Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Worcester
Gregory T. Magazu & another 
Department of Children and Families
Argued September 10, 2015.
Civil action commenced in the Superior Court Department on July 25, 2013.
The case was heard by Brian A. Davis, J., on a motion for judgment on the pleadings.
The Supreme Judicial Court on its own initiative transferred the case from the Appeals Court.
David P. Bodanza ( Amanda M. Mastalerz with him) for the plaintiffs.
Annapurna Balakrishna, Assistant Attorney General, for the defendant.
Present: Gants, C.J., Spina, Cordy, Botsford, Duffly, Lenk, & Hines, JJ.
[42 N.E.3d 1109] Spina, J.
Gregory T. Magazu and his wife, Melanie, appeal from a judgment of the Superior Court that dismissed their appeal from a final decision of the Department of Children and Families (department) denying their application to become foster and preadoptive parents because of their use of corporal punishment as a form of discipline in their home. The Magazus argue that the department's decision is inconsistent with its regulations, is arbitrary and capricious, and is not supported by substantial evidence where they were willing to agree not to use corporal punishment on a foster child. They also contend that, because physical discipline is an integral aspect of their Christian faith, the department's decision impermissibly infringes on their constitutional right to the free exercise [42 N.E.3d 1110] of religion. We transferred the case to this court on our own motion. For the reasons that follow, we conclude that the department's decision to deny the Magazus' application is based on a reasonable interpretation of its enabling legislation and related regulations, is not arbitrary or capricious, and is supported by substantial evidence. We also conclude that although the department's decision imposes a substantial burden on the Magazus' sincerely held religious beliefs, this burden is outweighed by the department's compelling interest in protecting the physical and emotional well-being of foster children. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the Superior Court.
1. Statutory and regulatory framework.
We begin with an overview of the relevant statutory and regulatory provisions that govern the foster care proceedings in this case. The Legislature has vested the department with the authority to provide substitute care for children when " the family itself or the resources available to the family are unable to provide the necessary care and protection to insure the rights of any child to sound health and normal physical, mental, spiritual and moral development." G. L. c. 119, § 1. See Blixt v. Blixt, 437 Mass. 649, 663, 774 N.E.2d 1052 (2002), cert. denied, 537 U.S. 1189, 123 S.Ct. 1259, 154 L.Ed.2d 1022 (2003) (State has compelling interest in keeping children safe from physical or emotional trauma that may scar them well into adulthood). In providing such care, " [t]he health and safety of the child shall be of paramount concern and
shall include the long-term well-being of the child." G. L. c. 119, § 1. The department shall define the " best interests of the child" as including, among other considerations, " the effectiveness, suitability and adequacy of ... placement decisions." Id.
In accordance with its authority, the department has promulgated regulations concerning eligibility requirements and standards of licensure for a foster or preadoptive parent. See 110 Code Mass. Regs. § § 7.100, 7.104 (2009). See also G. L. c. 119, § 37 (" The department shall make rules and regulations concerning the administration of its duties" ). The department is required to evaluate an applicant's home and all members of the household. See 102 Code Mass. Regs. § 5.10(5) (1998). The assessment shall be completed by a social worker who has met specified qualifications, see 102 Code Mass. Regs. § § 5.05(2), 5.10(11)-(12) (1998), and must document, among other things, " parenting ability, including child rearing and discipline," 102 Code Mass. Regs. § 5.10(5)(d)(6). An applicant must demonstrate, to the satisfaction of the department, numerous attributes, including " the ability: (a) to assure that a child placed in his or her care will experience a safe, supportive, nurturing and stable family environment which is free from abuse or neglect; ... (d) to promote the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of a child placed in his or her care ... ; and (q) to assume and carry out all other responsibilities of a foster/pre-adoptive parent as detailed in the standard written agreement between the [d]epartment and foster/pre-adoptive parents." 110 Code Mass. Regs. § 7.104(1).
Within ten working days after the completion of its comprehensive assessment, the department shall decide whether to license the applicant, see 110 Code Mass. Regs. § 7.107(5) (2009), and within ten working days thereafter shall provide written notice of its decision to the applicant, see id. at § 7.107(6). In those cases where the department decides not to license the applicant, the written notice must include the reasons for such decision, as well as information about the applicant's [42 N.E.3d 1111] right to appeal the determination.
See id. at § 7.107(6)(b). The regulations provide that once an applicant has been licensed as a foster parent and has completed the requisite parent training, the department and the foster parent shall enter into a written agreement that will govern the foster care arrangement. See 102 Code Mass. Regs. § 5.10(7)(a); 110 Code Mass. Regs. § 7.111 (2009). The agreement " shall be renewed annually, and shall include at least the following terms: ... (3) a prohibition against the use of any form
of corporal punishment by foster/pre-adoptive parents upon any foster child(ren)." 110 Code Mass. Regs. § 7.111(3). The department shall reimburse foster parents for each child placed in their home at rates that the department has established for the provision of foster care. See 110 Code Mass. Regs. § 7.130(1) (2008).
2. Factual and procedural background.
The Magazus are a married couple whose lives are guided by their deeply held Christian beliefs. They have two young daughters. In September, 2012, the Magazus filed an application with the department for a " family resource license" that would enable them to become foster and preadoptive parents. During the application process, they completed the " Massachusetts Approach to Partnership in Parenting" training program and the " Family Resource License Study" (license study), as required by the department's regulations. See 110 Code Mass. Regs. § 7.107(1), (2) (2009). As part of the license study, the department asked the Magazus about their personal histories as well as their parenting experiences and attitudes, including methods of discipline. In response to the department's questions, the Magazus stated that they " have used physical discipline on their daughters," and that such discipline is " appropriate when there is a continuous pattern of disobedience." More specifically, they explained that their parenting style includes " spanking on the buttocks, using Greg or Melanie's hand, in the privacy of their bed room so that [the children] are not humiliated in front of others."
The Magazus " feel [that physical discipline] is a small part of their parenting style, and only used when necessary." They acknowledged their understanding of the department's policy against corporal punishment, and expressed a willingness to refrain from using physical discipline on a foster child placed in their home. Because they discipline their own two daughters in private, the Magazus are of the view that a foster child would not actually witness any corporal punishment. Throughout the application process, the Magazus were forthcoming, honest, and cooperative in answering the department's inquiries, and they thought that they had been portrayed accurately and fairly in the license study.
By decision dated February 7, 2013, the department notified the Magazus that their application had been denied because of their use of corporal punishment, and their expressed belief that such punishment " is an appropriate and effective means of discipline for [their] children." The department determined that the Magazus had not met specific licensing standards, including the ability to sign the department's standard written agreement prohibiting the use of any form of corporal punishment on a foster child. See 110 Code Mass. Regs. § § 7.104(1)(q), 7.111(3). Therefore, the department concluded that [42 N.E.3d 1112] it was unable to license the Magazus as an unrestricted foster or adoptive family.
The Magazus made a timely request for a so-called " fair hearing" pursuant to 110 Code Mass. Regs. § 10.06(4)(a) (2008). An evidentiary hearing was held on May 8, 2013, at which the Magazus testified, as did three witnesses on behalf of the department. On June 24, 2013, a hearing officer affirmed the decision of the department not to approve the Magazus' application to become foster parents.
The hearing officer concluded that the Magazus had failed to show by a preponderance of the evidence that the decision did not conform with the department's regulations and policies, or that it was unreasonable. She found that the department expressly prohibits the use of corporal punishment on foster children, see 110 Code Mass. Regs. § 7.111(3), and that the department's " clinical practice" prohibits exposing foster children to the use of corporal punishment on other children in a household. The hearing officer highlighted the Magazus' inability " to recognize that the employment of physical punishment [on] any child in their home could lead to serious emotional consequences for the [d]epartment[']s children." She pointed out that children placed by the department have been exposed to an array of neglect and abuse, and their awareness of acts of corporal punishment in their foster homes " could well trigger the very trauma the placement was intended to mitigate." The hearing officer stated that the department could not simply place with the Magazus a child who had not been physically abused because foster children often do not disclose the full extent of their experiences until after being placed in substitute care. Moreover, she ...