When a Report Falls Short of Being a Report

When a Report Falls Short of Being a Report

The Washington Supreme Court recently analyzed whether a speculative statement qualified as a “report concerning the possible occurrence of abuse or neglect” under former RCW 26.44.050. In Wrigley v. State, 455 P.3d 1138, (2020), Ms. Wrigley brought a negligent investigation claim against Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS), based on the placement of her son, A.A., with his biological father, Anthony Viles, during dependency hearings. Tragically, Ms. Wrigley’s concern and speculation were proven correct, as Viles killed A. A. within three months of placement.

Prior to the tragedy, A.A. had lived with his mother and stepfather, the Wrigley’s. Subsequent to receiving a sixth allegation of abuse and neglect by the Wrigley’s, DSHS removed A. A. form the home and placed him in shelter care.

In October of 2011, Wrigley alerted DSHS to Viles’ history at a hearing, reporting Viles was a criminal, had previously abused alcohol and drugs, and had never met his biological child, A.A. Later in October, Wrigley called the assigned social worker and notified him of a prior restraining order and Viles’ criminal history, including his arrest for providing alcohol to a minor.

In November 2011, DSHS notified Viles, who lived in Idaho, that A. A. had been placed in shelter care. Viles requested A. A. be placed with him. Viles promptly provided six references, all of whom offered positive perspectives on his parenting skills with his biological daughter and his fiancée’s daughters. DSHS rana background check and found only some criminal history. Two placement hearing were set; Wrigley did not attend either one.

On January 30, 2012, DSHS’s only concern about Viles was the lack of a preexisting relationship. At the hearing, Wrigley’s counsel represented, “[M]y client has no strong position either way.” A. A. was thereafter temporarily placed with Viles for 30 days. On February 13, 2012, Wrigley called the assigned social worker and opposed the placement, claiming she never told her attorney she had no objections. She insisted if A.A. remained with Viles, “he would be dead within six months.”

A week later, at the follow-up hearing, the case manager and A. A.’s therapist reported the placement was positive. The court dismissed the petition with Wrigley’s attorney in agreement, and A. A. remained with Viles. Viles thereafter struck a fatal blow to A. A.’s head in April 2012.

Wrigley brought suit against the State and DSHS, asserting numerous claims: negligent investigation based on former RCW 26.44.050, wrongful death, outrage, loss of consortium, negligent misrepresentation, survival action, negligent training/supervision, and publication of private facts. The superior court eventually dismissed all claims on summary judgment.

The Court of Appeals reversed and concluded former RCW 26.44.050 is triggered by “reports suggesting a reasonable possibility of future abuse or neglect if the placement [decision] is made.” The court held Wrigley’s communications to DSHS triggered the duty to investigate because she suggested a “palpable danger to A. A. if he were placed with Viles.” DSHS petitioned for review on the sole issue of whether Wrigley’s predictions of future abuse constituted a “report concerning the possible occurrence of child abuse or neglect” invoking its duty to investigate under former RCW 26.44.050.

Given the above discrepancy, the central issue was what statements qualify as a “report” so as to function as a prediction of future harmful conduct trigger the duty to investigate. The relevant portions of the statute are as follows:

Upon the receipt of a report concerning the possible occurrence of abuse or neglect, the law enforcement agency or the department of social and health services must investigate and provide the protective services section with a report in accordance with chapter 74.13 RCW, and where necessary to refer such report to the court.

The inquiry focused on the language: “report concerning the possible occurrence of abuse or neglect.”

The Court found the plain meaning to be ambiguous. In looking to the statute as a whole, the Court reasoned the word “reports” intended to be looking backward, grounding in some past conduct. In looking to definitions of other terms within the statute, the Court found the terms to be past tense in describing incidents to be reported. The reports themselves must contain the “alleged” injury, neglect, or abuse. If no conduct had yet occurred, it would be impossible to convey the “nature and extent” of any injury, neglect, or abuse. Without an occurrence of a reported event, it would be impossible to determine whether an alleged act was true or false.

The court held, under the facts of this case, a report predicting future abuse absent evidence of current or past conduct of abuse or neglect does not invoke the duty to investigate under former RCW 26.44,050. The court concluded the overall statutory purpose and scheme confirm a report must allege some previous or existing behavior or conduct concerning the child. It would be impossible to make a finding of whether child abuse “did or did not occur” on a report based on speculation of future abuse because there would be nothing to assess. Without more, the State may not intervene, as such interference would unnecessarily infringe on the integrity of the family if the State were directed to investigate a mere prediction that something bad would occur.

Wrigley unknowingly and unfortunately predicted the death of her son. Though duty to investigate into mere speculative thought is not a duty of our government agencies, the present case provided more than mere speculative thought. It is clear Wrigley may not have been the pinnacle of parenthood herself, but her counsel and the case worker could have done a better job in relaying her thoughts and wishes to DSHS.

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