Does the Specter of Child Abuse Justify Abuse of the Constitution?
Alabama appears to be destined again to play a pivotal role in the protection of civil rights for all Americans. Montgomery will long be remembered as the birthplace of the struggle for racial equity because a courageous woman named Rosa Parks refused to take a seat on the back of the bus.
Dothan now has a case which appears to be destined to test the constitutional limits of child abuse investigations. As things are today, parents accused of child abuse have no constitutional rights, but a courageous stand taken by a woman named Helene Richards may change all that.
In December 1991 the Houston County Department of Human Resources received a complaint from an unidentified source that Helene Richards was not properly taking care of her children. The allegations were vague and not very alarming even taken at face value.
A social services worker appeared at Mrs. Richards' doorstep, demanding entry into the home and the right to interview her four children alone. Based on advice from HSLDA attorney Christopher Klicka, Mrs. Richards told the social worker that the Constitution protected her from such an intrusion. The social worker went to the local judge to get an order allowing the department to seize the children, but the judge refused. Instead the judge ordered the mother to produce the children at a hearing in which it would be determined whether or not the social services worker would be granted access to the home and children.
A parallel allegation of educational neglect was also filed against Mrs. Richards. Since the issues were intertwined, HSLDA undertook her defense on both matters.
I flew to Dothan two days before the scheduled hearing to prepare Mrs. Richards to face her coming court appearance. She was genuinely worried that the hearing might result in a judicial order taking state custody over her children. This was not an unreasonable fear in light of several local factors.
From my interviews with Helene and her children and from touring her home, I found that Helene Richards is "guilty" of poverty, not of child abuse or neglect. We also arranged for the independent lawyer appointed to represent the child to have access to the children and the home. He did not see any evidence of abuse or neglect.
On January 31, we went to trial on the issue of whether the Department of Human Resources could "show cause" why the court should permit them to inspect this lady's home and interview her children alone.
We placed the social worker under intense cross-examination. She testified that she had received two calls from unidentified parties, alleging a pattern of a relatively mild form of child neglect. Mrs. Richards steadfastly denied the allegations. My own inspections verified Mrs. Richards' position.
The social worker admitted that the anonymous tipster did not claim to have personally witnessed the neglectful incidents. In other words, the court was being asked to permit the government to invade a person's home on the strength of hearsay from an anonymous tipster. This kind of information could never be used to obtain a search warrant of a person's home in a criminal case.
We argued to the court that anonymous hearsay was a constitutionally insufficient basis to invade someone's home and family. The judge disagreed and ordered a forced inspection and interview.
Even though we lost this round, I was ecstatic when I left court that day. First of all, any threat of an immediate loss of the children was put to rest. Second, we had just laid the foundation for one of the most important cases ever in the ongoing struggle for parental rights and family freedom.
The hearing record could not have been better! It raised the important constitutional issues, and we obtained very damaging testimony from the social worker. While I would like to have won that day, there was a greater benefit from a first round loss. If we had won, we would have settled the issue for Helene Richards only. Because we lost this round, we now can take this case to the higher courts where a victory will be a victory for all parents in Alabama and potentially for all parents in the country. This case has the facts and stature that make great United States Supreme Court cases.
The child abuse industry has gone too far this time. They have enjoyed a carte blanche approach in their ability to invade people's lives based on the scantiest information or pretext. Studies have shown that real child abuse cases are not given proper follow through because workers spend too much time investigating spurious claims. Children are suffering because social workers have been given more leeway than the Constitution permits.
Pray for Helene Richards. Her case may prove that the Constitution is still the best protection for those facing government antagonism and bigotry.
Michael P. Farris