Supreme Court hears case about child abuse interviews at school

The U.S. Supreme Court completed oral arguments March 3 in the consolidated cases of Camreta v. Greene, No. 09-1454, and Alford v. Greene, No.09-1478, CNN has reported. The cases address whether interviews of students at school by law enforcement or family services officials are “seizure” under the Fourth Amendment, and in what circumstances such interviews are “reasonable.”

The question before the Court is, When can children be interviewed about sex abuse allegations without a warrant and without parents present?

A federal appeals court ruled last year in favor of an Oregon mother after concerns were raised about the well-being of her two daughters. That court said an in-school interrogation of one of the daughters, age 9, involving a sheriff’s deputy and a social worker, was unconstitutional, as there was no prior warrant or parental permission. But in a confusing turn, those judges said the county employees could not be held personally liable for any damages. The deputy and the social worker have now asked the high court to consider the constitutional question. The sticking point was that lawyers for the mother apparently are no longer challenging the immunity question. Such a “gateway” issue typically must be addressed in court before the more substantive constitutional questions of search and seizure are dealt with.

One of the questions presented in this case is whether children deserve the same protections as adults in such settings. States had strongly urged the court to resolve the issue, saying many social services departments fear being sued either when they seek to intervene on a child’s behalf or when they fail to do so. In 2007, states investigated 3.2 million reports of child abuse or neglect, according to the federal Administration for Children and Families. The high court last heard a case about the child welfare and protection system in 1990.

Armed with mere unsubstantiated allegations, “They don’t know if there’s exigent circumstances until they ask the question” regarding sexual abuse, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said. When the lawyer conceded social workers or a school nurse could properly do the questioning but not police, Ruth Bader Ginsburg jumped in. “If the information elicited from the child is that she has been abused by her father, then there is a likelihood that there will be police interest in that.”

Twenty-seven states had separately urged the high court to intervene in this case to resolve the liability question and other issues raised. The justices are now left to sort out what has become a legal muddle. They could simply vacate the entire case and order the lower courts to rehear it, since many of the issues seem not to be fully settled. Or they could try to resolve either the immunity issue or the Fourth Amendment issue, or both. The Supreme Court will get a separate chance to offer clarity when it hears a case later this month involving a 13-year-old North Carolina boy questioned in school over a burglary accusation without being given Miranda warnings.

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Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more biographical information, see the About page.