July 23, 2002

Federal Court Holds Social Worker Bound by Fourth Amendment

In an important victory for parents faced with groundless social worker investigations, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in Texas has ruled that social workers are constrained by the Fourth Amendment when conducting abuse or neglect investigations. The federal court decision is binding in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

Mary and John Roe sued Texas social worker Beverly Strickland after she came into their home and strip-searched their daughter, Jackie. The social worker was responding to an anonymous tip making non-emergency allegations. She found no evidence of abuse or neglect.

As reported on our website, a lower court (Federal District Court) ruling held that the law in such instances was clearly established; the Fourth Amendment applies to social services investigations and this worker should have known that the search violated the family's rights.

On July 17, 2002, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the social worker's claim that their investigations are not bound by the Fourth Amendment. Before entering a home or strip searching a child, social workers, like police officers, must have a warrant based on probable cause, consent, or there must be an immediate threat to life or limb.

Although the Circuit Court upheld the Fourth Amendment standard, which benefits parents in future cases, it did not require the social worker in this case to pay damages. The court reasoned that she was not on notice that her actions violated the constitution because the law on the day of the search was not clearly established.

Home School Legal Defense Association did not represent the Roes but filed a friend-of-the-court brief to advance the legal principle that all child abuse and neglect investigations are governed by the Fourth Amendment. The issues in this case were similar to those in the Calabretta case in California. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals likewise ruled that social workers must abide by the Fourth Amendment. HSLDA represented the Calabrettas, an HSLDA member family who sued the social workers for violating their constitutional rights. In that case, social workers responding to an anonymous tip entered the Calabretta's home without their consent and stripped searched one of their children. Like the Roe case, they found no evidence of abuse or neglect. The social workers in that case settled the civil rights lawsuit out of court.

Thanks to the Fifth Circuit's ruling, social workers in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi are now on notice: the Fourth Amendment applies to them when conducting child abuse investigations -- and they could face stiff damages if they violate those rights. HSLDA will vigorously use this ruling to defend its members' rights.

Click here to view HSLDA's policy on defending our members' rights in social service investigations.