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Supreme Court sets aside ruling on child abuse interviews

It voids a 9th Circuit ruling from an Oregon case that would have required social workers and police to get a warrant or parental permission before interviewing a child about suspected sexual abuse.

May 27, 2011|By David G. Savage, Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — The Supreme Court set aside a controversial ruling that would have required child care workers and police officers to obtain a search warrant or a parent's permission before speaking to a child at school about possible sexual abuse at home.

The justices had been urged by a broad coalition of school officials, state lawyers and the Obama administration to reject the ruling. It "threatens to eliminate an essential tool for the detection and prevention of child abuse," said Acting Solicitor Gen. Neal Katyal.

The justices took that advice Thursday, but did so in a roundabout way. They dismissed the Oregon lawsuit where the rule had arisen and voided everything that had grown out of the case.

The case began in 2003 when police arrested a man on suspicion of sexually abusing a young boy. The boy's parents said they suspected the man had also molested his own daughter.

Assigned to investigate, Bob Camreta, a caseworker for the Oregon Department of Human Services, went to the 9-year-old girl's elementary school with a police officer, and took the child out of class to interview her. The girl told Camreta she had been abused at home, and the father was indicted on sexual abuse charges. However, she recanted, and the charges were dropped.

Sarah Greene, the child's mother, filed suit, alleging the caseworker and the police officer violated her constitutional rights by interviewing her daughter without her permission and refusing to allow her to be present during physical examinations of her daughters. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco agreed, saying the "traditional 4th Amendment protections" apply when children are interrogated by police at school and so search warrants would be required.

In Thursday's decision, the Supreme Court said it could not rule squarely on the issue for several procedural reasons. Nonetheless, the justices said they had decided to "vacate the part of the 9th Circuit opinion" that requires search warrants.

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