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Superior Court Makes Child Abuse Evidentiary Standard Clearer

Child abuse is a terrible scourge on our society and being labeled as a child abuser can be a terrible burden on one’s life if the label is incorrect. In the recent case of In Re Matter of L. Z. Appeal of: L. R., Mother, The Pennsylvania Superior Court made it clear as to what is required for one to be deemed a child abuser in the context of a dependency action.

 

In December 2011 a child (hereinafter “Child”) was taken to Abington Memorial Hospital for injuries, and staff alerted Child Protective Services (hereinafter “CPS”) and the Department of Human Services (hereinafter “DHS”). The injuries included a deep cut to the base of his penis, a bruise on each cheek, severe diaper rash, a yeast infection, and general dirtiness.

 

An adjudicatory hearing was subsequently held where testimony and evidence were heard. The evidence revealed that the Child’s mother (hereinafter “Mother”) was residing with her paramour for the two days prior to the incident which led to the Child’s examination in the hospital. Mother provided various explanations for the bruises and rash (of questionable credibility) but had no explanation for the penile cut. Investigation into the matter revealed that CPS indicated the Child’s aunt was the perpetrator of the abuse to the Child.

 

The hearing also included testimony from a pediatrician certified as an expert witness. She testified that the penile cut was extremely uncommon, non-accidental in nature, very painful, and caused by another person (i.e.: not Child). The doctor believed the cheek bruises to be the result of an adult grabbing the Child’s face very tightly. The doctor also testified that the diaper rash was the result of the Child being left in a diaper wet with urine for extended periods of time. None of the above, per the doctor, appeared to be accidental.

 

Based on the adjudicatory hearing, DHS filed with Juvenile Court to have the Child declared dependant as a result of child abuse. The Juvenile Court found that the Child was the victim of child abuse, and therefore dependant, and that Mother perpetrated the abuse. Mother appealed and the decision of the appellate court is the subject of this article.

 

After Mother decided to voluntarily relinquish her rights to the Child, the only remaining issue was whether Mother was the perpetrator of the Child’s abuse. The Court first has to determine whether this issue was moot due to the voluntary relinquishment of rights. The Court determined that being labeled a child abuser has long lasting and wide ranging effects beyond the effect it has within the discrete confines of the litigation; including but not limited to being placed into a statewide registry, being prohibited from working at certain jobs, and possibly having to report it to employers or other parties. As a result, therefore the issue on appeal was not moot. As noted by the Court, it may consider collateral legal ramifications of its orders, which is to say the effects an order may have on things outside of its direct scope and purpose.

 

The Court indicated that, in order to be determined a child abuser, the evidence for the abuse must be clear and convincing. The Court reviewed the law (specifically 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 6303) and noted that a finding of child abuse requires an (in)action upon a minor child that is non-accidental in nature and causes the child serious physical injury (and/or imminent risk for the same) and/or serious physical neglect. The Court further observed that the law defines serious physical injury as something which causes a child severe pain and/or significantly impairs physical functioning.

 

In its review of the evidence on appeal, the Court made separate findings for each alleged instance of abuse. The Court found that the penile cut was non-accidental and the cause of severe pain and was, therefore, the result of abuse. By contrast the cheek bruises, though non-accidental, did not cause severe pain. The record did not reflect that the yeast infection resulted in any injury to the Child. As far as the claim that the Child had diaper rash or was dirty or unkempt, the Court found that these conditions did not cause the Child any physical injury or impair his development or functioning. Consequently, based on the above, the Court found that the only instance of child abuse supported by the evidence was the penile cut.

 

Upon a finding of child abuse, pursuant to 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 6381, a finding that a parent or caretaker committed the child abuse requires only prima facie evidence to support it. The prima facie standard is not substantive law but merely an evidentiary presumption which may be rebutted if the evidentiary record fails to establish that the child was in the parent/caretakers’ care at the time of injury. Indeed, the Court noted that the presumption mentioned above does not apply where the possible perpetrators could be one of several adults. The evidence in this case, as mentioned above, revealed that the Child was not with Mother when he was abused but was with his aunt instead.

 

The Court conceded that the Mother did not provide the Child with proper care, indeed Mother concedes as much as well, but the Court further noted that simply failing to provide proper care is not the same as perpetrating child abuse. Instead, the Court held that it must be clear that the caretaker suspected of abuse must have been responsible for the supervision and control of the child at the time of the abuse. The Court found that the evidence in the record in this case revealed that the Child was not with Mother at the time he was abused, therefore Mother cannot be found to have committed child abuse and receive the label of child abuser. The Court rejected the argument that Mother should be held responsible for allowing the Child to be cared for by an abuser as there was no evidence in the record demonstrating that she knew the aunt was an abuse risk.

 

A dissent was entered arguing that the Court should have focused on the entirety of the Child’s circumstances, and all of the various forms of discomfort the Child suffered as described above, which were committed and/or allowed by Mother. The dissent believed the cumulative effect of Mother’s (in)action led to all of the various abuses and discomforts suffered by the Child, and is the reason why the evidentiary presumption was merely, by statute, prima facie. Clearly, the majority opinion did not find this argument persuasive.

Originally published on September 23, 2014 and can be found here.

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