Child abuse interview spurs high court case
NEW YORK – Eight years ago, a child protection investigator and a deputy sheriff removed a 9-year-old Oregon girl from her classroom and questioned her at length as to whether her father had sexually abused her. According to the girl, they wouldn’t take “no” for an answer, and she falsely incriminated her father.
On Tuesday, that incident will be the focus of arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court in a divisive case that has roused intense interest among those with a stake in child welfare issues.
The central question: Did the two men violate the Fourth Amendment’s ban on “unreasonable search and seizure” when they questioned the girl in that manner without a warrant, without her mother’s consent, and in the absence of emergency circumstances?
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, weighing a lawsuit filed by the girl’s family, ruled that her rights had been violated. The state of Oregon appealed, and the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.
Oregon officials, supported by briefs from the U.S. government, 40 other states, and various law enforcement and child-advocacy groups, argue that requiring a warrant in such cases would undermine a proven method of investigating child abuse. They say investigators initially may lack sufficient evidence to obtain a warrant and need the leeway to interview a possible victim without the parents’ presence, at a school or another site away from home.
On the other side, an attorney representing the Greene family will argue that the interrogation was unconstitutional and a warrant should have been sought. In support of this stance, 18 friend-of-the-court briefs have been filed by 70 groups, ranging from liberal to conservative, which are concerned about overzealous child-protection policies and encroachment on parental rights.
One reason for the high interest: Experts say it’s the first major case involving child-protection services to go before the Supreme Court in 21 years.
The case stems from an incident on Feb. 24, 2003, when social services investigator Bob Camreta and deputy sheriff James Alford removed the 9-year-old from her classroom in Bend, Ore., to interview her in a school conference room about alleged sexual abuse by her father. According to her family’s court brief, the girl repeatedly denied that any such abuse had occurred, then changed her story after two hours of intensive questioning.
“Fearing that the school bus would leave without her at dismissal time, the frightened child decided to lie, just to get out of the room,” according to that brief.
The girl was removed from her home and placed in foster care; three weeks later she was allowed to return to her mother, Sarah Greene. The charges against the father, Nimrod Greene, regarding his daughter later were dropped, although he did accept a plea agreement, entailing no jail time, to an earlier allegation that he had attempted to fondle the 7-year-old son of his employer.
Carolyn Kubitschek, a veteran of many child-welfare cases in New York, will make her first appearance before the Supreme Court to argue that the girl’s interrogation was unconstitutional.
“What the police and child welfare people are asking is a very broad ruling giving them the green light to interrogate kids whenever they think it’s reasonable, without any court telling them, ‘No, you can’t’ … (and) without the threshold of it being an emergency,” she said in an interview.
The lead argument on the other side will be presented by Oregon Attorney General John Kroger, whose brief says the girl’s interrogation was justified and reasonable.
“The alternatives to an in-school interview are fraught with potential peril for child victims or are impractical,” Kroger argues. “Seeking parental consent is simply not a safe or viable option when the suspected abuser is a parent. Obtaining a warrant … without interviewing the child may be impossible or inadvisable.”
Kroger’s brief depicts child abuse as a “national epidemic” affecting more than 750,000 children annually. It notes that parents are the abusers in more than 80 percent of the cases.
Among the groups supporting Kroger is the National District Attorneys Association. A member of its executive committee, District Attorney Joshua Marquis, of Astoria, Ore., said the 9th Circuit ruling has had a chilling effect in Oregon, prompting some school districts to forbid the questioning of children by police or child protection workers without parental consent or a warrant.
Such interviews often are necessary, he said, because parents may have an interest in covering up wrongdoing, and physical evidence that might help justify a warrant often is absent in child abuse cases.
“Should we have a system that errs in favor of preservation of the family, or that errs in preservation of the child’s safety?” Marquis asked. “To me that’s an easy decision. … The most important thing is best interest of children.”
Groups supporting Kubitschek and the Greene family range from the conservative Family Research Council to the left-leaning Southern Poverty Law Center. The two groups normally are at odds; the law center even has branded the council a “hate group” because of its position on gay rights.
Ken Klukowski, director of Family Research Council’s Center for Religious Liberty, described the Greene case as a “close call” due to the common interest on both sides in upholding the best interests of children. However, he said, the issue of government encroachment on parental rights prompted the council to get involved.
The brief filed on behalf of the Southern Poverty Law Center and several other legal advocacy groups argues that interrogations such as the one in Bend can cause lasting trauma to children and their families – including unwarranted removal of children from their homes to be placed in foster care.
Richard Wexler of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, which seeks to reduce the number of children unnecessarily placed in foster care, said Camreta v. Greene was distinctive in bringing together such diverse groups.
“What all these organizations are seeking is simply a guarantee that innocent children will have the same constitutional rights as suspected criminals,” he wrote in an overview of the case. “The Constitution is meant to protect citizens from harm, not to spare bureaucracies a little inconvenience.”
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