Social workers and other “evaluating” professionals play a huge role in child welfare law and the juvenile court infrastructure that protects children. Judges rely enormously on their reports and testimony. And their judgment calls largely determine whether or not a juvenile case ever gets filed.
Like every other member of the human race though, they sometimes make mistakes. Should they be liable for them?
A federal appellate court in California recently ruled “No”. Although a juvenile court later returned a boy to his own family’s custody despite the sworn petition of two social workers in California, the federal appellate court held that the social workers acted in the course of carrying out their responsibilities under the law and were therefore entitled to absolute immunity.
For purposes of the issue before it, the appellate court saw no difference between a dependency petition and a custody petition, or between testifying in court or swearing out a paper petition initiating the case.
One judge dissented as to the supervising social worker on the somewhat technical basis that she should not have personally sworn to medical conclusions, but rather should have cited to sworn medical conclusions furnished by medical practitioners.
It is worth noting that it was apparently not alleged that the social workers acted with malice against the parents and that, therefore, the court did not address the issue of malicious allegations which may conceivably be lodged by social workers in a dependency case.
It is difficult to imagine who would take on this tremendously difficult and, if not thankless, “under-thanked” job without absolute immunity.