The Alabama Supreme Court voted on February 5, 1993, not to review Helene Richard’s lower court victory which requires social workers to obtain search warrants before they can compel interviews of children in families suspected of child abuse or neglect.
Michael Farris, the Home School Legal Defense Association attorney who represented Mrs. Richards, said that this case represents one of the first times a court has imposed constitutional restraints on social workers who are investigating child abuse or neglect complaints. Many times, social workers do not think they need to obey the Constitution in this area because they are working to prevent a great evil in child abuse.
The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution generally requires police or other governmental officials to obtain a search warrant before entering a private home to look for evidence of a specific crime, Farris explained. In order to obtain a search warrant, government agents must appear before a judge with evidence showing “probable cause” that criminal activity is happening at the place they want to search. The Alabama courts have ruled that an anonymous telephone call alone is insufficient evidence to get a search warrant.
In the past fifteen years or so, the problem of child abuse and neglect has received greater attention and also more public outcry to address it. Social workers have frequently felt that because they were dealing with such a terrible problem, they did not have to observe the legal restraints government investigators must abide by when investigating any other criminal activity. Also, social workers are aware of court decisions which say that the police do not need a search warrant if the person occupying the home consents to the search. Therefore, social workers frequently try to intimidate people into consenting to a house search or an interview with their children. It is the experience of the HSLDA lawyers that social workers rarely tell families that they can refuse to consent to the search by a social worker unless the social worker has a search warrant or the children are in grave danger.
Mrs. Richards and her family suffered from this sort of legal bullying by a social worker. In the fall of 1991, an anonymous tipster called local social workers in Houston County, Alabama, making allegations of child neglect against Helene Richards. The caller said that the children were “not attending school” (they were being home schooled), had few toys, that one daughter was sickly and that the son had strangled a cat. The social worker came to the home and demanded entrance in order to interview the children. Mrs. Richards refused, saying that the social worker needed a search warrant. The social worker said that no one had ever refused to allow her to interview their children, and that she would seek a court order compelling the interviews.
Michael Farris represented Mrs. Richards at the court hearing. The social worker testified about the anonymous telephone call. During cross examination, Farris demonstrated that the social worker had no evidence of child neglect except the bare allegations made in the anonymous telephone call.
Although the social worker said she believed that the telephoned allegations against Mrs. Richards necessitated an investigation, she expressed great doubt that one of the HSLDA lawyers who had called her, Jordan Lorence, was actually a lawyer. She said that all she had done was talked to Lorence on the telephone, and had no reason to believe his “allegation” that he is an attorney. The social worker missed the rich irony in her contradictory approach to believing people who speak to her on the telephone.
Farris then offered evidence refuting every allegation: friends wrote letters stating that the house was clean and that the children had plenty of toys. A doctor wrote a letter saying that the daughter alleged to be sick was fine. The judge listened to Farris’ Fourth Amendment arguments that the social worker had presented no evidence showing “probable cause” and that he had refuted every allegation against Mrs. Richards. Nonetheless, the judge issued the court order requiring Mrs. Richards to allow the home visit and to interview the children.
HSLDA immediately appealed. Wanting to stop the investigation pending appeal, Farris ordered Lorence to fly to Montgomery and file a request for a stay with the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals and the Alabama Supreme Court. The Court of Appeals agreed and issued a stay. The investigation stopped. There was no home visit or interview with the children.
The Alabama Court of Civil Appeals issued an opinion on August 28, 1992, agreeing with HSLDA that the social worker needed a search warrant or some equivalent court order, based on evidence showing probable cause in order to invade Mrs. Richards’ home. In other words, social workers investigating child abuse allegations must obey the Fourth Amendment just like all other government agents must do when investigating any other crime.
The Alabama Attorney General appealed the decision to the Alabama Supreme Court, decrying the decision and warning of its negative effects on investigating child abuse allegations. On February 5, 1993, the Alabama Supreme Court refused to review the lower court decision, which means that the favorable decision stands.
Throughout American history, the government has from time to time identified a terrible problem that can only be solved by violating people’s constitutional rights. When the government gets into that mindset, “solving the problem” becomes more important than obeying the Constitution. Child abuse has become one of those problems. It is at those times that Americans must insist that courts and law enforcement agents obey even more diligently the restraints of the Constitution. If the government can trample the constitutional rights of individuals in a time of emotional zeal to wipe out some national problem, then no one’s rights are ever safe.