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Isbell v. Bellino

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

August 27, 2013

AMIR A. ISBELL, BERGINA BRICKHOUSE ISBELL, M.D., J.B., and A.I., Plaintiffs,
v.
PAUL J. BELLINO, M.D., THOMAS W. WILSON, M.D., GEISINGER MEDICAL CENTER, CRAIG PATTERSON, RACHEL WADE, JULIE SPENCER, and MONTOUR COUNTY, Defendants

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For Amir A Isbell, J.B., A Minor, A.I., A Minor, Bergina Brickhouse Isbell, M.D., Plaintiffs: Mark D. Freeman, Mark D. Freeman, Esq., Media, PA.

For Craig Patterson, Rachel Wade, Julie Spencer, Montour County, Defendants: David L. Schwalm, Thomas, Thomas & Hafer, LLP, Harrisburg, PA.

OPINION

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Hon. John E. Jones III, United States District Judge.

MEMORANDUM & ORDER

Presently pending before the Court are the motion for summary judgment of

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Plaintiffs Amir A. Isbell, Bergina Brickhouse Isbell, and their minor children J.B. and A.I. (doc. 53) and the motion for summary judgment of Defendants Craig Patterson, Rachel Wade, Julie Spencer, and Montour County (doc. 58), each of which has been fully briefed. After considered review of the submissions, we will grant in part and deny in part the said motions, as more fully set forth below.

I. FACTUAL & PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiffs Amir Isbell (" Mr. Isbell" ) and Plaintiff Bergina Brickhouse-Isbell, M.D. (" Mrs. Isbell" ) are husband and wife and are the natural parents of minor Plaintiff A.I. (" A.I." ), born in 2009. Mrs. Isbell is also the natural parent of minor Plaintiff J.B. (" J.B." ), born in 2002. (Doc. 55, ¶ 1). At all times relevant to this case, Defendants Rachel Wade and Julie Spencer were employed as caseworkers with Montour County Children & Youth Services (" CYS" ), an agency of Defendant Montour County (the " County" ) and Defendant Craig Patterson was employed as the Executive Director for CYS. ( Id. ¶ ¶ 5, 7-8).

On January 7, 2010, Mrs. Isbell brought A.I. to Geisinger Medical Center for what she perceived as increasing somnolence and dehydration. ( Id. ¶ 9). After an examination, the doctors diagnosed A.I. with several rib fractures and head trauma; concerned that the trauma was non-accidental, medical center staff filed a report of suspected child abuse with CYS in the early morning hours of January 8, 2010. (Doc. 55, ¶ 12; doc. 59, ¶ ¶ 6-7). The report noted that " the child is in serious & critical condition due to concern for non-accidental trauma." (Doc. 59, ¶ 7). Defendant Rachel Wade, a caseworker then employed by CYS, was on call and received the report from Childline. ( Id. ¶ 8-10; doc. 55, ¶ 12).

At approximately 5:30 a.m. on January 8, Defendant Wade met with Mr. and Mrs. Isbell and A.I. at the medical center but did not at that time discuss the possibility of altered custody arrangements, safety plans, or family plans. (Doc. 55, ¶ 14). Later, at approximately 3:00 p.m., Defendant Wade returned to the medical center and told the Isbells that " safety plans are standard procedure" when CYS receives a report of suspected child abuse; Defendant Wade then had Mr. and Mrs. Isbell and A.I.'s maternal grandmother sign a safety plan which prohibited either of the Isbells from having unsupervised contact with either A.I. or J.B. ( Id. ¶ ¶ 22, 25-26). Consistent with CYS policy, if the Isbells did not agree to the terms of the safety plan modifying their custodial rights, CYS would file a petition with the juvenile court for emergency protective custody of A.I. ( Id. ¶ 26). This safety plan remained in effect until A.I. was released from the hospital.

Also on January 8, 2010, CYS issued letters to Mr. and Mrs. Isbell which advised them of their rights with regard to the Childline report. The letters, which the Defendants contend satisfy the constitutional requirements of procedural due process, contained identical language, in pertinent part as follows:

The Child Protective Services Law, (Acts 124, 136, 42, 33, 80, 151 and 10) and Department of Public Welfare Regulations require the County Children and Youth Agency to notify all subjects in a report of suspected child abuse about the existence of the report, their legal rights, the possible impact of a confirmed report on future employment and the social services available to protect children.

A report of suspected child abuse concerning the above named child has been made to our agency and the Pennsylvania

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Department of Public Welfare. Under the law, our agency must conduct an investigation to determine whether or not the child was abused. Also, we are required by law to report certain types of suspected abuse to the police.
According to the report (list the type of suspected abuse and the nature and extent of the allegations): It is alleged that [A.I.] was physically abused.

You are named as alleged perpetrator.

You are not named as alleged perpetrator. (X)

The agency is required to complete the investigation within 60 days after the report is received and determine if the report is " unfounded," " indicated," or " founded." An unfounded report is any report in which there is no evidence of child abuse as defined by the law. An indicated report is a report in which the County agency determines that the child was abused. A founded report is a report in which a court determines that the child was abused. You will be notified in writing of the results of the investigation.

As a subject of the report, you may receive a copy of the report by writing to this agency or the ChildLine and Abuse Registry. . . The name of the person who made the report or any person who cooperated in the investigation may not be released except by the Secretary of Public Welfare upon written request. . . .
If the report is determined to be unfounded, the report will be expunged in one year and 120 days from the date the report was received by the Department. However, if the investigation reveals that the child and family need social services provided by or arranged by our agency, records will be retained and indicate that the report of suspected child abuse was unfounded.
If the report is determined to be indicated, the information will be kept on file until the child reaches his/her 23rd birthday. The person responsible for the abuse may request that the report be amended or expunged if he or she feels the report is not accurate. Such requests must be made to the Secretary of Public Welfare within 45 days after being notified that the report is indicated.
If the case goes to Juvenile Court, you have the right to have an attorney, introduce evidence and cross-examine witnesses.
A person responsible for abuse in a founded report may not be employed in any child care service, public or private school or be a foster or adoptive parent within five (5) years of when the abuse was committed.
A person convicted of any of the crimes listed in Section 6344 of the CPSL may never be employed in any child care service, public or private school or be a foster or adoptive parent.
The goal of our agency is to protect children from harm and keep them in their own homes. To help parents and other care givers to keep children in their own homes, our agency provides or arranges for social services for the child and family.

(Doc. 58-3, Ex. 8-9).

On January 22, 2010, in anticipation of A.I.'s release from the hospital, a new safety plan, prepared by Defendant Patterson, was presented to Mr. and Mrs. Isbell by Defendant Wade; the new plan provided that Mr. Isbell must move out of the residence, prohibited any unsupervised contact between the Isbells and their children, and required that all of Mr. Isbell's contact with A.I. be supervised by CYS. (Doc. 55, ¶ 37). That safety plan again warned that noncompliance with CYS directives

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would result in CYS petitioning the court for custody of the children. ( Id. ). Prior to the Isbells signing the January 22 safety plan, it was discussed with and reviewed by their counsel. (Doc. 59, ¶ 19). Also on January 22, 2010, felony and misdemeanor criminal charges arising from this incident were filed against Mr. Isbell, who was arraigned on January 27, 2010. His bail was conditioned on total compliance with CYS guidelines and directives. (Doc. 55, ¶ 40).

On February 12, 2010, an indicated report of abuse was made with respect to Mr. Isbell. The indicated report was signed by Defendant Wade. (Doc. 58-3, Ex. 15; Doc. 55, ¶ 45). At some point thereafter, although the record is unclear as to the specific date, Defendant Spencer assumed responsibility for the Isbell case, inheriting it from Defendant Wade. (Doc. 59, ¶ 30). On February 16, 2010, the Isbells signed a new safety plan which permitted Mrs. Isbell to have unsupervised contact with her children but further restricted Mr. Isbell's contact, permitting only supervised visits which occurred at the CYS agency office. ( Id. ¶ 47). On February 17, 2010, Defendant Spencer issued a letter to Mr. and Mrs. Isbell which indicated that she believed that the family would benefit from " ongoing General Protective Services (GPS)" in the area of " Parenting Needs; " the letter further indicated that " the decision to provide ongoing services . . . may be appealed by the custodial parent or the primary person responsible for the care of your children" and that Defendant Spencer would reach out to the family to discuss implementation of the family service plan; the letter makes no reference to the safety plan. (Doc. 58-3, Ex. 18).

In early March of 2010, Defendant Spencer performed a home inspection and observed Mr. Isbell leaving the house to barbecue when Mrs. Isbell arrived home with the children. Mr. Isbell believed that because he was not " in" the home with the children, he was not in violation of the plan; as a result, on March 12, 2010, a new safety plan was prepared as a " clarification and an amendment" to the most recent plan, prohibiting Mr. Isbell from being within 100 yards of his son. (Doc. 55, ¶ ¶ 50-51). It is unclear from the record whether or not the Plaintiffs' attorney participated in drafting or reviewing the amendment.

On April 30, 2010, Defendants Spencer and Patterson met with Plaintiffs and their counsel, who wanted to discuss the progression of the case. (Doc. 55, ¶ 53; doc. 59, ¶ ¶ 34-35). At that meeting, Defendant Patterson approved a revised safety plan which the Plaintiffs signed, along with a " family service plan," at the direction of their counsel. (Doc. 55, ¶ ¶ 54-56; doc. 59, ¶ 36). Plaintiffs' counsel believed that the family had no choice but to agree to the safety plan and family service plan because Mr. Isbell's bail would be revoked if they did not comply with CYS. (Doc. 55, ¶ 56; doc. 59, ¶ 36). The family service plan, which the Defendants do not dispute is a separate document from the safety plan, was triggered by the referral regarding A.I.'s head injury and mandated a minimum of six (6) months of " family services." (Doc. 58-3, Ex. 19). The family service plan provides that: " Parents, guardians, custodians and children have the right to participate in the development of this plan; however, if you disagree with this plan, you are not required to sign and have the right to appeal." ( Id. p. 1). The family service plan also contains a specific Notice of Right to Appeal, as follows:

As a parent of a child receiving services from the Montour County Children and Youth

You have the right to appeal:

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*any determination made which results in a denial, reduction, discontinuance, suspension, termination of service; or
* the County Agency's failure to act upon a request for service with reasonable promptness.
A) If the Juvenile Court is involved with your case, you may ask the Court to schedule a hearing regarding you and your child(ren).
B) You have the right to appeal Children & Youth Services' determination to the State's Department of Public ...

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