Recent news reports concerning two foster parents charged with felony child abuse raise questions about the potential liability of the State of Idaho for injuries to children in foster care. In 2006 the Idaho Supreme Court ruled that the Department of Health and Social Services had a duty investigate reports of suspected child abuse. The case of Reese v. State of Idaho, 137 P.3d 397, involved the death of a child not in foster care. The child in that case was beaten to death by her mother’s boyfriend. The child’s father had allegedly made previous reports to the Department about abuse to the child. The lower court had dismissed the case by way of summary judgment, without allowing the case to go to trial.

In reversing the lower court’s ruling, the Idaho Supreme Court held:

“Our legislature has made clear that health and safety of reportedly abused children is the focus of the ICPA. [Idaho Child Protection Act] I.C. § 16–1601. This is not a general duty; rather it is a duty running to a narrow class of persons—abused and neglected children—who are particularly vulnerable because they allegedly suffer abuse in the privacy of their homes and cannot protect themselves. Additionally, the ICPA and IDAPA make clear this state’s policy to protect the life, health and welfare of children endangered by abuse or neglect by taking mandatory actions to prevent further abuse and neglect. Our legislature has created a duty owed to a narrow, easily identified class of persons to be protected from a particular harm.”

Based upon this ruling, it is likely that a child abused in foster care would have a right to sue for damages if it could be proved that the Department of Health and Social Services had failed to properly investigate prior complaints of abuse.