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Social Workers Must Obey the Law

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Judge Slams the Door: Social Workers Must Obey the Law

In a case involving a coerced entry, followed by the interrogation and strip-search of minors, a federal court judge ruled recently that "the Ninth Circuit has clearly established that a search of the home during a child abuse investigation requires a warrant or exigent circumstances." In this case the social worker and police officer had neither.

"Do you have a search warrant? Do you have a court order?" asked Shirley Calabretta of the social worker and police officer who stood at her front door demanding entry. She had been over these lines with her husband and HSLDA attorney Mike Smith, but reality was not at all like rehearsal. The social worker had been to the Calabretta home two weeks before, but Mrs. Calabretta had rebuffed her entry, even when the social worker put her foot inside the door to block its closing. The social worker left in a huff that day, threatening to return with the police. Robert Calabretta had specifically instructed his wife not to let her in if she returned without a warrant or court order, even if accompanied by the police. But now she was face-to-face with the officer, and he was big and determined. "You are required to let us in," said the officer authoritatively. Mrs. Calabretta held her ground, but she was beginning to weaken. Five of her children were gathered around her now, listening with incalculable trepidation. Mrs. Calabretta asked what she was accused of, but was not told. "Not until you let me talk to the children," was the social worker's reply. The officer was growing impatient, so he told Mrs. Calabretta that if she continued to keep them out, he may have to force entry. Moments later, fearing the consequences of refusal, Mrs. Calabretta opened the door.

The Calabrettas look like many other home schooling families. Robert Calabretta has a masters degree in mathematics and works as an engineer at Rockwell International in Sacramento, California. Shirley Calabretta has a bachelor's degree in art and does some free-lance work out of their home. They have six well-mannered and attractive children, ranging in age from 14 to six months. They serve the Lord in a local church and get along with their neighbors. But on November 10, 1994, a social worker and uniformed police officer turned their world upside down by coercing entry into their home to investigate an anonymous report of child abuse.

The social worker immediately whisked twelve-year old Tamar into a bedroom to be interrogated alone. The officer then advised Mrs. Calabretta that the report being investigated indicated that someone (not the reporter) heard a child screaming "No, Daddy, no" at 1:30 a.m. on an unspecified date and that the reporter heard a child screaming "No, no, no" in his backyard on the afternoon of October 25, 1994. Mrs. Calabretta explained to the officer that her 10-year-old son had fallen on a post in the backyard on about that date, injuring his wrist. The child had screamed in his shock and pain. Even with the child's corroboration of the event, the investigation continued.

It was about that time that 12-year-old Tamar and her three-year-old sister, who had entered the room after her nap, were heard crying in the next room. Mrs. Calabretta rushed in. She would later learn that Tamar had been interrogated on family matters such as Daddy's response to spilled milk, the methods of discipline, spanking, the most recent event of spanking, and the Bible. To the credit of her parents, Tamar explained the Biblical basis for spanking and proceeded to get a concordance to point out to the official the verses on discipline. It was when Tamar was asked to disrobe her three-year-old sister Natalie that the crying began. "We have a rule that we are not allowed to let others see our private parts," Tamar told the worker. It was at that point that Natalie began screaming.

When Mrs. Calabretta burst in, the official insisted that she see the child's bottom and demanded that Mrs. Calabretta remove the child's pants. Though the child was crying and struggling against it, Mrs. Calabretta proceeded to demonstrate to the official that there were no marks or bruises on her daughter. Seeing nothing, the official nevertheless reprimanded Mrs. Calabretta for spanking a child with an object (a nine-inch piece of Lincoln log roofing that had been shown to the social worker) and told her that she had violated California law for doing so. (This was a lie, since California law specifically excepts spanking from abuse.) The officer and social worker gave their business cards to Mrs. Calabretta and left.

On behalf of the Calabretta family, HSLDA filed a lawsuit in federal court for violation of the Calabrettas' civil rights. The complaint states that the social worker and police officer violated the Calabrettas' right to be safe and secure in their home from government search and seizure without a warrant (the Fourth Amendment). Following the discovery depositions (pre-trial interviews under oath) of all the individuals involved, both sides asked the judge to decide the case in their favor.

The social worker and officer asked the court to find that no constitutional rights were violated and that even if they were, the defendants have immunity from such lawsuits. The Calabrettas, on the other hand, asked the court to rule that the defendants violated the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution when they coerced entry into the Calabretta residence and are liable to the Calabrettas for the resulting damages.

In a 39-page opinion filed on January 7, 1997, Chief Judge Lawrence K. Karlton ruled that social workers and police officers who enter a family home to investigate child abuse without a warrant or proper evidence of an emergency violate the constitutional rights of the family. The judge relied heavily on a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals case which ruled that when police officers investigate child abuse, they must obey the general rules of the Fourth Amendment. The social worker in this case contended that she need not follow the same rules imposed upon police officers. The judge expressly rejected that defense and held the social workers to the same constitutional standards.

Though the judge ruled in the Calabrettas' favor on the fundamental question of their Fourth Amendment rights, he is requiring a full trial on the issue of consent. This means that a jury will decide whether Mrs. Calabretta "freely and voluntarily" consented to the entry into her home. Unless the social worker and officer can convince the jury that their entry was not the result of coercion, trickery, or duress, they will be ordered to compensate the Calabretta family for the harm done and possibly for punitive damages.

"The bottom line," said Mike Farris, "is that America's social workers have believed that they need not obey the Constitution when they are investigating child abuse. That charade is over."