D.Mass.: Enforceable Rights and No Younger Abstention in Child Welfare Case

Recognizing a circuit split in which the First Circuit has not weighed in, a Massachusetts district court held that the Younger abstention doctrine does not apply to a claim by foster care children regarding systemic deficiencies in the foster care system.  The court further held that the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act (AACWA) could be enforced via 42 U.S.C. § 1983, another issue that has split circuit courts.  Connor B. ex rel. Vigurs v. Patrick, 2011 WL 31343, No. 10-cv-30073-MAP (Jan. 4, 2011).  The Judge is a Clinton nominee.  The case was brought by Children’s Rights.

After quickly rejecting the defendants’ contention that the children did not have standing, the court moved on to the issue of whether abstention was warranted under Younger v. Harris,  401 U.S. 37 (1971).  Children in foster care who are in the custody of the state are under the jurisdiction of state courts, which oversee their placement.  The central issue for Younger abstention is whether federal court review of systemic deficiencies would interfere with ongoing state court proceedings regarding individual children.  Acknowledging the circuit split on this issue, the court stated: “Multiple federal courts facing nearly identical challenges to state foster-care systems have reached disparate conclusions regarding the applicability of Younger.”  The 10th and 11th Circuits have abstained under Younger in the context of a systemic challenge to the foster care system, while the D.C. and 9th Circuits held that Younger abstention is not warranted.  The Massachusetts court based its rejection of abstention on the limited nature of state court review, including the highly deferential standard established by state law.  The court also concluded that state juvenile courts were not an “adequate forum” for litigating systemic violations of federal law.

The governor’s claim that he was immune from suit because he was merely a supervisor was readily rejected.  His supervisory role was sufficient to invoke the Ex parte Young exception to immunity for prospective injunctive relief against state actors in their official capacity.

Each claim was then carefully reviewed to determine whether it failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted.  The first claim alleged a violation of substantive due process.  The court held that the state had an affirmative duty to protect children who had been placed in state custody and that the facts alleged to support the due process claim were plausible.  The court similarly refused to dismiss the second claim alleging that the state had violated the right to familial integrity under the First, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendment.  Discovery was warranted to determine whether children had been denied meaningful contact with their families.

The next claim was a procedural due process claim, based on property interests established by state law.  The defendants argued that because the 11th Amendment prohibits federal courts from ordering states to conform their conduct to federal law, a federal due process claim could not be based on property interests under state law.  The court rejected this argument as contrary to precedent of the 1stCircuit and other cases.  The court concluded that the children’s property interests under state law are “subject to protection under the due process clause.”  Discovery was needed before the court could determine what process was due, warranting denial of the motion to dismiss.

The final issue addressed was whether the AACWA could be enforced under § 1983.  First, the state argued that the AACWA was generally not enforceable under the Supreme Court precedent of Suter v. Artist M., 503 U.S. 347 (1992), which rejected a § 1983 claim under the AACWA.  The court rejected this argument based on the “Suter-fix” statute, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1320a-2.  Next the state argued that the AACWA could not meet the requirements imposed by Gonzaga University v. Doe, 536 U.S. 273 (2002).  Circuit courts are split on whether the AACWA contains a privately enforceable right to a state plan, while district courts are split on whether there is such a right in the statute to foster care maintenance payments.  The court held that the applicable provisions of the AACWA contained rights-creating language, because they contained the term “each child,” thus demonstrating an “individualized” focus.  The terms of the AACWA were mandatory, and their inclusion in a list of state plan requirements did not “transform them into an institutional policy.”  Moreover, the AACWA did not contain any “individualized federal review mechanism,” as had precluded review in Gonzaga.

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