CHA News Article

Physician May Be Sued for Detaining Child to Investigate Abuse

A federal appellate court has ruled that a physician was not immune from being sued for detaining a child to investigate possible child abuse. The plaintiffs (the parents) are thus allowed to proceed to trial to determine if the physician violated their rights. California law requires that physicians report suspected child abuse, and provides absolute immunity from civil and criminal liability for doing so. This immunity extends to conduct committed in furtherance of diagnosing whether abuse occurred, as well as subsequent communications between the physician (or other abuse reporter) and government authorities responsible for investigating or prosecuting abuse. However, in this case the court noted that the physician’s possibly-unlawful conduct occurred after she reported the possible abuse to authorities.

The court stated that immunity does not extend to unreasonable post-report investigation by physicians (or other abuse reporters), or to conduct that usurps the role of the proper authorities — such as the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) — to take a child into temporary custody.

In the case, Jones v. County of Los Angeles, a physician employed by the county reported possible child abuse to DCFS and local law enforcement. The physician also may (or may not) have wrongfully coerced the parents into hospitalizing their child by (1) misrepresenting that needed medical tests required hospitalization; (2) informing the parents that the child’s injuries were consistent with child abuse; (3) contacting DCFS and the police; (4) coordinating with other medical personnel to keep the child hospitalized, knowing there was insufficient evidence of abuse to formally take him into custody; and (5) ordering a sitter in the child’s hospital room to prevent the parents from being alone with him. The DCFS social worker had initially determined that there was insufficient evidence that the parents had abused the child to hold him in the hospital. There appeared to be no special circumstances to believe the parents posed imminent harm to the child.

For purposes of determining whether the case should go to a jury, the appellate court assumes that what the plaintiffs allege is true. The court expressed no opinion regarding how the jury should decide; the court ruled only that the parents have the right to go to the jury to press their case.

This case is very fact-specific, and after trial it may be determined that the physician acted appropriately. Indeed, the judges in the case did not agree; the dissent believed the physician was entitled to immunity. Hospitals should be aware that their responsibility lies in notifying the proper authorities of suspected abuse and letting those authorities conduct the investigation.