A lawsuit against a social worker who strip-searched and photographed nude a child after an anonymous, unsubstantiated claim of abuse has moved up to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The case was filed in El Paso County, Colorado, by the family of “I.B.,” who was forced into the examination by officials who refused to contact her parents for permission or obtain a warrant.
The child was part of a Head Start program in the county. An anonymous caller claimed the child had a bruise on her neck, bumps on her face, bruised knees and two small cuts on her stomach.
The defendants are April Woodard, Christina Newbill, Shirley Rhodus and Richard Bengtsson of social services; the county commissioners; and Reggie Bicha and Julie Krow of the state and county human services agencies.
The lawsuit alleges violations of the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable searches and the Fourteenth Amendment’s protection against undue interference with parental rights.
The district court suppressed the claim, alleging the defendants had “qualified immunity,” and the 10th Circuit, over the vehement dissent of one judge, agreed.
In documentation submitted to the Supreme Court asking for a review and reversal, the plaintiffs argue the high court must resolve conflicting opinions by lower courts.
“Where a child is not in imminent danger, a strip search’s highly intrusive nature justifies the modest step of requiring a caseworker to obtain a judicial warrant,” the filing explains. “Government will still have ample room to investigate the serious problem of child abuse.
“But at the same time, strip searches cause psychological harm to children – a serious danger that [defendants] cannot and do not contest, that is well-documented, and which I.B. herself has suffered.”
The brief argues that about 80 percent of the more than 4 million child-abuse investigations that occur annually “end with a finding that the children were not victims.” Therefore, “the modest step of requiring a warrant will help ensure that the investigations do not needlessly inflict the very harm they seek to prevent.”
The defendants mocked the child’s family, accusing them of having “ungrounded fears that investigators might perform unnecessarily invasive searches.”
“There is no ‘might’ about it – that is exactly what happened here, and the Tenth Circuit majority below never blessed Woodard’s strip search of I.B.”
“They do not dispute that a caseworker examined and photographed the intimate parts of a four-year-old girl at preschool, without her mother’s knowledge or consent. They do not dispute that the abuse allegations – and all previous allegations – were unfounded. They do not dispute that Woodard lied about the search for weeks to I.B.’s mother. And they do not dispute that most of the allegations could have been readily disproven through a much narrower search.”
The child and her family are due damages because, “it is not now and will never become moot.”