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April 6, 2005

Concealment and Ambush: Favored Tactics in Harford County, Maryland

Last fall, a social worker called the Holman family (not real name) and said she wanted to come to their home the next day to investigate allegations that had been made against the family.

The Holmans contacted Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), and attorney Scott Woodruff immediately sent the family a form to sign which authorized the social worker to talk to Mr. Woodruff. The form also explained that under federal law social workers are required to inform parents of the allegations made against them upon first contact.

After the social worker received the signed authorization, attorney Woodruff called the social worker. He explained that the family had requested his assistance. He asked her to tell him what the allegations were, as federal law requires, so he could give the family proper legal advice.

She replied: "The Harford County Department of Social Services has received a neglect referral on the Holman family. Revealing to you the details regarding this referral would greatly compromise our investigation. We are hoping that this family would cooperate with the Department; however, failure to do such could result in the family appearing before the Juvenile Court."

Families generally have no duty to "cooperate" with a social services investigation. The demand to "cooperate" is usually tantamount to a demand that families surrender their rights under the 4th Amendment. HSLDA seldom advises families to "cooperate" when the social worker is concealing the allegations.

Attorney Woodruff asked the social worker to ask her supervisor for permission to tell him the allegations. Her reply was: "I know that my immediate supervisor would agree with me. Additionally, I have consulted with the agency's attorney; and he is also in agreement with our position."

The social worker then promptly filed suit against the Holmans, demanding that they bring their children to court and asking the judge to consider taking the children away from their parents. Even in the suit papers, the social worker concealed the allegations.

HSLDA Attorney Darren Jones and local attorney Bruce Kent represented the family at the hearing. Preparing for the hearing was difficult since they did not know what the charges were against the family.

However, once in court, the social worker was forced to disclose the allegations. They were of a trivial nature and were resolved within minutes. The judge immediately dismissed the lawsuit.

It was precisely to prevent this kind of outrageous social worker conduct that President Bush signed into law an amendment to the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) in 2003. The amendment requires social workers to inform families of the allegations upon first contact. It is difficult to imagine how anyone could oppose this simple and sensible law.

The amendment did receive opposition in congress, however, though it passed by a significant margin. As HSLDA has advanced this issue, some states have readily changed their laws to comply with the amendment, and others have resisted.

Ironically, Maryland, in two legislative sessions, has rejected legislation that HSLDA has supported that would implement the necessary changes in CAPTA. By refusing to bring Maryland law into line with federal law thousands of dollars of federal money is in jeopardy. HSLDA urges Maryland legislators to implement the changes in CAPTA to prevent this type of harassment by social workers.