The Supreme Court has agreed to hear an Oregon child sexual abuse case that could have serious implications for how hundreds of sexual abuse cases are handled in Kansas and Sedgwick County.
The federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Oregon ruled against authorities who questioned a child at school. The appeals court ruled that child social workers must get warrants to interview suspected victims of sexual abuse at school when the alleged abuser lives at home.
The decision gave pause to one of the key Sedgwick County prosecutors who handles child-in-need-of care cases here.
Police and state social workers investigate hundreds of cases of child abuse in Sedgwick County every year. Police with the Exploited and Missing Child Unit in Sedgwick County handle many of the investigations, and about half of their work involves sexual abuse allegations.
Ron Paschal, a deputy district attorney for Sedgwick County, said the appeals court decision, if upheld by the Supreme Court, could vastly complicate the work of police and social workers in protecting children from abusers.
The 9th Circuit, citing the 4th Amendment to the constitution barring unreasonable searches and seizures, said investigators in the Oregon case should have gotten a warrant, a court order or parental consent before talking to a child who they suspected was a victim of sexual abuse.
"It's a bizarre application of the 4th Amendment," Paschal said. "Suspects in crimes do have 4th Amendment rights. But victims are not suspects.
"If you were to apply this 9th Circuit decision to its logical extent, it would mean that you'd have to get a search warrant every time you interview a victim or any other witness to a crime. It's ludicrous, especially when you're dealing with a victim of a crime who is a small child whose safety might be in jeopardy.
"We are talking not about suspects, who do have rights against unreasonable searches and seizures, but victims and witnesses in crimes where a rapid factual assessment by police is key to protecting them."
Paschal said he cannot imagine that the Supreme Court would uphold the 9th Circuit Court's decision.
The court decided to hear an appeal from Oregon officials and police officers who interviewed a suspected victim at school.
Those authorities were worried that children were being abused by Nimrod Greene, who was previously arrested on a charge of sexually abusing a 7-year-old boy.
A social worker and a police officer interviewed a 9-year-old girl at the child's public school, where they could be sure that Greene wouldn't be present. The girl said during the interview that she had been sexually abused by Greene. The girl later recanted the statements.
Greene said he was innocent but agreed that a judge or jury could find him guilty.
But the girl's mother sued the police and the social worker, saying that they had unconstitutionally "seized" the 9-year-old girl at school when they removed her from her classroom, took her into another room and questioned her about possible sexual abuse.
The appeals court agreed, saying the social worker and police officer should have gotten a warrant, a court order or parental consent before talking to the child, or should have demonstrated that they acted with probable cause and under exigent circumstances.
The appeals court, citing federal Health and Human Services statistics, said in part that "resolving the constitutional claims at issue in this case involves a delicate balancing of competing interests. On one hand, society has a compelling interest in protecting its most vulnerable members from abuse within their home. The number of child abuse allegations is staggering: In 2007, for example, state and local agencies investigated 3.2 million reports of child abuse or neglect.
"On the other hand, parents have an exceedingly strong interest in directing the upbringing of their children, as well as in protecting both themselves and their children from the embarrassment and social stigmatization attached to child abuse investigations. Of the millions of investigations conducted by state and local agencies in 2007, only about a quarter concluded that the children were indeed victims of abuse. This discrepancy creates the risk that in the name of saving children from the harm that their parents and guardians are thought to pose, states ultimately cause more harm to many more children than they ever help."
Paschal said most people in Sedgwick County, in part because of the confidentiality inherent in most child abuse cases, are unaware that there are hundreds of cases of child abuse here every year. Many of them involve egregious physical abuse or neglect, or sexual abuse. Many of the perpetrators in sexual abuse cases, Paschal said, threaten or guilt-trip the children involved, pleading with them never to tell about the abuse because authorities would break up the family.
"Not to disparage the 9th Circuit, but they seem to be adhering to the old position that we (prosecutors and other authorities involved in child protection) are hyperactive in protecting children," Paschal said.
"But the chaos that would be caused here if this decision is upheld is that if someone from the home were to assault a child, they could then deny legal access to the child to investigate, unless we were to get a warrant. Some of these cases we investigate involve a state of emergency."