Child Advocacy Clinic Supports Rights of Children in Supreme Court Case

Child Advocacy Clinic Supports Rights of Children in Supreme Court Case

Public Affairs, 212-854-2650

New York, March 18, 2011—A key case facing the U.S. Supreme Court this term examines the rights of children to be protected from unreasonable search and seizure under the Constitution.

The Child Advocacy Clinic at Columbia Law School has joined several New York-based children and family rights groups to support those rights, by submitting an amicus brief in Camreta v. Greene.

The case focuses on a 9-year-old Oregon girl, "S.G.," who was taken from her public school classroom and questioned by a male child-protection worker about whether her father had ever molested her. The only other adult present was a sheriff with a gun. After two hours of questioning, the child finally said that her father had molested her, though she later recanted. Because she was not a suspect, S.G. had not been informed of her rights to remain silent, or to have an attorney present during the questioning.

The Child Advocacy Clinic, directed by Jane Spinak, the Edward Ross Aranow Professor of Clinical Law, joined the co-authors of the amicus brief to argue that S.G.’s privacy rights were implicated, “because families have constitutionally protected privacy and liberty interests in controlling how their children are exposed to such an intimate topic as sex and sexual abuse.”

To rule otherwise, the brief argues, would give child welfare caseworkers and others “unfettered authority” to interrogate children about sexual abuse and possibly lead to false accusations. Further, while they perform an “admirable task,” the brief says, caseworkers “do not have the training, expertise or certification required of judges, doctors, psychologists, police or social workers, and often provide “inaccurate or even harmful assessments based on these deficiencies.”

Camreta v. Greene is the first major case involving child-protection services to go before the Supreme Court in more than 20 years. It has stirred intense interest among those with a stake in child welfare issues, and has been the subject of considerable media attention. A recent Washington Post editorial (“Privacy v. safety”) said S.G.’s mother should have been approached before her daughter was interviewed, and cited the amicus brief in noting that some 90 percent of parents consent to their children being interviewed when sexual abuse is suspected.

The brief noted, “Sexual abuse of children is a tragic and devastating crime that must be stopped. But a state does not serve that laudable goal by ignoring the constitutional rights of children and families, or by inflicting lasting harm on young children through poorly executed or unnecessary interrogations.”

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