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C.D.J. v. Missouri Department of Social Services

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Eastern District, Fifth Division

November 8, 2016


         Appeal from the Circuit Court of St. Louis County. Honorable Ellen H. Ribaudo

          Philip M. Hess, Chief Judge


         The Children's Division of the Missouri Department of Social Services (the "Division") appeals the order and judgment of the circuit court of St. Louis County in favor of C.D.J. Jr. ("Son") and C.D.J. Sr. ("Father") (collectively "Respondents"). The circuit court reversed the Division's administrative determination that Son was abused by an unknown perpetrator, finding that the Division's determination was not supported by competent and substantial evidence, and was arbitrary, capricious, unreasonable, and an abuse of discretion. The court ordered the Division to remove its determination from the Central Registry. On appeal, the Division argues (1) Respondents did not have standing to seek judicial review of its determination because they were not "aggrieved" and (2) the court should not have conducted contested case review, but should have instead conducted de novo judicial review pursuant to § 536.100.[1] We affirm the circuit court's judgment on the basis that the Children's Division does not have the statutory authority to substantiate a report that an "unknown perpetrator" committed child abuse.

         Factual Background

         On June 30, 2014, Son was taken to Downtown Urgent Care in St. Louis, Missouri after he broke his arm. At the time of the incident, Son was a ten year old child with a history of self-injurious behavior and had been diagnosed with Autism, ADHD, and Reactive Attachment Disorder. While at Downtown Urgent Care, Son told staff that his injuries occurred because he fell while he was standing on the seat of a riding lawn mower in his family's tool shed. Son's nine-year-old sister, who was present at the time of Son's injury, gave an account that was consistent with Son's explanation. Dr. Sagger, Son's treating physician while at Downtown Urgent Care, did not suspect that Son's injuries had been the result of abuse. Son was then taken to the Cardinal Glennon Hospital Emergency Room, where he was seen by Dr. Goldberg, an emergency room resident. Dr. Goldberg also did not suspect that Son had been abused. However, Dr. Yang, an attending physician at Cardinal Glennon Hospital, noted that aside from his broken arm, Son had a black eye, linear bruising on his back, and bruising on his inner thighs that appeared to have occurred at different times. Dr. Yang suspected there may have been some other cause for Son's injuries aside from the explanation given by Son. As a result, Dr. Yang called the Division and signed an affidavit stating that he had probable cause to believe that Son had been abused or neglected.

         The Division investigated Son's injuries. While the investigation was still ongoing, the Juvenile Officer filed a petition in the St. Louis County Family Court, alleging that Son's father and step-mother neglected Son by failing to provide necessary supervision for Son's well-being. Son was taken from his parents and placed in protective custody. On July 31, August 1, and August 7, 2012, the family court held an evidentiary hearing to determine whether Son had been abused or neglected by his parents. On August 7, 2012, the family court entered its findings, order, and judgment, holding that the allegations of the Juvenile Officer's petition had not been proven and were dismissed. The family court's judgment was not appealed.

         On September 13, 2012, the Division sent Father notice that it had completed its investigation and had determined by a preponderance of the evidence that Son had been the victim of physical abuse. The notice stated that the alleged perpetrator of the abuse was "unknown." The notice stated that "[i]f you are named as an alleged perpetrator and you disagree with the Division's preliminary finding you . . . [may] seek reversal of the Division's determination through a review by the Child Abuse and Neglect Review Board [CANRB]" or waive independent review by the CANRB and file a petition in the circuit court for de novo review. The notice stated that requesting direct judicial review would result in the alleged perpetrator's name being entered into the Central Registry.

         Son filed a petition for judicial review of the September 13, 2012 decision, alleging that he was aggrieved by the Division's determination that Son was abused. Son further alleged that the Division's determination was made in excess of its statutory authority. Father filed a petition to be appointed Son's next friend, as well as a motion for permission to file an amended petition for judicial review. The amended petition added Father as a party, and added that "Petitioner is aggrieved by the decision of [the Division], in that there is now an administrative finding that the minor child was a victim of physical abuse when he was not." The Division filed an amended motion to dismiss. In March 2014, the circuit court denied the Division's motion and set the case for an evidentiary hearing. In April 2014, the circuit court removed the case from its setting and asked the parties to brief whether "an evidentiary hearing is the next step or an appellate review."

         The Division argued that de novo judicial review was appropriate pursuant to § 536.100 RSMo, and further argued that Father was not aggrieved by the Division's determination that Son had been abused. Respondents argued that they were aggrieved and were seeking direct judicial review of the Division's determination. Respondents asserted, however, that the court was precluded from conducting a new evidentiary hearing because of the family court's August 7, 2012 determination.

         The circuit court agreed with Respondents and, in a December 2014 order, held that it would proceed with "judicial review of a contested case under the scope of review provided in Section 536.140 RSMo." The circuit court requested the parties to provide the transcripts and exhibits from the prior administrative investigation and family court case for it to review in order to enter its decision.

         In December 2015, the circuit court entered its order and judgment finding that, based on the transcript from the family court adjudication and the Division's investigation records, the Division's September 2012 determination was not supported by substantial evidence. The court found that the Division abused its discretion in determining that Son was physically abused by an unknown perpetrator. The court ordered the Division to remove the incident report relating to its determination from the Central Registry. In January 2016, the Division filed its notice of Appeal of the court's December 2015 judgment. On appeal, the Division argues that: (1) the circuit court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to review the Division's determination because Respondents were not aggrieved by the determination, and (2) the circuit court lacked the authority to conduct contested case review and instead should have conducted de novo review.


         Before addressing the merits of this appeal, the measures Missouri uses to protect abused and neglected children need explanation. The Missouri Child Abuse Act is codified in §§ 210.108-210.188. In § 210.145.1, the legislature established four priorities for the Division and other state agencies to follow when dealing with a report of abuse or neglect of a child. These priorities are: 1) ensuring the wellbeing and safety of the child; 2) promoting the preservation of the family unit; 3) providing due process to those accused of child abuse or neglect; and 4) maintaining an information system capable of receiving and maintaining reports of child abuse and the subsequent investigations. See Pitts v. Williams, 315 S.W.3d 755, 759 (Mo. App. W.D. 2010).

         In order to balance the four priorities, the legislature set forth procedures to be implemented by the Division. First, when an allegation of abuse or neglect is reported, the Division must determine whether it believes the report merits investigation. § 210.145.3. If the Division determines that an investigation is warranted, then it must contact the appropriate law enforcement authority to inform it of the allegations and request assistance with the investigation. § 210.145.5. When the Division investigates a report of abuse or neglect it must, within ninety days, notify the alleged perpetrator and the victim's parents in writing of its finding. § 210.152.2. A finding by the Division that abuse or neglect occurred is appealable to the Child Abuse and Neglect Review Board as well as to a circuit court in Cole County or the county in which the individual appealing the determination resides. § 210.152.6.

         A person who has been determined to be an alleged perpetrator of abuse or neglect by the Division will have their name listed on the Central Registry. The names and investigation records listed on the Central Registry are not accessible by the general public. § 210.150. They are, however, accessible to persons or organizations listed in § 210.150.2, which include, inter alia: 1) physicians who reasonably believe that a child they are examining may be abused or neglected, 2) law enforcement personnel, 3) the Division's personnel, and 4) public or private schools and child-care facilities that request background checks on employees or volunteers.

         Point ...

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