Supreme Court to Weigh Child Abuse Against Family's Privacy

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The Supreme Court will debate the sensitive issue of child abuse on Tuesday as it hears arguments over whether a child protection investigator should have obtained a warrant or parental consent before pulling a 9-year-old out of class and interviewing her about alleged sexual abuse in the home.

Children's rights advocates on both sides of the issue are carefully watching the case. The issue pits the privacy rights of students and their families against a state interest in aggressively combating child abuse.

It's been 21 years since the court has heard a case involving the child welfare system.

The case stems from the 2003 arrest of Nimrod Greene, a man accused of sexually abusing a seven-year-old boy in Oregon. As a part of that case, investigators became suspicious that Greene may have been also sexually abusing his own daughters.

Bob Camreta, a caseworker for the Oregon Department of Human Services, and James Alford, a deputy sheriff, visited one of the daughters' schools and interviewed the child for two hours about her relationship with her father, asking whether he had touched her inappropriately.

Based on the girl's responses, Greene was later indicted on six counts of felony assault.

His daughters, known in court documents as "S.G." and "K.G.," were put briefly in foster care.

S.G. later recanted much of her testimony and the charges that Greene abused his daughters were eventually dismissed.

The girls' mother, Sarah Greene, sued Camreta arguing that he violated the Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable search and seizure when he interviewed her daughter without her consent or a warrant.

In court papers, lawyers for Sarah Greene say that S.G. was removed from her class by two unknown men, one "with a gun visible in his holster" and brought to an empty conference room.

"Nobody explained to her why she was there and she was too scared to ask," the court papers say.

"In the process [the investigator] educated S.G. about child sexual abuse; S.G. had been unfamiliar with the topic."

Supreme Court: Child Abuse and Privacy

A lower court ruled that the interview of the girl was unconstitutional, but said that Camreta was immune to such lawsuits.

But Camreta, concerned with the ramifications of the ruling on future cases of alleged child abuse, decided to appeal the portion of the ruling that found that the interview had been unconstitutional.

In court papers, lawyers for the State of Oregon, who are representing Camreta, say that child abuse is a "national epidemic."

"The most recent study on child abuse shows that between 750,000 and 900,000 children are the victims of various forms of child abuse or neglect every year," the attorneys argue. They cite statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which say that a parent is the abuser in 80 percent of child abuse cases.

Camreta contends that he chose to interview the girl at school because schools are a place "where children feel safe" and because doing so allowed him to conduct the interview away from potential suspects including the child's parents. He says the interview was reasonable.

"Seeking parental consent is simply not a safe or viable option when the suspected abuser is a parent. Obtaining a warrant based on speculations and hearsay -- without interviewing the child -- may be impossible or inadvisable because development of probable cause often depends upon the victim who may be the sole witness to the suspected crime."

The Obama administration filed a brief in support of Camreta, asking the court to vacate the lower court decision finding that the warrant or consent was necessary.

"That requirement," writes Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal, "threatens to eliminate an essential tool for the detection and prevention of child abuse." Twenty-seven states have filed a petition on behalf of Camreta, saying that the lower court decision will hamper the states' ability to investigate child abuse allegations "effectively and sensitively."

Supreme Court: Child Abuse and Privacy

But lawyers for Sarah Greene say that the government's interest in detecting child abuse should be balanced against an interest in obtaining accurate results from investigations, minimizing the trauma to children and keeping families together.

"To a nine-year-old girl, being confined behind closed doors for two hours with two male strangers, one of whom is armed, while being grilled repeatedly about intimate details of her relationship with her father, without explanation of the reason for the interrogation or when it will end, is a severe intrusion on her liberty, whether it happens at school or elsewhere."