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M.W. v. Department of Human Services

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

August 23, 2019

M.W., Petitioner
Department of Human Services, Respondent

          Submitted: April 18, 2019




         M.W. (Mother), pro se, petitions for review of an adjudication of the Department of Human Services, Bureau of Hearings and Appeals (Bureau), denying her request to expunge an indicated report from the ChildLine & Abuse Registry[1]that named her as a perpetrator of child abuse. In so holding, the Bureau adopted the recommended adjudication of the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) in its entirety. Mother argues that the Bureau abused its discretion in refusing to grant her a continuance of the hearing that she could not attend because of her incarceration.[2]We reverse and remand.

         On November 13, 2017, the County Children and Youth Services Agency (CYS) filed an indicated report of child abuse naming Mother as the perpetrator of abuse of K.K., her two-year-old daughter (Child). The report stated that as a result of an October 16, 2017, altercation between Child's father (Father) and Mother, Child was placed at great risk of harm. On December 28, 2017, Mother requested the Department of Human Services' (Department) review of CYS's report, alleging that Child was not present during the altercation.

         On February 13, 2018, Mother entered a guilty plea to charges of aggravated assault, possession of an instrument of crime, simple assault, and recklessly endangering another person. She was sentenced to 11½ to 23 months in the county prison, to be followed by five years of probation.[3]

         On May 15, 2018, the Department reviewed the indicated report and concluded that it was accurate. On June 8, 2018, Mother appealed, requesting a hearing before the Bureau. On June 18, 2018, the Bureau mailed a notice to Mother at the county prison, advising her that the hearing was scheduled for September 13, 2018.

         Mother did not appear at the hearing, but CYS did. CYS advised the ALJ that it sent Mother a "unified prehearing statement" to complete. Notes of Testimony, 9/13/2018, at 6 (N.T.__). The ALJ acknowledged that Mother had filed a prehearing statement, in which she requested a continuance of the hearing and permission to present a witness by telephone. The ALJ observed that Mother did not provide a telephone number where she could be reached at the county prison. The ALJ also stated for the record that Mother had telephoned the ALJ's office on September 4, 2018, to inquire into her requested continuance and to explain that she was still incarcerated. The ALJ's office informed Mother that she needed CYS's agreement to the continuance and a "waiver of the timeliness of the hearing." N.T. 8. On September 7, 2018, the Bureau received a letter from Mother requesting a continuance but, according to the ALJ, that letter did not contain a waiver of the hearing timeliness requirement.

         The ALJ stated that "absent her waiver of timeliness, I'm not permitted or the ranks don't allow me to entertain the continuance request." N.T. 9. The ALJ asked CYS's counsel about its position on the continuance, assuming Mother "had provided the appropriate waiver[.]" Id. CYS responded, "I believe I most[] likely would have objected only because we're prepared to proceed today." Id.

         The ALJ denied the continuance request, and the hearing commenced. CYS presented two witnesses: Father and a CYS caseworker.

         Father testified that on the night of October 15, 2017, he, Child, and Mother slept together in the same bed. In the morning, Father woke up "having [something like] bleach poured down [his] throat…." N.T. 15. However, he was not sure it was bleach, and he went back to sleep. Later, he heard Mother coming back into the room. To prevent another bleach attack, he put up his hand. When he looked up there was blood running down his arm. Mother jumped on him with a knife, which he grabbed and, in doing so, almost cut off his thumb.

         Father testified that Child was next to him in the bed during Mother's assault. When he grabbed the knife, he fell back on the bed, and hit Child with his head. Child was scared and confused and started screaming. Mother grabbed Child, Father's keys and his wallet. He pinned down Mother with his bleeding hand and used the other to call 911. The police came and arrested Mother.

         Father stated that Mother created a highly dangerous situation for Child, who could have been stabbed accidentally. He did not know what precipitated Mother's attack. Her face was blank, and she did not speak until the incident was over. She said she did it because Father was "mean to [her]." N.T. 26.

         Next, a CYS caseworker testified. She interviewed Mother at the county prison. Mother admitted putting bleach on a towel and pushing it into Father's mouth. She also admitted to getting a knife from the kitchen and stabbing him. She was upset because she thought Father had been unfaithful. The caseworker also spoke to Father, who told her that Child had been in the room when the incident occurred. The caseworker concluded that ...

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