Child Protective Services Cleared on Boy's Murder
CINCINNATI (CN) - A Michigan woman whose son died at the hands of his abusive father cannot pin the blame on Child Protective Services, the 6th Circuit ruled.
Rebecca Jasinski had filed suit after her 9-year-old son, Nicholas Braman, was the victim of a murder-suicide in October 2007.
Police reportedly discovered the bodies of Nicholas Branam, his step-mother Nancy and his father Oliver Branam on a bed together in their Montcalm County home.
Investigators found that Oliver first drugged the boy, then attached the exhaust from his truck to the dryer vent, flooding the bedroom with carbon monoxide.
In her lawsuit against several employees of Michigan Child Protective Services and the state Department of Human Services, Jasinski said the agency had received nine complaints about her ex-husband's abuse since 1998.
With each report, the agency either failed to investigate the reports or did take any action against Branam, according to the complaint.
The boys all lived with Branam while their mother lived in Saginaw County. Two months before Nicholas' death, the boy's two older siblings had run away from home to escape the abuse.
Jasinski informed her local CPS about their claims, but a social worker allegedly told her she would face kidnapping charges if she picked the boys up.
Jasinski nevertheless brought the children home to Saginaw and the boys told a social worker there the next day that Branam had been using a cattle prod on them for the previous two years and that he routinely punched them in the stomach.
Branam admitted in an interview to using the cattle prod, and the Montcalm County prosecutor charged him with several counts of child abuse.
Though CPS deemed the two older boys safe with their mother amid overwhelming evidence of abuse, it failed to remove Nicholas from his father's custody, Jasinski claimed.
Montcalm allegedly learned in late September 2007 that Branam faced sentencing after pleading guilty to child abuse charges. Though Branam skipped his sentencing hearing, Jasinski said CPS still refused to remove Nicholas from his father's home.
In one conversation at that time, a social worker allegedly compared "the use of a cattle prod on a child with a child sticking a screwdriver into an electrical socket."
The social worker also said Branam probably would have been acquitted if he had gone to trial, according to the complaint.
A federal judge in Grand Rapids refused to dismiss the action, but the 6th Circuit reversed last week, ruling that the defendants are entitled to qualified immunity.
"Under the circumstances presented here, the contours of the substantive due process right to be free from government action increasing the risk of harm was not sufficiently clear under our case law that a reasonable official would understand that the state's actions in pursuing Oliver for the use of a cattle prod and then failing to immediately remove Nicholas would violate Nicholas's substantive due process rights," the opinion states. "Accordingly, defendants are therefore entitled to qualified immunity."
Jasinski also failed to show that the CPS employees violated Nicholas's procedural due process rights by failing to following Michigan's Child Protection Law, which requires CPS to request termination of parental rights if a parent is suspected of child abuse.
The statute "mandates that the child be brought within the jurisdiction of the court, and further determinations regarding the child's well-being and placement are made by the court, not CPS," Judge Helen White wrote for the court. "Under the facts alleged here, the balance has been struck legislatively, and discretion has been removed from CPS."
The appellate judges also noted that they "cannot say that a reasonable CPS official would understand that the failure to file a petition under [the statute] would constitute a denial of procedural due process. No decision has yet found a procedural due process right in a similar context."
As to Jasinski's gross negligence claim, the panel concluded that the actions of the state agents had not been "the proximate cause" of Nicholas' death.
The claims are thus barred under the state's Government Tort Liability Act.
Jasinski had tried to show that the "defendants' investigation and substantiation of the complaint of abuse was THE catalyst and THE cause of Nicholas's death." (Emphasis in original.)
But the appellate judges found that "CPS' employees' conduct cannot be said to be the 'most immediate, efficient and direct cause' of the injury."
Judge Boyce Martin Jr. joined the opinion but retired last month. The third member of the panel, Judge Ronald Gilman concurred in judgment only.