STRIP SEARCHES OF CHILDREN
STRIP SEARCHES OF CHILDREN
At 3 A.M. the telephone rings, awakening you from a sound sleep. The gruff voice on the other end identifies himself as a child abuse investigator, threatening immediate removal of your children if you hang up. The following afternoon, caseworkers enter your home, look through your refrigerator, and question your two-and five-year-old children. The case is closed, labeled as unfounded.
Two months later, another child protective services caseworker appears to strip-search your children, a task the first worker had neglected to perform. He leaves, admonishing that your failure to comply with another such possible search will result in the immediate removal of your children. Such was the harrowing sequence of events for one family in New York City, in October and December of 1995.
This drama plays out daily, inflicting needless trauma on hundreds of young children. Lacking any evidence of wrongdoing beyond an anonymous tip, social workers enter homes or remove children from their classrooms to perform such “examinations” as they look for possible signs of abuse.
Consider the case of the Kennedy family, of Covina, California. On August 19, 1995, the family was planning a birthday party for one of their children. It was almost 5 P.M. when a caseworker from the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services arrived with two police officers from the Covina Police Department in tow.
Although neither the police nor Aluzri had a search warrant, they entered the home over the objections of the Kennedy family. The caseworker then explained that they were investigating an anonymous report.
Caseworker Aluzri first conducted a partial strip search on two of the older Kennedy boys. She then requested immunization records, names of pediatricians, and the names of the schools the children attended. She then proceded to search the home–a process which lasted for at least a full hour. Before leaving the home, caseworker Aluzri told the Kennedys that they could expect a follow-up visit from another social worker.
Or consider the plight of the Calabretta family, of Yolo County, California. On November 10, 1994, caseworker Jill Floyd, along with Woodland Police Department officer Nicholas Schwall, entered the Calabretta home without a search warrant under the threat that if entry was refused, a forced entry would be considered.
Floyd went into a room with the oldest child to question him for approximately 15 to 30 minutes. It was then that Mrs. Calabretta and the officer heard the child crying. Caseworker Floyd had instructed him to pull down the pants of his three-year-old sister so she could examine her.
These families were fortunate, in that the children were not removed from their homes and placed into foster care for several weeks, months or years. The trauma inflicted by these needless interventions will forever remain with these families. In Westchester County, New York, a child protective services caseworker somehow ended up with the wrong information about a particular family’s address. As it turned out, the family to be investigated lived in a town with the same name as the street the Beck family lived on.
By the time she arrived at the schools the Beck children were attending, the caseworker knew all of this. Nevertheless, she took it upon herself to interrogate and strip search both children. First sixteen-year-old Jennifer, then thirteen-year-old David. She lied to young David, telling him that she had found bruises and welts on Jennifer’s body.
“I felt like I had been attacked,” Jennifer wrote later. “I felt so alone and afraid and I realized that no one else who was in that room cared to protect me.” What upset her the most, she wrote, was that she was unable to protect her brother.
The Becks sued Westchester County, and while refusing to accept only monetary damages, they demanded that systemic reforms be implemented and limits on strip searching be put in place. They won those limits in a consent decree. This was in 1988.
How effective were these reforms is curbing the practice? In 1997, Westchester County agreed to pay out over $50,000 to a Mt. Vernon couple who charged that their children had been strip searched during a wrongful child protective services investigation.
In a New Jersey case, “Alethea Clark” endured five separate midnight raids by child protective services caseworkers and police. Each time her two pre-school aged children were awakened, taken from their beds, and stripped naked at the insistence of the caseworker who looked them over from head to toe, each time finding nothing. Each of the five reports was labelled as unfounded.
A question asked of Abigal Van Buren in her syndicated Dear Abby column was whether a “Colorado Mother” should keep her child home from school in the event that she receives a minor injury. A former Assistant Commissioner of Public Welfare in Massachusetts, Elizabeth Vorenberg, corrected the advice Van Buren originally gave in her column:
I can tell you “Colorado Mother” acted wisely, and you are mistaken. Schoolteachers are instructed to report a child’s “black eye” or bruise on the chance that the child has been physically abused at home. Yes, children have been pulled out of class and interrogated, even strip-searched (for more bruises) — a terrifying experience for any child.
Given the extremely high rate of false allegations entering the child welfare system, particularly those phoned in by anonymous callers, the use of this technique is certain to impact on countless innocent children and families. Marc Parent recounts his experience as a New York City caseworker:
Once in a while, cases generated by anonymous callers proved to be true, but not usually. Reported crack houses with children locked in small crates covered in bruises and urine often turned out to be buildings with doormen and well-cared-for children tucked tightly in bed. The toll of the false reports was exhausting. It was sickening to to visit families in the middle of the night, make parents wait outside, wake up children and strip them naked to look for bruises that were never there.
“More often than not,” he adds, “victims of false reports turned out to be people in the midst of completely unrelated feuds with a neighbor or two. Strange coincidence.”
The allegation which precipitates an investigation apparently need not necessarily involve physical or sexual abuse for a strip search to be conducted. Consider the case of Shirley and James Dumas, of Indiana. They were told that state welfare agents had come to their church looking for them on January 23rd, 1996. Later that evening, there was a knock at the door.
Dr. Charles R. Attwood, M.D., F.A.A.P., who as a practicing pediatrician has served as the primary physician for his community’s child protection agency, describes what happened next:
There, she was confronted by two members of Child Protective Services (CPS), a social welfare agency of the State of Indiana, and two armed policemen. They insisted, she said, that she strip the clothing from Jeremiah, the 17 month old son she and James had adopted 8 months earlier. They inspected the child for bruises and then asked if they could look in the refrigerator. Shirley reports that when she said “no,” and demanded to know what this was all about, it was opened anyway. She was told that their daughter was being taken into state custody because she and James were not feeding him proper food. The refrigerator search was done to confirm that there was no meat in the house. It was known at CPS that the Shirley and James were vegetarians.
An isolated case? Dr. Attwood recounts a similar case in California, in which a child was removed from her home and placed in state care simply because she ate a vegetarian diet.
In Illinois, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a class-action lawsuit during the early 1980’s, alleging that warrantless searches of homes and strip-searching of children were “routine” practices in child abuse investigations.
Douglas Besharov, founding director of the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, vividly describes this traumatic and humiliating practice as it was alleged to have occurred in the Illinois action:
Authority to look for signs of maltreatment on a child’s body is not license to humiliate the child. In E.Z. v. Coler, for example, the parents alleged that the male worker completely undressed their 2-year-old daughter in the presence of her 4-year-old brother and a neighbor. They further alleged that he “held her up to a light, spread-eagled, for visual inspection of her vaginal area. [He] placed [her] on a couch and lifted her legs over her head to make a visual inspection of her anus.”
In briefs filed with the court, The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services argued that any restriction on strip-searches “would immediately bring the child-abuse-hotline investigations to a halt.” The Department claimed it had the right to strip-search any child at any time based on information in any report to its hotline, regardless of the substance or nature of the report.
Ner Littner, a prominent Chicago child psychiatrist who testified for the ACLU in the Illinois case, stated in an interview that even the best adjusted child is likely to suffer “upset, sleep difficulties, nightmares, and difficulty eating” after such an experience. Littner indicated that for the more emotionally vulnerable child, the experience can significantly worsen any condition the child may have, and in some cases leave permanent damage.
The potentially devastating impact of these strip searches on children is illustrated by a sobbing 16-year-old girl who was searched in a California Youth Guidance Center.
“Apparently the search involved two men who held her arms while three women conducted the strip search,” said San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan. Since the search, the girl “has been vomiting blood and having nightmares,” the girl’s mother told reporters.
“She’s not a bad kid. She is extremely shy — won’t even wear shorts on the street because she doesn’t want her body exposed.”
At night, her daughter seemed to be at her worst, her mother said. “She has dreams he is holding her down and sometimes he is chasing her,” she said.
In the state of Iowa, the governor rejected a proposal by the Department of Human Services that would authorize social workers to strip-search and photograph school children without their parents knowledge. It was found that the workers had been using this practice without authorization, and wanted to make it legal primarily because of lawsuits by parents.
Evidently, some social workers consider strip-searching of children to be a routine and harmless matter. In Texas, a female social worker took a lunch companion along with her as she conducted a strip search of a teen-aged boy in his school.
If there is one thing that some social workers do better than inflicting trauma on innocent children, it is committing perjury, and this social worker would prove no exception. She denied having taken anyone with her to the school while testifying under oath. Like Alethea Clark, this family was the victim of multiple false allegations. This was the eighth investigation the family endured at the hands of the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services.
At least a few legislators are beginning to take notice. In Missouri, during debate surrounding a 1994 bill intended to remove allegations of neglect from the child protective investigations unit, Senator John Russell, R-Lebanon, called for the reactivation of unit in the Department of Public Safety that reviewed improper behavior by its Division of Family Services during investigations of child abuse reports.
Russell told fellow lawmakers of a case in which a caseworker visited a child at her school. The child was called to the principal’s office, then taken to another room “where she was stripped to determine if there was any abuse.”
“Every senator on this floor knows of a case that merits no investigation by the DFS or anyone else,” said Senator Emory Melton, R-Cassville. The bills sponsor, Joe Moseley, D-Columbia, said he had not personally heard any of the “horror stories” until he filed the bill. Since then, he said, numerous people had written him letters complaining about their treatment at the hands of the agency.
Evidently, the use of this dehumanizing and frightening procedure has extended itself to the private agencies as well. A social worker employed by Catholic Charities in Illinois reportedly disrobed a five-year-old boy and his 6-year-old sister looking for evidence of abuse. Not only does widespread strip-searching inflict needless trauma on thousands of children who have not been abused, but it very often fails to detect abuse in those who have.
The value of the technique is perhaps best illustrated by the tragic outcome of this case. Finding no evidence of abuse, the caseworker labeled the report as unsubstantiated. A few weeks later, five-year-old Arturo Barrera was dead–thrown to the floor by his mother’s boyfriend.
Police have also conducted strip searches of children, in one case entering an apartment late at night to investigate an anonymous tip claiming that a seven-year-old girl had been abused. Upon demanding entry into the apartment, the parent objected and was told no warrant was necessary. The police officers “with no indication that the child was injured . . . stripped and inspected [her] body, ostensibly for marks or injuries. No injuries were found.”
On appeal, the officer argued that if social workers are allowed to conduct strip searches as a matter of routine, that a police officer certainly must be allowed as well.
The court, while declining to address the issue of whether social workers are allowed to conduct such strip searches without a search warrant, ruled against the officer, ruling that police officers specifically do not have the right, and that he had violated the constitutional rights of the family.
The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit explains what happened to a five-year-old girl named Sarah, after a New York City child protective services caseworker removed her from her kindergarten class:
Sarah was taken to the emergency room at Coney Island Hospital where a pediatrician and a gynecologist examined her for signs of possible sexual abuse. When they found none, she was returned to her parents. The case was abandoned as “unfounded.”
Thus have we given social workers powers and immunity provisions that far exceed those of the police. They conduct these searches with impunity, systematically abusing hundreds of thousands of children every year in the name of child protection.
Veteran journalist and university professor Richard Wexler testified before a Congressional Committee, detailing the widespread prevalence of these techniques:
When the caseworker comes to the door, demands entry, pulls a small child aside and starts asking traumatic questions; when the worker then strip searches the child looking for bruises, how is that erring on the side of the child? Such strip searches are common practice. In America today, Timothy Mcveigh has more protection against a search of his home or his person, than does an innocent child. The child savers constantly speak of “children’s rights,” but for some reason, the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure never seems to be one of them.
“But the problem with this system is not that it hurts parents, though of course it does,” Wexler explained to the Committee. “The problem with this system is that it hurts children.”
In 2009, many professional organizations expressed their concern over the widespread practice. General Counsel of the National Association of Social Workers, Carolyn Polowy, was quoted in USA Today in a story highlighting a U.S. Supreme Court case “involving the strip search of a 13-year-old girl at her middle school” by school officials.
The National Association of Social Workers, together with its Arizona Chapter, filed an amicus brief in the case. The National Education Association, the National Association of School Psychologists, the American Society for Adolescent Psychiatry, and the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children all took a stand in support of the girl’s mother in the lawsuit.
“Social science research demonstrates that strip searches can traumatize children and adolescents and result in serious emotional damage,” the story stated, citing studies in educational and legal journals.
Copyright © 1997 – 2015, Rick Thoma
Next | Index | Home | Footnotes