When the United States Supreme Court hears arguments on the morning of March 1, 2011, it will be the first time that the court has heard a case concerning children's and families' rights in a child protection investigation in 21 years. The case, Camreta/Alford v. Greene, involves a plaintiff, S.G., a 9-year-old girl who sued a child protection investigator and an Oregon sheriff. She asked the federal court to decide that a 2-hour in-school custodial interrogation she endured without a warrant or court order, emergency, notice or consent of her parents and without her being able to resist the browbeating that ensued, violated her civil rights.
The Ninth Circuit ruled in S.G.'s favor that Mr. Camreta (the child protection investigator) and Mr. Alford (the armed Oregon sheriff) violated her Fourth Amendment rights against "unreasonable seizures". But now 41 states and the United States itself have asked the Supreme Court to overturn that ruling. Their petitions seek to grant virtually unlimited discretion to law enforcement authorities and child protection investigators to question children in public schools, even without any emergency or without parental consent.
Though she is now 17, S.G. says she will never forget the day she was called out of her classroom and endured a two-hour interrogation by the male child protection investigator from the Oregon Department of Human Services (Camreta) and an armed sheriff (Alford). Police had arrested S.G.'s father on suspicion of abusing his employer's son, and the employer's wife told police they suspected her father had abused S.G. also. But, instead of asking for verification of the hearsay report from S.G.'s mother or asking for the mother's consent to interview the child, Camreta and Alford decided to pull S.G. from her school to question her there. They took their time to get to the school though, waiting three days after receiving the Hotline call to pull her out of class.
Once in the closed room with the child protection investigator and the armed deputy sheriff, S.G. repeatedly denied any abuse, only to be browbeaten by Camreta, who kept insisting she was giving the wrong answers while questioning the little girl about the most intimate details of her life, including how her father touched her. She told Camreta and Alford, "no they weren't [bad touches . . .] but he [Camreta] kept asking me over and over again, and I would say, no, I don't think my dad touched me in a bad way. He would say, 'No, that's not it,' and then ask me the same question again. For over an hour, Bob Camreta kept asking me the same questions, just in different ways, trying to get me to change my answers." When S.G. saw the school buses arriving for dismissal, she recalls, "Finally, I just started saying yes to whatever he said." She also later told lawyers who took her deposition that she blamed herself for lying about her father just to get out of the room where she was held and feels responsible for the damage it caused her family when she gave into the badgering questions by Camreta. The experience so traumatized her that she became physically ill.
While the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that Sharon's Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure had been violated, it also held that the sheriff and investigator did not have to pay damages because the law wasn't sufficiently established before its decision. Even though they won the judgment, Camreta and Alford were not satisfied, so they asked the Supreme Court to reverse the Ninth Circuit's decision based on the Constitution.
Whether this presents a question the Supreme Court can decide is an interesting one that legal scholars will be watching closely. The United States, among Camreta and Alford's supporters, is arguing that not only should the Supreme Court hear the case, but that the Court should restrict the traditional Fourth Amendment protections for all persons to the right against seizures inside the home. Camreta and Alford argue that children have minimal privacy interests while they are in school, and Camreta, in particular, argues that the S.G.'s seizure was similar, in constitutional terms, to attending an assembly at which the mayor or the chief of police spoke.
I first became aware of this case in October, 2010 when the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. There are many fascinating and concerning aspects that deserve our attention and consideration as we struggle to find the best ways protect children, families and our own civil rights.
In the days to come, check back to learn more about the case and the role that the Family Defense Center has played as the national coordinator of the amicus briefs for the plaintiff.