The Superior Court erred in substituting its judgment for that of the trial court in determining whether a child suffered abuse and whether that abuse was perpetrated by the mother, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held in In re L.Z., __ A.3d __ (No. 26 EAP 2014, filed March 25, 2015). In so holding, the Supreme Court clarified the applicability of the evidentiary presumption of 23 Pa. C.S. §6381(d), which provides that when a child has suffered abuse that would ordinarily not be sustained or exist absent acts or omissions of a parent or other person responsible for the child’s welfare, the fact of abuse suffices to establish prima facie evidence of abuse by the parent or person responsible.
Mother and Aunt, the primary caregivers of 21-month-old Child, presented Child at a hospital for a deep laceration in the base of his penis. Doctors also observed bilateral cheek bruising, severe diaper rash and a yeast infection on the front of Child’s body. Hospital staff filed a report with the Philadelphia Department of Human Services and, following a hearing, Child was adjudicated dependent. The trial court held that Child was a victim of child abuse under 23 Pa. C.S. §6303(b) and that Mother was the perpetrator because she failed to protect Child from his serious physical injuries, all of which constituted abuse. On appeal, a three-judge panel of the Superior Court affirmed the adjudication of dependency but vacated the trial court’s finding that Mother was the perpetrator. Following reargument en banc, the Court held that only the penile laceration constituted child abuse and that the trial court erred in applying the presumption in 23 Pa. C.S. §6381(d) to find Mother the perpetrator because the record failed to establish that Child was in her care at the time of injury. Child’s guardian ad litem appealed.
The Supreme Court reversed in a unanimous opinion authored by Justice Baer. The Court first held that the Superior Court exceeded its scope and standard of review in rejecting the trial court’s conclusion that Child’s cheek bruising, diaper rash and yeast infection constituted child abuse under 23 Pa. C.S. §6303(b). More significantly, the Court held that the Superior Court erred in limiting the application of the presumption in 23 Pa. C.S. §6381(d) to cases where the abused child was in the parent’s care at the time of the injury, which it derived from recent Commonwealth Court expungement appeals forbidding the application of Section 6381(d) in multi-caregiver situations. In his opinion, Justice Baer thoroughly reviews the application of the Section 6381(d) presumption as developed by the Superior and Commonwealth Courts, and concludes that many of the cases were decided in error. This opinion is a must-read for any attorney involved in dependency or expungement proceedings.
Justice Baer noted that dependency and expungement proceedings both require children and youth service agencies to meet a high standard of proof. Section 6381(d) provides a narrow exception by allowing for the identification of a perpetrator based on prima facie evidence of abuse in limited circumstances. Reading Section 6381(d) as applying only when one parent or responsible person is present effectively negates the presumption. Justice Baer reiterated that where a child has multiple caregivers, they are all accountable for the care and protection of the child whether they actually inflicted the injury or failed in their duty to prevent it. Rejecting Mother’s argument that the Section 6381(d) presumption essentially imposes strict liability for abuse, Justice Baer explained that the presumption is rebuttable if the parent or responsible person presents evidence that they did not inflict the abuse or gave responsibility for the child to another person whom they had no reason to fear would abuse the child.