Sayers by Sayers v. Beltrami County

Decision Date06 March 1992
Docket NumberNo. C9-90-2654,C9-90-2654
PartiesJohn A. SAYERS, by his Guardian Ad Litem, Clarence J. SAYERS, Respondent, v. BELTRAMI COUNTY, et al., Petitioners, Appellants, Charles Wind, et al., Respondents.
CourtMinnesota Supreme Court

Syllabus by the Court

1. County had no duty of care with respect to placement of Indian child by Tribal Court in a foster home on the reservation.

2. As a matter of law, the County is not liable on any theory of negligent supervision for injury sustained by child while in a foster home on the reservation.

Gordon W. Myerchin, Grand Forks, N.D., for appellants.

Charles H. LeDuc, Shermoen, LeDuc & Jaksa, International Falls, for John Sayers.

Gregory G. Scott, Joy Condon, Minneapolis, for Charles Wind, et al.

Heard, considered, and decided by the court en banc.

SIMONETT, Justice.

This is an action by an Indian child against a county and its social services agency for injuries received while in a foster home on an Indian reservation. The trial court granted the county and its social services agency summary judgment. The court of appeals reversed in part. For the reasons herein given, we reverse and reinstate the summary judgment.

Plaintiff John Sayers is a member of the Red Lake Indian Tribe, as are his parents, Clarence Joseph Sayers and Janet Blue. On May 6, 1983, John, then 2 1/2 years old, was staying at the foster home of Charles and Eva Wind on the Red Lake Indian Reservation and was injured when he put his hand in the wringer of a washing machine that was on the Winds' lawn. Eva Wind had been washing clothes out on the lawn when she decided to go in the house to use the bathroom. She turned the washer off, but did not unplug it. She told John to stay away from the washer and brought him in the house with her. She left the child outside the bathroom door in the kitchen with a comic book to occupy him. Prior to this time, Mrs. Wind had never had a problem with John going outside while she used the bathroom. While Mrs. Wind was in the bathroom, John left the house, turned on the washer, and placed his hand in the wringer. Eva was in the bathroom about 5 to 7 minutes.

John Sayers sued the Winds, Beltrami County and Beltrami County Social Services (the County). The claims against the County were initially vague but eventually emerged as negligent placement of the child in the foster home, negligent supervision and attention after placement, and vicarious liability for the Winds' alleged negligence. To understand these claims, we need to relate the circumstances which brought John to the Winds' home.

During the preceding fall of 1982 the County had provided temporary protective services for John and his younger sister after they were found in a Bemidji motel abandoned by their parents. Later that fall the County again provided temporary care for the two children off the reservation while the mother was in a battered women's shelter. In early January 1983 the parents were in a car accident and requested the County to provide temporary placement. The children were placed in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Maier in Bemidji. The County prepared a Temporary Placement Agreement, signed by the parents, which provided that the County would assume responsibility for the care and supervision of the children. The County also prepared a Foster Placement Plan and reported the temporary placement to the Red Lake Tribal Council. By orders of the Tribal Court, temporary custody was first given to Clarence Sayers but then changed to Janet Blue.

At the end of January the children were returned to Janet Blue at the request of both parents. The County received reports that Janet was drinking and never home, and on February 21, 1983, the two children were again placed in foster care at the Maier home in Bemidji, with legal custody still in Janet Blue. Again, a Temporary Placement Agreement was executed and the placement reported by the County to the Tribal Court.

On March 10, apparently at the request of Clarence Sayers, the children were transferred to the Red Lake Indian Reservation. Once on the reservation, the Tribal Social Services (created about this time to replace the Bureau of Indian Affairs in providing social services) took over. Beltrami County also maintains a branch office on the reservation with social worker Betty Curran in charge.

From March 12 to March 29, 1983, John stayed temporarily at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Sumners on the reservation. On March 17, Betty Curran and Mrs. Sumners took John to see Dr. DeKrey, a psychologist in Bemidji. The doctor found John to be "very hyperactive" and noted the boy's destructive behavior while in his office. Dr. DeKrey recommended a medication called Ritalin, but this recommendation was rejected by the medical doctor who saw John a day or two later because of John's tender age.

Meanwhile Clarence recommended that John be placed with Charles and Eva Wind. The Wind home was not licensed for foster care, so a person from Tribal Social Services conducted an investigation and the Wind home was then licensed by Tribal Social Services. On March 29, 1983, the Tribal Court issued an order reciting that John be placed in foster care "through the Beltrami County Welfare Department," and ordering temporary custody of John to Charles and Eva Wind.

Betty Curran provided copies of John's psychological reports to Tribal Social Services, so it was aware of John's behavioral problems when it licensed the Wind home and recommended John's placement there. Apparently Betty Curran felt John might better be in a PATH home (Professional Association's Therapeutic Home), where the foster parents are professionally trained to work with troubled children, but there were no PATH homes on the reservation.

After March 29, John was at the Wind home. It was about 5 weeks later, on May 6, that John had his accident with the washing machine. Prior to the child's placement in the Wind home, Betty Curran had not visited the home but had spoken to Mrs. Wind twice, essentially about discipline and raising foster children. After placement, Betty Curran visited the Wind home three times. She does not recall having told the Winds about Dr. DeKrey's report or of John's hyperactivity, but believes she did mention that John might be put on Ritalin. She felt that the Winds should have a chance to know John and learn his personality, "[b]ecause every parent handles a child that's real active differently." Eva Wind testified that she had not been informed of John's diagnosis as hyperactive; however, she had met John before he was placed in her home and, because she was a licensed practical nurse who had worked with hyperactive children before, she knew John was hyperactive from the first time she observed him. Mrs. Curran testified she had noticed the wringer washing machine on the Wind lawn, but said she considered this to be an ordinary household item, common on the reservation. After the accident, John remained with the Wind family until at least October 1987.

Subsequent social service records indicate several instances when the Tribal Court ordered visits or gave legal custody to the parents against the recommendation of Betty Curran. In April 1984 the County prepared a Foster Placement Plan for John but there was never a Temporary Placement Agreement, like in the early Bemidji placements. In 1986, the Tribal Court, at Clarence Sayers urging, requested Betty Curran's removal from John's case. Tribal Social Services refused, however, to provide ongoing casework services because of a lack of funds and indicated it was well satisfied with Betty Curran's services.

As previously indicated, the trial court granted summary judgment for Beltrami County, reasoning that (1) the Indian Child Welfare Act barred a suit against the County; (2) in the alternative, the doctrine of discretionary immunity protected the County from tort liability; (3) foster parents are not employees of the County, so vicarious liability is unavailable; and (4) in any event, as a matter of law, the County could not have foreseen the child's injury.

The court of appeals affirmed in part and reversed in part. It agreed with the trial court that discretionary immunity protected the County from a claim for negligent placement and that foster parents are not agents of the County for purposes of vicarious liability; however, the appeals panel (2-to-1) found that the Indian Child Welfare Act did not bar a suit against the County and discretionary immunity did not protect the County from a suit for negligent administration, i.e., for negligent care, supervision and monitoring. Finally, the court found "ample evidence of foreseeable harm to this child." Sayers v. Beltrami County, 472 N.W.2d 656, 664-65 (Minn.App.1991). The dissent argued that the Indian Child Welfare Act did foreclose any suit against the County and, in any event, as a matter of law, there was on the part of the County no duty, no breach and no causation.

We granted the County's petition for further review. Plaintiff Sayers does not seek review of those portions of the court of appeals' decision adverse to him. Defendants George and Eva Wind did not move for summary judgment and have taken no part in this appeal.


The first issue is whether the Indian Child Welfare Act bars a negligence action against the County.


In 1978, Congress enacted the Indian Child Welfare Act, 25 U.S.C. Sec. 1901 et seq., in response to a growing concern that Indian children were being placed in non-Indian foster and adoptive homes, thereby depriving them of their unique culture. Congress noted that the states, exercising their jurisdiction over Indian child custody proceedings, "have often failed to recognize the essential tribal relations of Indian people and the cultural and social standards prevailing in Indian communities and families." 25 U.S.C. Sec. 1901(5) (1982). To remedy this problem, Congress provided exclusive jurisdiction of child custody...

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