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September / October 2005

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For the good of the children

Case: In Re Gauthier Children
Filed: 3/4/04

On May 23, 2005, after a long year in court, Home School Legal Defense Association received a favorable decision from the Pennsylvania Superior Court. A three-member panel of judges unanimously ruled that a court-ordered "home visit" by Susquehanna County social workers had violated the constitutional rights of HSLDA members Rob and Susan Gauthier of Thompson, Pennsylvania.

Last year's July/August Court Report cover story, "Without Probable Cause," told the tale of this Pennsylvania family whose 4th Amendment rights were violated when a Pennsylvania court granted a social worker the right to enter their home without their permission.

The family's saga began on a snowy Saturday evening in February 2004, after Susan Gauthier rushed her infant daughter, Isis, to the emergency room because she was having trouble breathing. That same night, Susquehanna County Social Services received a ChildLine referral for "possible medical neglect" of Isis.

An investigation quickly ensued. The Gauthiers did their best to cooperate with social services at the hospital where Isis was being treated. After interviews with both parents and several doctors, the social worker still found no evidence of medical neglect. So when she informed the family that she needed to visit their home to "complete" her investigation, the dismayed parents called HSLDA for help.

"This is an all-too-common scenario," said HSLDA Litigation Counsel James R. Mason III, who represented the Gauthiers. "Social workers around the country believe that they must search a home before they can close an investigation, even when the caseworker knows that no abuse or neglect occurred."

The 4th Amendment requires that a social worker have "probable cause" for searches and seizures. HSLDA has worked for years at the forefront of this issue, protecting homeschooling families from unconstitutional searches and seizures.

In Calabretta v. Floyd, HSLDA successfully represented a member family after social workers made an unconstitutional intrusion into their home based on nothing more than an anonymous tip. In the case In the Matter of Stumbo, HSLDA prevented a similar intrusion by appealing all the way to the North Carolina Supreme Court.

Federal courts repeatedly rule that social workers are subject to the 4th Amendment and must have "probable cause" to justify entry into a private home. This success in the federal courts has changed how social worker investigations are conducted. Now, more and more social workers follow the legally established channel of obtaining a court order before searching a home. Unfortunately, some courts do not hold these social workers to the standard of evidence required to justify the search order. Instead, they simply rubber-stamp the request.

Such was the case for the Gauthier family, who cited their state and federal constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures in declining the social worker's request to visit their home. "My understanding was that we had provided everything they needed to close the case," Rob Gauthier said. "The baby was already being treated and had a proven history of being taken care of. At that point they should have turned around and said, 'Okay, that's the end of it.'"

When the Gauthiers denied the social worker's request to enter their home, however, she responded by filing a petition with the Susquehanna County juvenile court to compel them to cooperate. The court granted the social worker's request, literally "rubber-stamping" the judge's signature on the order, even though there was no "probable cause" to enter the Gauthier home. The petition recited no facts other than that a ChildLine referral for possible medical neglect had been received, that the Gauthiers refused to allow the social worker into their home, and that the social worker needed to complete a home visit before she could close the file.

No notice of the petition was sent to the Gauthiers, who learned of it only when they received the mailed court order directing them to "cooperate with the completion of the home visit within ten days."

Susquehanna County soon discovered, however, that the Gauthiers were not going to open their door without a fight. As soon as they received the order, the family called HSLDA, which sprang into action, simultaneously filing an appeal of the order and a petition for a stay of the order until the appeal was decided. Twenty-four hours after filing, the petition for stay was denied at the county level, and HSLDA took it to the appellate level at the Pennsylvania Superior Court. Again, the stay was denied.

That weekend, HSLDA's litigation team worked overtime to prepare an appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. "The order had to be carried out within 10 days," HSLDA Staff Attorney Darren Jones remembered. "That's the maximum time we had to appeal it through all three courts." Jones drove from Purcellville, Virginia, to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to file the completed appeal with the court.

Despite the fact that the order ignored the Gauthiers' 4th Amendment rights, the stay was again denied at the state supreme court level, and the family was compelled to allow the visit.

The social worker visited the home, determined that the accusations were unfounded, and closed the file. The appeal on the 4th Amendment issue, however, proceeded. Because the Gauthiers' situation would become precedent, the superior court decided that the case warranted consideration.

While Susquehanna County argued on appeal that the 4th Amendment simply does not apply to social worker investigations, the three-judge panel of the Pennsylvania Superior Court disagreed, ruling that in non-emergency situations, social workers need to have a court order supported by "probable cause" before they may enter a home over the objections of the resident.

The court further explained that before a juvenile court may issue a search order, the social worker "must file a verified petition alleging facts amounting to probable cause to believe that an act of child abuse or neglect has occurred and evidence relating to such abuse will be found in the home."

In essence, the court declared the "rubber stamp" on the social worker's petition to be unconstitutional.

As soon as the decision was released, many began to speculate that it had weakened the ability of social services to ensure the safety of children in Pennsylvania. J. Michael Smith, President of HSLDA, has a different perspective, however. "This is a tremendous victory for Pennsylvania families," he said. "Real child abuse should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. The social workers in this case spent a lot of time trying to fulfill a technical requirement that wasn't needed when they could have been focusing on more serious matters."

What do the Gauthiers think about the victory?

Though the Gauthiers' rights were violated, they now have an increased passion for protecting others from the same experience. "I think it's great news," Rob stated. "Not so much for us, but for anybody else in the state-because if something like this happens again, [social services] is going to have to think twice."

When social workers and courts observe the guidelines given in the 4th Amendment, the child protection system is actually strengthened for the good of children. Social workers and juvenile courts are free to focus on legitimate issues, and innocent families retain their constitutional right to refuse an unwarranted and traumatic search.