February 11, 2013 Articles

Social Services and Constitutional Rights, a Balancing Act

Social-service workers must weigh their duty to protect children against their legal obligation not to commit civil-rights violations.

By Benjamin R. Picker and Jonathan C. Dunsmoor – February 11, 2013

Imagine the following scenario. You get a call from your spouse to come home immediately because a county social-service worker and police officer are standing outside of your home, demanding to come inside and speak to your three-year-old son. You arrive home a short time later and are told that social services received an anonymous report three days earlier stating that your son is being abused, and they suspect the abuse is by one of his parents. Social services has since discovered who made the anonymous report but refuses to tell you who the person is because such information is confidential. You deny that any abuse has occurred.

The social worker demands entry into your home to interview and take photos of your son. The social worker also states that your son must reside outside of your home with family or friends while the investigation continues. You initially refuse to permit the social worker into your home and you protest the removal of your son from your home. The social worker then states that if you do not cooperate, he will have no choice but to take your child and place him in foster care while the investigation continues. Based on this threat, you reluctantly agree. Your sister could care for your son on a temporary basis. The social worker then interviews your child outside of your presence, and your child denies ever being abused. The social worker also inspects and takes photographs of your child’s body, but sees no suspicious bruises or injuries. Nonetheless, you are told that your son must stay with your sister for a few weeks, perhaps longer, until the investigation is complete. Furthermore, you are advised that you may not have any contact with your son until the investigation is complete because you could taint the investigation.

In the period that follows, you are never afforded a hearing before a neutral judge, magistrate, or master, and whenever you call social services to obtain the status of the investigation, you are merely told that they are still investigating. After a month of being separated from your son, you finally decide that you have had enough and you go to an attorney. You want to know if social services’ actions are legal and if your family’s rights have been violated.

Premium Content For:
  • Litigation Section
Join - Now