The Washington Court of Appeals reverses a groundless finding of child neglect

Brown v. Dep’t of Soc. & Health Servs., No. 32761-2-III (Wash. Ct. App. Oct. 8, 2015).

This is a case of medical and governmental overreach.

Ashley Brown’s boyfriend was babysitting her two-year-old son—whom the court calls “John,” a fictitious name—when the boy accidentally burned himself with hot water. The boyfriend and a neighbor immediately put John in cold water to treat the burn. After Brown came home to find her son with a burn, she researched burn care on the internet, went out and got some cream, and regularly applied it to John’s burn. For the next few days, her son seemed to be doing all right, but one day he seemed tired and had no appetite, and the burn started bleeding. So Brown took John to the hospital, where a doctor treated the burn with cream and found no serious infection—and then contacted Child Protective Services.

Child Protective Services initiated a child-neglect proceeding against Brown. At an administrative hearing, the doctor who had contacted CPS testified that any reasonable parent would have immediately taken John into the hospital on the night he got burned. Confronted with conflicting expert testimony, she simply said she disagreed with Brown’s expert. Asked what steps a reasonable parent should have taken, she got defensively (and weirdly) nonresponsive: “I don’t even know how to answer that.” Nevertheless, the administrative judge entered a finding of neglect against Brown.

The Court of Appeals now reverses this finding of neglect. For one thing, neglect means something more than merely acting unreasonably, since that kind of standard—a simple negligence standard—would unduly interfere with parents’ rights. For another, the officious doctor who contacted CPS didn’t actually identify steps that Brown should have taken, other than taking John to the hospital earlier. Yet when he was taken to the hospital, John was given the precisely same treatment his mom gave him: the application of burn cream. So there’s just no evidence that Brown, who had a consistent history of shuttling John to medical appointments for normal childhood ailments, failed to care for her son properly.

Congratulations to the Northwest Justice Project on an appeal well won.