Supreme Court Case to Outline Powers of CPS Agencies, Rights of Parents

This is the third in a series of very good articles about the Nebraska child welfare system and the state’s Department of Health and Human Services (North Platte Telegraph, 2/16/11).

The article’s main function is to alert us to an important case currently before the United States Supreme Court called Camreta vs. Greene.  The case is important in a good number of ways, and I’ll post a separate piece about it soon.

What child and family advocates hope is that the Supreme Court will use the Camreta case to outline the minimal rights of parents and children when confronted by child welfare agencies.  Those would include the basic procedures CPS agencies would be required to employ in gathering information to make a determination about removing a child from its home or not.

As Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform told the Telegraph,

“Right now, in Nebraska, DHHS workers are free to walk into a school, pull a child they think might have been abused out of class, interrogate her for hours, ask all sorts of leading questions and otherwise traumatize her based on no more than someone’s anonymous call to a hotline alleging abuse.”

Perhaps more importantly, they can do that without the knowledge or consent of the child’s parents.  And the real kicker is that it is those very parents who stand to lose custody of the child if the interrogators manage to extract damning answers from him/her.

You may not be surprised to find out that that’s exactly what happened in the Camreta case.  I’ll describe that in more detail in my future piece, but suffice it to say that the lengths to which CPS and law enforcement personnel went to tear two girls from their parents is outrageous.  And that’s putting it mildly.

Advocates for children and families hope the Supreme Court will spell out what CPS has to do and what it has to prove before it can take a child from its parents.  In the process, they hope it will specifically invalidate much of what is often done and was done in the Camreta case.

If all that sounds a bit like the Miranda case and various Fourth Amendment cases in criminal law, that’s no accident.  The respondents in Camreta are asking the Court that most modest of things – for children to have the same rights as suspected criminals.

I’ve said it before about fathers.  It is beyond strange that, when it comes to establishing and maintaining a relationship with their children, fathers have fewer due process rights than the most heinous mass murderer regarding his/her freedom.

So, I can say the same about children.  As the Camreta case makes abundantly clear, when it comes to taking children from their parents, state officials routinely behave in ways they wouldn’t dream of trying when dealing with an adult suspected of murder.

Wexler said a favorable ruling (in the Camreta case) would end “hair-trigger” assumptions that abuse is taking place which can cause real trauma in a child’s life when that child is removed from his or her family based on unfounded accusations.

As the two previous Telegraph articles have shown, CPS agencies in Nebraska seem time and again to prefer foster care to parental care.  Many states have clear policies of keeping families together if at all possible and reintegrating them if temporary child placement in foster care is necessary.  But other states show a marked tendency toward breaking families up and separating parents from their children.

That of course is not only traumatic for children but bad for them in the long run.  To date, no one has shown any better environment for children than a home with two biological parents, but that doesn’t stop child welfare agencies from wielding great power over parents and children.  And that power in many cases goes essentially unchecked.

I’ve said before that government has a tendency to enhance its own power at the expense of individuals and that is currently nowhere more obvious than in the arena of family law.  As things now stand in many states, overworked, underpaid, undereducated and undertrained CPS caseworkers have the power to make major long-term decisions about the rights of parents and children.  As a practical matter, those decisions are often subject to little or no judicial review because many of the families involved don’t have the financial resources to fight back.

Wexler said not even the highest levels of government have the power and authority to intrude into an American citizen’s private life as CPS does. Wexler said not even in the aftermath of 9-11 do anti-terrorism agencies have similar power.

He’s right, and it is that power, unknown in all the rest of American life, that the Supreme Court has the opportunity to check.  That governments guard their powers jealously should be apparent just from reading the list of amicus briefs filed in the Camreta case.  It’s no accident that the United States, 41 states and the District of Columbia support the power of the State of Oregon to do the outrageous things its agents did.

This case is vital to the future of parents and their right to care for their children, a right the Supreme Court itself has called “essential,” “basic rights of man” and “far more precious than property rights.”

Needless to say, I’ll report on the Court’s decision when it’s published.

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