Foster Parents Liability for the Violent Acts of Foster Children


March 13, 1998 98-R-0285

FROM: Saul Spigel, Chief Analyst
Chelsea Turner, Legislative Fellow

RE: Foster Parents’ Liability for the Violent Acts of Foster Children

You asked how Connecticut and other states treat foster parents’ liability for the violent acts of foster children in their care.

The Office of Legislative Research is not authorized to render legal opinions, and this memorandum should not be construed as one.

SUMMARY

Foster parents could be liable under common law in many states, including Connecticut, for the violent acts of foster children in their care under the same circumstances as parents would be. The facts of the claim would have to show that the child has a history of violent or malicious behavior toward others, the foster parent knew of this behavior, and, having the opportunity to control the child, did not. But we found no cases directly addressing foster parents’ liability at common law.

Foster parents could also be liable in states that have enacted statutes holding parents and others civilly liable for damages their children cause to property or persons. Foster parents’ responsibility is somewhat clouded since the state, not they, are the child’s legal guardian. But the foster parents have day-to-day supervision and control of the child, which may be cited in claims against them for a child’s action. The Connecticut Superior Court recently rejected the argument that since the state was a foster child’s legal guardian, foster parents should be excluded from the law that makes parents and guardians liable for a minor’s torts. In rejecting the state’s motion for summary judgement, the court suggested that foster parents have responsibility for and control over the children in their care; the extent of that responsibility and control is a matter to be determined at trial. Several states (New York, Missouri, and Massachusetts), have excluded foster parents from their laws either by statute or through case law.

Several states have taken statutory approaches to protect foster parents who may be sued for the actions of children in their care. Alaska, Maryland, and Washington indemnify and defend them against claims arising from injuries a foster child may cause. Washington permits its attorney general to defend foster parents against suits arising from their good faith provision of services. Washington and Maryland provide liability insurance for foster parents that covers personal injury and property damage caused by foster children, as long as the foster parents did not act illegally or in bad faith. Wisconsin, California, and Minnesota permit the agencies administering fostering care to provide insurance. And Alaska may reimburse foster parents for damages and loss up to $5,000 under prescribed circumstances.

FOSTER PARENTS’ LIABILITY UNDER COMMON LAW

Generally

In common law, parents are not ordinarily liable for the torts of their children except in specific circumstances. One of these circumstances occurs when a parent knows of the child’s vicious or destructive tendencies and fails to take reasonable measures to control him. All conditions must be present. Courts have denied claims of liability where the evidence did not show the child had vicious tendencies, or that if he had, the parent had no knowledge of it. And mere knowledge of the child’s tendencies is not sufficient to impose liability on the parent; they must also fail to exercise reasonable measures to control and discipline the child (54 ALR3d 974, 977-78).

We searched computerized legal data bases on this topic but could find no cases in which courts held foster parents liable in common law for the torts of their foster children. A 1987 note in the Notre Dame Law Review states that “few jurisdictions have considered whether foster parents can be held liable for the torts of their foster children.” The author suggests that such decisions may turn on whether a court finds that foster parents stand in loco parentis to their foster children. Minnesota and Wisconsin courts, in cases involving claims that foster parents committed torts against their foster children, have determined that foster parents enjoyed this relationship and were immune from liability. (But both states, the note continues, have since overturned their parental immunity law.) Courts in Michigan and New York came to the opposite conclusion in similar cases involving foster children’s negligence suits against their foster parents.

Connecticut courts have not specifically ruled on whether foster parents stand in loco parentis. In a 1960 case involving a step-parent, the Superior Court wrote that “Whether a step-parent stand in loco parentis is primarily a question of intent to be determined in light of the circumstances peculiar to each case” (Bricault v. Devereaux, 21 Conn. Sup. 486).

Connecticut

Under Connecticut tort law, a parent is ordinarily not liable for the torts of his child. But he can be found liable if he “condones or authorizes repeated acts of vandalism or impropriety by the child.” In such cases, the courts generally impose a duty on parents to control their child to prevent intentional harm or conduct which imposes unreasonable risk, if the parent knows or should know that (1) he is able to control his child and (2) there is the necessity and opportunity to exercise control (Wright, et. al., Connecticut Law of Torts, § 77).

We found no Connecticut case law applying this duty and liability on foster parents. The Supreme Court, in a case involving the wrongful death of a foster child, held that foster parents were state employees for purposes of indemnification. But it stated in dicta that it expressed no view on the state’s potential liability for foster parents’ conduct leading to injuries to third parties (Hunte v. Blumenthal, 238 Conn. 146, note 17 at 167). This appears to leave open the possibility that the court could hold foster parents liable for their foster children’s acts (see “Statutory Liability,” below).

STATUTORY LIABILITY

Other States

Many states have partially limited the application of common law parental liability for their children’s torts by establishing a statutory liability. Of the 25 states we examined with such laws only Missouri and New York specifically exempt foster parents from liability (Mo. Rev. Stat. Ann. §537.045; N.Y. Gen. Obligation Laws § 3-112). In Massachusetts, the court has exempted them (Kerins v. Lima, 680 NE 2d, 32 (1997)). South Dakota’s attorney general issued an opinion that foster parents are exempt from liability under that state’s statute because the law applies only to minors residing with their parents. California and Maryland’s attorneys general have also opined that their parental liability laws do not apply to foster parents. In the remainder of the states we examined the issue has not been addressed.

Connecticut

This state imposes liability up to $5,000 on “the parent or parents or guardian, other than a temporary guardian appointed pursuant to section 45a-622,” for the willful or malicious acts of unemancipated minors (CGS § 52-572). In a 1997 decision rejecting a motion for summary judgement in a case involving a foster child who assaulted another child, the Superior Court held that foster parents are “guardians” within the meaning of this law, even though the commissioner of children and families is statutorily designated as sole guardian of children committed to her care and custody. The state, representing the foster parents as a result of Hunte v. Blumenthal (see above), cited that decision in asserting that the state was the sole guardian. The trial court, citing the Supreme Court’s dicta in that case, argued that the Hunte decision was narrowly drawn and that the Court had expressed no view on the meaning of guardian as it applied to other law. In rejecting the motion, it focused on the responsibility of foster parents to control the behavior of children in their care. It held that whether foster parents are liable under § 52-572 is a question of fact concerning (1) their obligation under law to control their foster children, (2) the amount of authority they are given to control, and (3) whether that authority is sufficient to impose liability on them (Abrams v. Maloney, 19 Conn. L. Rptr. No. 12, 410 (April, 1997). The case is still awaiting trial.

APPROACHES TO PROTECTING FOSTER PARENTS FROM LIABILITY

States seeking actively to protect foster parents from liability for their foster children’s torts have taken two approaches: (1) defending them against and indemnifying them for claims and (2) reimbursing them for, or providing them with insurance to pay, claims.

Indemnification and Defense

Alaska, Georgia, and Washington statutes require the state to indemnify and defend foster parents. Georgia specifically includes foster parents in its definition of “public employee” (Ga. Code Ann. § 50-12-22). Washington includes foster parents in its public employee indemnification law as long as the “occurrence arose from the good faith provision of foster care service” (RCW, §§ 4.92.060-070). Alaska law makes it state policy to indemnify and defend a foster parent for injuries “occurring during the performance and within the scope of duty of the foster care program” (7 AAC § 053.100). Oregon has extended defense and indemnification to foster parents through court action, which deemed them to be state employees for any acts concerning the care and supervision of their foster children (Pickett v. Washington County, 31 Or. App. 1263). The Oregon court’s holding is thus broader than Connecticut’s in Hunte.

Insurance

Maryland and Washington require the state to provide liability insurance for foster parents. Maryland also requires the state to reimburse foster parents up to $5,000 for costs of bodily injury or property damage the foster child causes that the insurance policy does not cover. Before making the reimbursement, the secretary of juvenile services must make sure that the foster parent’s actions did not contribute substantially to the injury or damage (Md. Code Ann. §2-121). Washington requires the secretary of health and social services to provide insurance for foster parents either by purchasing a policy or self-insuring. He may spend up to $500,000 each biennium for coverage. The insurance is to cover acts of ordinary negligence but not illegal or bad faith acts. The state pays claims that exceed other liability insurance available to the plaintiff (e.g., a homeowner’s policy) (RCW 74.14b.080).

New Hampshire authorizes its Division of Human Services director to purchase insurance. The state’s plan pays up to $500 for property claims and $1,000 for personal injury claims (N.H. RSA, § 161:4). Wisconsin law permits the insurance commissioner to promulgate plans to provide liability insurance for foster parents if he determines that it is not readily available in the voluntary market and is in the public interest. The plans must establish procedures for making such coverage available from the private market, and all property-casualty insurers operating in the state must participate (Wis. Stat. Ann., § 619.01).

California and Ohio operate county-based foster care systems. Their laws permit the county to provide or purchase insurance for foster parents (Cal. Govt. Code § 23004.4; Ohio Rev. Code Ann., § 5153.131).

Alaska permits its Social Services Division to reimburse foster parents up to $5,000 for damages and loss under the following conditions:

1. the damage resulted from a foster child’s deliberate and malicious or grossly negligent act,

2. the foster parents exercised adequate supervision and took appropriate precautions considering the child’s maturity and behavioral history, and

3. the damage or loss is not covered by the foster parents’ insurance.

Table 1 illustrates foster parents’ liability and state responses in selected eastern states.

Table 1: Foster Parents’ Liability

State Are Foster Parents (FPs) liable if their foster child (FC) damages or injures someone else’s property? Statutes and Case Law Does the state provide liability insurance? Will the state defend or indemnify foster parents?
CT Not settled. Hunte v. Blumenthal makes FPs state employees for purposes of their acts towards FC. Abrams v. Maloney says they are guardians for purposes of liability for FC acts. (CGS § 52-572) Hunte v. Blumenthal (238 Conn. 146 (1996)).
Abrams v. Maloney (19 Conn. L. Reporter, # 12, 410(1997)). No. Some homeowner’s policies may have endorsements that provide coverage for foster parents. Case by case. Based on Hunte v. Blumenthal, the state defended in Abrams v. Maloney.
DE Generally, yes. FPs are considered individual agents and not state employees. None Yes and no. A few years ago, foster care payments were increased to cushion the cost of liability insurance. A small pool covers unintentional damage by the FC to the FP’s property. It is given out on a case by case basis. FPs must have their own liability policy. No
MD No. FPs are considered employees of the state. MD Annotated Code: § 2-131 Yes Yes

Table 1 (Continued)
State Are Foster Parents (FPs) liable if their foster child (FC) damages or injures someone else’s property? Statutes and Case Law Does the state provide liability insurance? Will the state defend or indemnify foster parents?
MA No. FPs are considered employees of the state. MA General Law Ch 231 Section 85G. Case law holds that FPs are not parents within the meaning of the statute. Kerins v. Lima (1997), 680 Northeast 2nd 32. No. A $50,000 pool set up by the Dept. of Social Services helps cover costs if an FC damages an FP’s property. Yes
NH Yes NH RSA § 161:4 Yes, to a limited degree. The state will pay up to $500 for property claims against the FP that were caused by the FC; the state will pay up to $1,000 for personal injury claims. The state will hire a lawyer for the FP, but will not settle or pay judgments. If the FPs lose, they must pay out of pocket.
ME Case by case, but generally no. FPs are not considered state employees. Me RSA t. 5, § 1737(2) authorizes Department of Human Services (DHS) risk management program to provide liability insurance. DHS policy: “Insurance Program for Foster Parents & Respite Providers.” Yes. DHS risk management program provides liability protection to FPs if the FC causes damage to another’s property. Yes
NJ They may be. FPs are not considered state employees. None FPs are expected to carry homeowner’s insurance; but the state may cover the deductible. NJ’s liability plan is currently being re-written. Case by case.
NY No, unless negligent. N.Y. Gen. Oblig. Law § 3-112; N.Y.C.C.R. tit. 18 § 427.3 No, but foster care rate methodology includes a provision for state to cover FPs. Most FPs are county, not state, supervised. Up to $1000, on case by case basis.
RI Case by case, but generally no. None Yes, with certain exclusions and limits. Maximum $300,000 liability protection covers bodily injury and property damage, provided it is not intentional, vicious, or criminal. Case by case. For instance, insurance will not cover an FC crashing an FP’s car.

Table 1 (Continued)

State Are Foster Parents (FPs) liable if their foster child (FC) damages or injures someone else’s property? Statutes and Case Law Does the state provide liability insurance? Will the state defend or indemnify foster parents?
VA Yes VA Policy: “Foster Parent Contingency Fund.” Yes and no. State may provide insurance under some circumstances (i.e. rape, salary loss). A fund pays when FC damages FP’s property or harms biological child. About 10 yrs ago, VA bought its own ins. co. This didn’t work out, as the company didn’t pay claims adequately. Case by case.

SS:CT/pa

About yvonnemason

Background:  The eldest of five children, Yvonne was born May 17, 1951 in Atlanta, Georgia. Raised in East Point, Georgia, she moved to Jackson County, Ga. until 2006 then moved to Port St. Lucie, Florida where she currently makes her home.  Licensed bounty hunter for the state of Georgia. Education:  After a 34 year absence, returned to college in 2004. Graduated with honors in Criminal Justice with an Associate’s degree from Lanier Technical College in 2006. Awards:  Nominated for the prestigious GOAL award in 2005 which encompasses all of the technical colleges. This award is based not only on excellence in academics but also leadership, positive attitude and the willingness to excel in one’s major. Affiliations:  Beta Sigma Phi Sorority  Member of The Florida Writer’s Association – Group Leader for St Lucie County The Dream:  Since learning to write at the age of five, Yvonne has wanted to be an author. She wrote her first novel Stan’s Story beginning in 1974 and completed it in 2006. Publication seemed impossible as rejections grew to 10 years. Determined, she continued adding to the story until her dream came true in 2006. The Inspiration:  Yvonne’s brother Stan has been her inspiration and hero in every facet of her life. He was stricken with Encephalitis at the tender age of nine months. He has defied every roadblock placed in his way and has been the driving force in every one of her accomplishments. He is the one who taught her never to give up The Author: Yvonne is currently the author of several novels, including:  Stan’s Story- the true story of her brother’s accomplishments, it has been compared to the style of Capote, and is currently being rewritten with new information for re-release.  Tangled Minds - a riveting story about a young girl’s bad decision and how it taints everyone’s life around her yet still manages to show that hope is always possible. This novel has been compared to the writing of Steinbeck and is currently being written as a screenplay. This novel will be re-released by Kerlak Publishing in 2009  Brilliant Insanity – released by Kerlak Publishing October 2008  Silent Scream – Released by Lulu.com October 2008- Slated to be made into a movie Yvonne’s Philosophy in Life - “Pay it Forward”: “In this life we all have been helped by others to attain our dreams and goals. We cannot pay it back but what we can do is ‘pay it forward’. It is a simple
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3 Responses to Foster Parents Liability for the Violent Acts of Foster Children

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