Social workers who conducted in-school interviews of the plaintiffs’ children as part of a child-abuse investigation violated the plaintiffs’ Fourth Amendment rights because the social workers did not have a “reasonable suspicion” of abuse, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled in Schulkers v Kammer.
“We hold that the Fourth Amendment does in fact govern a social worker’s in-school interview of a child pursuant to a child-abuse investigation, such that, at a minimum, a social worker must have a reasonable suspicion of child abuse before conducting an in-school interview when no other exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement applies,” the 6th Circuit wrote.
However, the social workers in this case were entitled to qualified immunity on the Fourth Amendment claim, the 6th Circuit said, because the law governing warrantless, in-school interviews was not clearly established at the time of the interviews.
The plaintiffs’ also brought 14th Amendment substantive and procedural due process claims against the social workers. Regarding these claims, the 6th Circuit said the plaintiffs “have demonstrated a triable issue as to whether each Defendant’s conduct in fact violated their substantive and procedural due process rights.”
The plaintiffs are a family consisting of two parents and five children. The defendants – Kammer, Campbell and Kara – are social workers employed by Kentucky Health and Family Services.
According to the 6th Circuit opinion, pursuant to the defendants’ behest, elementary school staff removed each child from their respective classrooms and brought each child into a room with the defendant-social workers. The door to the room was shut and school personnel were not allowed to stay with the children during the interviews. The interviews lasted approximately 30 minutes, during which time the children were questioned about drug and alcohol use in their home and whether there was arguing or physical violence in their home. The children did not believe they were free to leave the room until they were released by the defendants. The plaintiffs asserted the children returned home from school that day “terrified and crying, stating that they were afraid of being ‘taken away’ and wanted to know if their mother or father was going to jail.” The plaintiffs asserted they did not consent to the interviews and were unaware the interviews were being conducted.
The plaintiffs then filed this lawsuit against the defendants in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky. The plaintiffs brought their suit under 42 USC § 1983, alleging the defendants violated the children’s rights to be free from unreasonable seizures under the Fourth Amendment by subjecting them to in-school interviews. They also claimed the defendants violated their 14th Amendment right to substantive and procedural due process by imposing “prevention plan” restrictions on the plaintiff-mother, even though there was no reasonable suspicion of child abuse or neglect. It was alleged the prevention plan constrained the plaintiff-mother’s ability to be alone with her children for about two months, without any question regarding her parental fitness and without any procedural protections. The plaintiffs further claimed the defendants’ actions were taken in bad faith and for the purpose of obtaining federal reimbursement funds pursuant to Title IV-E (42 USC § 672, et seq.).
The defendants moved for summary judgment on the plaintiffs’ claims, arguing they were entitled to qualified immunity. The U.S. District Court denied the defendants’ motion, finding:
The defendants appealed the decision.
Fourth Amendment Claim
On appeal, the defendants argued they were entitled to qualified immunity because it was not clearly established that social workers are bound by the Fourth Amendment when conducting in-school interviews pursuant to a child-abuse investigation. In particular, the defendants noted that neither the U.S. Supreme Court nor the 6th Circuit had ever ruled that conduct of this type by a social worker violates the Fourth Amendment.
“[W]e find that Plaintiffs did not have a clearly established Fourth Amendment right to be free from warrantless, in-school interviews by social workers investigating child abuse at the relevant time,” the 6th Circuit wrote. “This is because our precedent is unclear about the role of the Fourth Amendment in the specific factual circumstances alleged here, i.e., when social workers perform an in-school interview of a child pursuant to an abuse investigation.”
Meanwhile, the 6th Circuit further concluded that the defendants’ conduct in this case was unconstitutional. “We hold that, at a minimum, social workers investigating child abuse must have ‘some definite and articulable evidence giving rise to a reasonable suspicion that a child has been abused or is in imminent danger of abuse’ before seizing a child from his or her school classroom without a warrant and when no other exception to the warrant requirement applies.”
In making this decision, the 6th Circuit examined federal case law, including Barber v Miller, 809 F.3d 840 (6th Cir. 2015), where the appeals court held that a child’s right to avoid warrantless, in-school interviews by social workers on suspicion of child abuse was not clearly established at that time (in 2011). “Following Barber, this Court has not had another occasion to consider the constitutionality of in-school interviews like the one at issue here. Therefore, we can find no reason to depart from Barber’s holding that the law surrounding in-school interviews by social workers is not clearly established in this circuit.”
Furthermore, Barber did not define what conduct, if any, the Fourth Amendment proscribes in the school setting “because it declined to reach the merits of the underlying constitutional claim,” the 6th Circuit stated. “Therefore, we find that a reasonable social worker in Defendants’ position would not have known that Plaintiffs had a Fourth Amendment right to be free from the in-school interviews that occurred.” As a result, defendants Kammer and Campbell “were entitled to qualified immunity on this claim.”
The 6th Circuit continued, “[A]fter carefully considering the Supreme Court’s guidance on when a court of appeals should exercise its discretion to reach the underlying constitutional question in a qualified immunity case, we decide to reach that question now in order to ‘promote the development of constitutional precedent,’ … and ‘promote clarity in the legal standards for official conduct, to the benefit of both the officers and the general public.’”
Accordingly, the 6th Circuit held that under the plaintiffs’ version of the facts, defendants Kammer and Campbell violated the children’s Fourth Amendment rights by seizing them from their classrooms without a warrant and without any reasonable suspicion of child abuse or neglect.
In addition, the 6th Circuit analyzed the “special needs” exception to the warrant requirement, which weighs the privacy interests of students with the substantial need of teachers and administrators for freedom to maintain order in the schools. This exception “does not require strict adherence to the requirement that searches be based on probable cause to believe that the subject of the search has violated or is violating the law,” the 6th Circuit stated, noting there is “some disagreement in the circuits regarding whether the special needs exception applies to a social worker’s in-school interview of a child pursuant to a child-abuse investigation, and this Court has not yet spoken to the issue.”
In this case, “we do not need to decide which Fourth Amendment standard governs a social worker’s in-school interview of a child pursuant to an abuse investigation because Defendants’ alleged conduct fails even the modified reasonableness standard …,” the 6th Circuit said. “Thus, under these facts, we find that Defendants violated Plaintiffs’ Fourth Amendment rights by seizing them from their classrooms and subjecting them to interrogation without any suspicion of child abuse, and without obtaining a warrant or consent.”
The 6th Circuit concluded: “We hold that the Fourth Amendment governs a social worker’s in-school interview of a child pursuant to a child-abuse investigation, and thereby clarify our decision in Barber v Miller …. At a minimum, a social worker must have reasonable suspicion of child abuse before conducting an in-school interview without a warrant or consent. Therefore, Defendants’ conduct in this case, as alleged by Plaintiffs, was unconstitutional because it failed to satisfy even the lesser modified reasonableness standard ….”
14th Amendment Claim
Next, the 6th Circuit held the defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity on the plaintiffs’ 14th Amendment claims.
Regarding the plaintiffs’ substantive due process claim, “the state injected itself into the private realm of family life without any process or any doubt as to [the plaintiff-mother’s] fitness as a parent” in violation of Troxel v Granville, 530 US 57 (2000), the 6th Circuit explained. “[W]hile the supervision restrictions did not deprive [the plaintiff-mother] of the physical companionship of her children, they nevertheless constituted an interference with the natural ‘parent-child relation.’ … By arbitrarily mandating when [the plaintiff-mother] could be with her children and who would have to be present in order for her to remain with them, the Prevention Plan abridged the Schulkers’ due process right to family integrity under Troxel.”
Accordingly, the defendants “were on fair notice that it would be unlawful to deprive [the plaintiff-mother] of her liberty interest in the companionship of her children without any plausible suspicion of child abuse,” the 6th Circuit stated.
As for the plaintiffs’ procedural due process claim, “to the extent that Defendants argue that they were not required to afford the Schulkers adequate procedural protections before interfering with their right to family integrity because of the Prevention Plan, we find such an argument unavailing,” the 6th Circuit said.
In conclusion, the 6th Circuit held the defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity on the plaintiffs’ due process claims. “As alleged by Plaintiffs, Defendants imposed the Prevention Plan’s supervision restrictions on [the plaintiff-mother] for approximately two months after there was no longer any question as to [her] parental fitness without any procedural protections. In so doing, they abridged the Schulkers’ clearly established right to the companionship and care of their children without arbitrary government interference in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”