May a foster child sue a biological parent for sexual abuse?

Author:Pollack, Daniel
Position:Legal notes - Report

Removed from their biological parents, the children were placed in foster care. The court and all the professionals held out hope that the children would one day be reunified. Toward that end, under court order, unsupervised visits were gradually introduced. Unfortunately, those unsupervised visits were occasions for the biological father to molest his own children in plain sight of the mother.

Eventually, the children sought to sue their mother. May they? Aside from the practical aspect of the mother having insignificant assets, what is the legal answer? The mother was present when the children were being abused. She saw their plight in time to act so the children could avoid being harmed, and she knew, or should have known, that a legal duty existed to protect them. In such a circumstance, when a child suffers an injury resulting from a parent's failure to adequately protect, should there be an actionable tort against the biological parent?

The doctrine of parental immunity can be traced back to 1891 to a Mississippi Supreme Court case, Hewellette v. George (9 So. 885 (Miss. 1891)), holding that a minor child may not maintain a negligence action for personal injuries against his or her parent. The court noted that "so long as the parent is under obligation to care for, guide, and control, and the child is under reciprocal obligation to aid and comfort and obey, no such action as this can be maintained (p. 887)." The court further explained: "The peace of society, and of the families composing society, and a sound public policy, designed to subserve the repose of families and the best interests of society, forbid to the minor child a right to appear in court in the assertion of a claim to civil redress for personal injuries suffered at the hands of the parent. The state, through its criminal laws, will give the minor child protection from parental violence and wrong-doing, and this is all the child can be heard to demand (p. 887)."

Eventually, a number of states decided to completely abrogate the parental immunity doctrine. Today, some states still hold by a limited parent-child tort immunity rule for intentional torts, and some recognize an actionable tort for negligent parental supervision. But our case is...

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