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May 25, 2005

Pennsylvania: Social Worker Search Violated Constitution

A three-judge panel of the Pennsylvania Superior Court unanimously ruled on May 20, 2005, that a court-ordered "home visit" by Susquehanna County investigative social workers violated the constitutional rights of Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) members, Rob and Susan Gauthier of Thompson, Pennsylvania.

After the birth of the Gauthier's daughter at home in February of 2004, Susquehanna County Services for Children and Youth received a ChildLine referral for "possible medical neglect."

During the investigation the social worker spoke with the parents and several doctors at the hospital where the child had been treated shortly after birth for a respiratory problem. No medical neglect was discovered.

After the hospital discharged the baby to return home, the social worker asked to visit the Gauthier's home "to complete the investigation." The social worker told the Gauthiers that they must complete a home visit in all investigations before they can close the file.

The Gauthiers declined the social worker's request to enter their home citing their state and federal constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. Not only did the social worker have enough information from the doctors to close the investigation and determine that the accusations were unfounded, but a search of their home would not cast any light on possible medical neglect allegations.

"This is an all-too-common scenario," said James R. Mason, III, Litigation Counsel for Home School Legal Defense Association, who represented the Gauthiers. "Social workers around the country believe that they must search a home before they can close an investigation, even when the caseworker knows that no abuse or neglect occurred."

After the Gauthiers declined the social worker's request to search their home, Susquehanna County filed a petition in juvenile court to compel them to cooperate. The Gauthiers received no notice of the petition and only learned of it when they received a court order in the mail directing them to "cooperate with the completion of a home visit within ten days."

The Gauthiers immediately called HSLDA. Review of the court file revealed that the petition recited no facts other than a ChildLine referral for possible medical neglect had been received, that the Gauthiers refused to allow the social worker into their home and that the social worker needed to complete at least one home visit before she could close the file.

"The juvenile court simply rubber-stamped the social worker's petition even though it contained no facts at all," said Mason.

HSLDA immediately appealed and sought an emergency stay of the search order in the juvenile court, the Pennsylvania Superior Court and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, all of which were denied in less than a week.

The social worker completed the home visit, closed the file and determined that the accusations were unfounded. However, the appeal on the Fourth Amendment issue proceeded on the merits.

Susquehanna County argued on appeal that the Fourth Amendment simply does not apply to social worker investigations. The three-judge panel of the Pennsylvania Superior Court disagreed. In addition, many courts have ruled, in cases where HSLDA attorneys have represented a party, (Calabretta v. Floyd, and In re Jonie Stumbo), that in non-emergency situations social workers need to have a court order supported by probable cause before they may enter a home over the objections of the resident.

The Court further explained that before juvenile courts may issue search orders the social worker "must file a verified petition alleging facts amounting to probable cause to believe that an act of child abuse or neglect has occurred and evidence relating to such abuse will be found in the home."

"This is a tremendous victory for Pennsylvania families," said J. Michael Smith, President of HSLDA. "Real child abuse should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law," continued Smith. "But the social workers in this case spent a lot of time trying to fulfill a technical requirement that wasn't needed when they could have been focusing on more serious matters."

 Other Resources

In Re Gauthier Children: Petition to Compel Cooperation with Child Abuse Investigation