CHICAGO (CN) - Milwaukee County is not liable for denying a child care license to a woman based on a 20-year-old report of child abuse, the 7th Circuit ruled.
A Wisconsin social worker interviewed Shontay Humphries in 1988 after her 6-year-old niece told school officials that Humphries had hit her with a shoe for writing on the furniture. Without Humphries' knowledge, the social worker recorded the incident as a case of "substantiated" child abuse. The Milwaukee Department of Health and Human Service kept the filing in its database.
Humphries learned about the record 20 years later when she applied to renew her child care provider certificate in Milwaukee, as required for all those in Wisconsin paid to care for more than four children under the age of 7 years old.
Wisconsin law prevents a county department from renewing a child care license if the applicant has abused or neglected a child. Humphries had received her license in 2004 and 2006 without issue, but a standard inquiry to the state's child welfare agency uncovered the charge of abuse.
A hearing examiner later reversed denial of Humphries' certification on the grounds that the uncertified report lacked foundation and was inadmissible hearsay.
Milwaukee reinstated Humphries' application and her license was renewed soon after the Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare also took her side.
Humphries then sued the county officials who reviewed her application. She claimed that the licensing renewal process violated the due process clause because it should have allowed her a chance to contest the abuse finding before denying her license.
A federal judge found that the officials had immunity, and the 7th Circuit affirmed last week.
"Humphries argues that because Milwaukee County made the substantiated finding of abuse against Humphries in 1988, at a time when it did not consistently provide due process to individuals against whom a finding was made, the defendants should have been on notice that it was unconstitutional to deny Humphries's application for child care certification based on the finding without first giving her an opportunity to refute the finding of abuse," Judge Ann Claire Williams wrote for the three-judge panel.
But the court found that, even if Humphries' rights had been violated, the county officials deserved qualified immunity because the rights claimed by Humphries were not reasonably known at the time. Williams pointed out that county officials could not have known that their actions were potentially unconstitutional.
Moreover, because the county has no discretion to overlook a finding of abuse, the officials acted reasonably under state law, according to the ruling.
"The county's internal caregiver background check manual, while recognizing that a person might not be aware of a pre-1999 finding of abuse entered against her as before then the agency often did not provide due process to the person against whom the finding was made, also does not address what a child care specialist should do when a pre-1999 finding of substantiated abuse is discovered as part of a background check," Williams wrote.
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