to that classification. Odetta Todd's sister, Tamu Todd, suffered from a substance abuse problem, which caused C & Y Services to intervene in the case of Tamu's children. (Eugene Caprio Dep., at 17.) Between 1998 and 2001, Ms. Todd received custody of Tesha Todd, Dione Todd, Vincent Todd and Amande Lee Barberio. (Defs.' Statement of Material Facts ("SMF"), Dkt. Entry 42, ¶¶ 4-6.) The process by which Ms. Todd acquired her sister's children and sought financial assistance is described below.
On December 18, 1998, in a dependency action before the Court of Common Pleas of Luzerne County, Juvenile Division, Judge Chester Muroski transferred physical and legal custody of Tesha Todd to Plaintiff.*fn3 (Pl.'s Ex. 1, Dkt. Entry 47-2, ¶ 2.) Ms. Todd was directed to cooperate with C & Y Services and to follow all recommendations of the agency. (Id. at ¶ 5.) Several months later, on May 26, 1999, Ms. Todd and C & Y Services held a meeting to discuss the Todd Family Service Plan.*fn4 (Odetta Todd Aff., Dkt. Entry 47, ¶ 15; Pl.'s Ex. 3, Dkt. Entry 47-2, 7-12.) During the course of the meeting, Ms. Todd made it clear that she was experiencing financial difficulties in caring for her sister's children. While at the meeting, Ms. Todd inquired about becoming a foster parent so as to qualify for foster care payments, and C & Y Services allegedly told her she did not qualify to be a foster parent because she was related to the children. (Odetta Todd Aff., at ¶ 15.)
As a follow up to the meeting, C & Y Services requested a review conference before the court to consider the appropriateness of discontinuing the dependency action. (Pl.'s Ex. 4, Dkt. Entry 47-2, at 13.) According to Plaintiff, at this review conference, held on July 12, 1999, Luzerne County Orphans Court Juvenile Court Master Cynthia Muroski, now deceased, recommended Ms. Todd as a candidate for Kinship Foster Care. (Odetta Todd Aff., at ¶ 20; Pl.'s Ex. 5, Dkt. Entry 47-2, at 15-16.)
Several months passed without any action upon this alleged recommendation. On October 18, 1999, Ms. Todd requested another review conference before the court. She referenced C & Y Services' lack of assistance in connection with kinship foster care as the reason for petitioning the court. (Pl.'s Ex. 6, Dkt. Entry 47-2, 18-19.)
On November 4, 1999, Marijo Sullivan, Foster Care Supervisor at C & Y Services, called Ms. Todd to arrange an appointment for the following day.*fn5 (Odetta Todd Aff., at ¶ 24.) At the appointment, Ms. Todd discussed the Foster Parent Program process with Ms. Sullivan and received three forms: a Pennsylvania State Police Request For Criminal Record Check, Pennsylvania Child Abuse History Clearance Form, and Foster Family Health Appraisal. (Pl.'s Exs. 14-16, Dkt. Entry 47-3, at 30-34.) Ms. Todd completed the three forms and mailed the Criminal Record Check Form and Child Abuse Forms to the Pennsylvania State Police Central Repository. (Odetta Todd Aff., at ¶¶ 42-43; Pl.'s Exs. 14 & 15, Dkt. Entry 47-3, at 29-32.) As Ms. Todd received the forms back from the State Police Central Repository, she returned them to Ms. Sullivan. (Id. at ¶ 44.)
On November 15, 1999, after another meeting with C & Y Services, Ms. Todd submitted a completed Foster Care Application.*fn6 (Pl.'s Ex. 11, Dkt. Entry 47-3, at 5-19.) In this application, Ms. Todd disclosed her prior convictions for food stamp fraud and disorderly conduct/simple assault. (Id. at 15.)
As a result of the completion of the Foster Care Application, the review conference scheduled for November 17, 1999, was cancelled. (Odetta Todd Aff., at ¶¶ 29-30.) Soon thereafter, on November 22, 1999, Ms. Todd wrote a letter to County Commissioner Thomas Makowski and Gene Caprio, Executive Director of C & Y Services, expressing her frustration with C & Y Services over the kinship foster care matter. (Odetta Todd Aff., at ¶ 33; Pl.'s Ex. 8, Dkt. Entry 47-2, at 24-26; Pl.'s Ex. 9, Dkt. Entry 47-3, 1-3.) In her letter, Ms. Todd complained of C & Y Services' misrepresentation as to her eligibility for Kinship Foster Care. (Id.) "I felt like Children & Youth would have rather shut and closed my case rather than helping me find ways to help financially provide for the children," she wrote. (Pl.'s Ex. 9, at 1.) On November 23, 1999, the following day, Mr. Makowski responded that he would be in touch shortly. (Pl.'s Ex. 10, Dkt. Entry 47-3, at 4.)
C & Y Services accepted Ms. Todd's application for the foster care of Dione Todd and Tesha Todd on December 2, 1999. (Odetta Todd Aff., at ¶ 36.) In order to complete the application process, C & Y Services required Ms. Todd to participate in foster parent training sessions. (Id. at ¶ 38.) Ms. Todd was unable to attend at that time because of her enrollment in an eight week family session with her son Lance through the Family Service Association of Wyoming Valley. (Id. at ¶ 39.)
Meanwhile, on November 30, 1999, Tamu Todd gave birth to her third child, Vincent Todd, which caused the filing of another dependency petition by C & Y Services due to drug exposure. (Pl.'s Ex. 12, Dkt. Entry 47-3, 20-26.) On December 3, 1999, Judge Muroski ordered that physical and legal custody of Vincent Todd be transferred to Ms. Todd. (Pl.'s Ex. 13, Dkt. Entry 47-3, at 27-28.)
On January 21, 2000, Ms. Sullivan wrote a letter to Ms. Todd updating her on the status of the application. (Pl.'s Ex. 17, Dkt. Entry 47-3, at 35-38.) In her letter, Mrs. Sullivan told Ms. Todd that she had contacted the Department of Public Welfare, the Adult Probation Office, and the Court Advocate Program in connection with Ms. Todd's application. In order to complete the application file, Ms. Sullivan requested Ms. Todd to sign release forms authorizing these offices to "share any and all information concerning [Ms. Todd's] family, either orally or in writing, with [C&Y Services]." (Id.; Sullivan Ex. 5, Dkt. Entry 44-3, at 38-41.) All three release forms accompanied the letter. Ms. Sullivan wrote that "[t]o complete your file, I need to have these records . . . ." She also reminded Ms. Todd of her obligation to complete the foster parent training. (Id.)
Upon realizing that Ms. Sullivan had contacted these agencies without her consent, Ms. Todd came to the conclusion that Mrs. Sullivan had discussed her case in detail with Adult Probation, or she could not have known that Ms. Todd participated in the Court Advocate Program. (Odetta Todd Aff., at ¶¶ 47-48.) Ms. Todd admitted during her deposition that she did not sign the release forms because she believed that Ms. Sullivan had contacted her probation officer and Court Advocate without receiving proper authorization to do so. (Todd Dep. at 20-21.) Ms. Todd also testified that Ms. Sullivan "did let me know that without signing these releases, I would not be able [to] go forward with the process." (Id. at 26)
C & Y Services case worker Cheryl Klimek testified that she had several phone conversations with Ms. Todd with regard to the necessity to sign the release forms.*fn7 (Cheryl Klimek Dep., Dkt. Entry 44-5, at 18.) Mr. Caprio also testified that Ms. ...