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Statement: North Carolina social workers get positive outcome in Piro v. McKeever

justicescalesA recent court decision issued by the North Carolina Supreme Court is a positive outcome for social workers in North Carolina.

In Piro v. McKeever, Ms. McKeever, LCSW, fulfilled her duty to report suspected child abuse when she reported sexual abuse allegations to authorities against her client’s father. The allegations were not substantiated by the Department of Social Services (DSS), and the father sued Ms. McKeever.

He alleged that Ms. McKeever improperly conducted therapy sessions with his son, which resulted in a Child Protective Service (CPS) child abuse report being made against him and deprived him of contact with his children. Mr. Piro filed a complaint for negligent infliction of emotional distress; intentional infliction of emotional distress; and requesting punitive damages.

The trial court dismissed the complaint because it determined that the social worker’s alleged conduct was not ‘extreme and outrageous’ and the harm caused was not foreseeable. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the case and the father filed for review with the North Carolina Supreme Court.

In its review, the North Carolina Supreme Court was evenly split in its decision, which automatically resulted in the prior decisions being affirmed and the appellate court dismissing the case against Ms. McKeever.

Ms. McKeever was insured through NASW Assurance Services, Inc., and its panel attorney Jake Epstein provided her defense. She was further supported by the NASW Legal Defense Fund (LDF) with an amicus brief prepared and filed on her behalf by the North Carolina Chapter of NASW and the National NASW office.

Kathy Boyd, Executive Director of the North Carolina Chapter of NASW, stated that she “greatly appreciated the support and assistance of the NASW Legal Defense Fund in the preparation of a friend of the court brief. The issue of social worker immunity from liability to third parties for statutorily required child abuse reports is extremely important to social workers in North Carolina and throughout the country.”

This case serves as a reminder that social workers need to comply with the child abuse reporting requirements in their jurisdiction, keep adequate documentation of the information relating to the CPS report; and maintain adequate professional liability insurance.

Both the Legal Defense Fund and the North Carolina Chapter expressed their gratitude for the pro bono legal work provided by the McGuire Woods law firm in drafting the NASW amicus brief.

The amicus brief filed in this case is an example of the advocacy and support offered through the NASW Legal Defense Fund on legal issues of importance to the social work profession. In the amicus brief, NASW discussed the importance of protecting the child abuse reporting process; the need for immunity for mandated reporters and why it is statutorily recognized; and the reasons that no duty is owed to third parties, such as the father in this case.

It was NASW’s position that because the father was never treated by Ms. McKeever, the social worker owed no legal duty to him. Imposing third party liability on social workers who are mandated reporters of suspected child abuse would jeopardize effective treatment and have serious and detrimental consequences in preventing child maltreatment.

This case serves as a reminder that social workers need to comply with the child abuse reporting requirements in their jurisdiction, keep adequate documentation of the information relating to the CPS report; and maintain adequate professional liability insurance.

Although this case can be considered a victory, this issue is not fully resolved, because a tie decision is not a precedent for future cases. Since the North Carolina Supreme Court was equally divided, this ruling can be challenged in the future. Advocacy efforts on both a local and state level must continue in order to achieve, preserve, and advance the gains that have been made thus far.
For more information about the Piro v. McKeever amicus brief, go here.  And learn more about NASW Legal Defense Fund.

6 comments

  1. Thank you for sharing. A tie is outrageous. We are mandated to report suspected abuse. Mandated being the key word…not to investigate and decide, but just to report and allow appropriate authorities to investigate and decide. Anyone who would then hold the reporter accountable for the outcome of that investigation would be disrupting the whole process and placing all children at further risk. Outrageous.

    • Dear Ms. Lee,
      In order to understand this process, the Social Worker who is “mandated” to report “suspected” abuse….what exactly is the “suspected ” abuse guidelines?
      Who are the appropriate authorities who investigate and make the decision to remove a child?
      The appropriate authority is making a decision from a subjective report by a social worker?
      This appears to be a governmental department with little monitoring and setting-up social workers to be sued.

      I am thinking of another case where a 5 year old was removed due to emergent and serious danger, which was not listed on the CFS’s document. In this case the child was removed to foster care. After 5 days in foster care, the child was taken for medical examine, where the physician suspected abuse at the foster home. This required a 5 year old to be traumatized with an intense and distressing sexual examine. This child had experienced more harm through CFS.
      But fortunately CFS has immunity, so this kind of problem will continue to plague the social worker department whose good intentions by most social workers are black marked due to poor CQI and inadequate supervision.

      • @ Denise Flynn,

        I am an LCSW in a different state, and I am not clear on your point in saying that social workers are “mandated” reporters in quotes. “Mandated” is not an opinion, mandated is a long standing law, so I am not sure I understand your quotes around this term as if it is not a legal requirement (?)

        Likewise, I agree with you that there are disaster stories of painful situations where social workers and other mental health and healthcare workers who are mandated reports, where the clinician has done their job, but the CFS investigation and actions lead to as much harm as help, but I am not certain what alternative you are suggesting? Not reporting child abuse? Or… ???

        I am not an expert on the DCFS departments across the country, and what their legal mandates are, but I am fairly certain that they are actually highly regulated and monitored, rather than “with little monitoring and setting up social workers to be sued,” as you state above.

        Finally, “suspected” child abuse is just that. Legally mandated reporters are not allowed to delay reporting imminent danger to a child while they investigate on their own whether their suspicions are 100% founded. That is the county’s job, and we would be breaking the law if we waited to report suspected abuse and attempted our own investigation… which, by the way, we have no legal authority to do, and no power to mandate any suspect to speak with us in the way that child protective services and the police department do.

        So, while I sadly concur that the best decisions, made with the intentions to help a child can, in the end, go badly wrong, I am wondering what your alternative solution is?

  2. Wow, great story! Thank you for posting and please keep us updated!

  3. Thanks for sharing this information. The NC Supreme Court ending in a tie is concerning. Please continue to provide updates. Thanks.

    • Thank you Amy, and yes it is. This is why NASW and NASW-NC PACE Candidate Endorsement is so important. NASW-NC endorsed Michael Morgan for the NC Supreme Court and he won (this was after this case was heard). Having judges who understand the law and the social work profession is critical when these types of cases go to court. Thank you for your NASW membership as without our membership, we would not be here to protect the social work profession. We will keep you informed.

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