February 26, 2002

No Warrant, No Entry in Rhode Island

Knowing their constitutional rights and refusing to be intimidated by a persistent social worker, one Home School Legal Defense member family averted a potentially traumatic investigation.

After two years of teaching Scott Davis (family's name has been changed to protect their privacy) at home, his parents decided he needed services that only the school district could provide. When Scott misbehaved at recess one Tuesday, the school officials told him they would call his mother to come and discipline him. "No," he shouted, "she'll pull my hair!"

Scott has serious special needs. He suffers from a well-defined clinical condition that includes a number of problem areas, including consistent behavioral challenges, difficulties with communication, and outbursts of anger.

After the hair-pulling claim, school staff promptly contacted the mother to ask how she disciplines her children. The family carefully and consistently practices corporal discipline, limiting spankings to a few well-defined offenses (such as violent behavior, disobedience, lying, and so forth). The parents use a light paddle (similar to a Ping-Pong paddle) when they spank. This is legal in Rhode Island, which permits reasonable corporal discipline and limits "child abuse" to cases of "excessive corporal discipline." R.I. Gen. Laws 40-11-2(1)(i).

Under Rhode Island law, the school district was required to file an allegation of child abuse, even though they knew the child frequently made wild statements when an adult attempted to correct him. They reported the child's hair-pulling claim, and informed the Division of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) that the parents paddled their children. DCYF knew that paddling did not count as "child abuse," so they wrote the allegation up as "child neglect" instead.

That Thursday, social workers appeared at the school, pulled Scott out of his class, and began asking him questions about his home life. Scott was so frightened he refused to talk to them. The social worker left the school and came to the family home, where he told Mrs. Davis that she had been charged with child neglect; he had already interviewed her son at school; and he needed to come into the home to talk to the other children. She refused to let him enter.

Early Friday morning, the social worker called to tell the parents he was coming to the home to interview the children. Scott's father told him he would need a warrant to enter the house. The social worker denied this. "Under Rhode Island law, I absolutely have the right to enter," he insisted.

At 1:30 p.m., the social worker showed up with a police officer but without a warrant. The police officer stood in the background while the social worker said, yet again, "I'd like to come in your house and talk with the kids." Mr. Davis once again politely explained that he would let the social worker enter if he had a warrant, otherwise the social worker would have to talk to his lawyer. The family called Scott Somerville at HSLDA and handed the phone to the social worker, who immediately blurted out, "I'm going to close this investigation as 'unfounded'."

Things went smoothly for the Davis family. Little Scotty was silent when they interviewed him at school. The parents were wise, polite, and firm. The social worker was patient and open-minded. The police officer was well trained. The family belonged to HSLDA. Although this story had a happy ending, we are aware of many families who have lost custody of a child under circumstances like these. It is vital for every home schooling family to be well informed on how to handle contacts from social workers. HSLDA provides our members with a checklist for dealing with contacts by government officials.

Note: HSLDA Social Services Contact Policy
We desire to assist and advise our members in every contact with a social worker and or police officer in investigations resulting from allegations of abuse and neglect. If home schooling is an issue, we will represent our member families until the issue is resolved. On the Fourth Amendment unreasonable search and seizure issues, HSLDA will assist and advise our members whenever the privacy of their home is violated by forced or coerced entry for the purpose of an unsubstantiated investigation. HSLDA member benefits do not extend to court actions resulting from non-home schooling matters. However in circumstances where there is clear violation of the Fourth Amendment, HSLDA may, as we have done in the past, choose to take the case in an effort to establish legal precedent.

 Other Resources

The Social Worker At Your Door: 10 Helpful Hints