Parents in Community Action vs. Minnesota Department of Human Services
Parents in Community Action, Inc. (PICA), the federal Project Head Start grantee for Hennepin County, administers early-childhood facilities. An anonymous phone call alerted respondent Department of Human Services (DHS) to possible maltreatment of a child at Project Secure, one of relator's facilities. The caller alleged that a staff member at Project Secure had, inter alia, called a child a "cry baby."
DHS representatives made an unannounced visit to Project Secure and interviewed 10 staff members. All staff members were asked, "Are you aware of a staff person calling a child a cry baby? Who? When? Where? How often?" Three staff members, including the accused individual, said they were not aware of such an incident; two more said they had heard that it happened but had not observed it. The sixth staff member stated that the accused individual had said to a child, "Don't be such a cry baby"; the seventh stated that this individual carried a child off the bus and called him a cry baby; the eighth said the individual called children cry babies and belittled them; the ninth said the individual told a crying child to "stop being a cry baby"; and the tenth said she had heard someone call a child a cry baby but would not identify who had done so.
The DHS then sent PICA a letter notifying it of "Violations and Correction Orders." The first citation was to Minn. R. 9503.0055, subpt. 1, mandating that children be provided with positive models of acceptable behavior; and Minn. R. 9503.0055, subpt. 3, prohibiting the emotional abuse of children. The violation stated that: "It was determined that a staff person yelled at and shamed a child by calling the child a 'cry baby.'"1 The corrective action required by DHS was that PICA submit documentation verifying that the perpetrator had registered for, and subsequently completed, a 10-hour course from an outside agency in behavior guidance. DHS also informed PICA that a request for reconsideration could be filed with the DHS.
The Court: Can the DHS determination of emotional abuse be sustained on findings which do not address the context, surrounding circumstances, and tone of voice in which words were uttered? We conclude it cannot. The same words, spoken in one context or tone of voice to soothe or cajole, would not be emotionally abusive, but these words could meet that definition if spoken to punish or ridicule. On this record we are left to conjecture.
1. There was also a violation for driving children under 4 years of age without use of a child-restraint system. That citation is not a subject of this appeal.