Children’s Services Agency Often Utilizes Warrantless Searches

A recent report from ProPublica points out problems involving New York City’s child protective agency that may merit legislative action in Albany next year.

According to ProPublica, a Brooklyn mother recently sued the City of New York and its Administration of Children’s Services (ACS) for allegedly violating her Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. The mother—known by her initials, L.B.—claims that in January 2021, she awoke at 5:30 a.m. to find that police—with guns drawn—and ACS caseworkers were ordering her to open her door. L.B. alleges that she allowed the authorities to enter her apartment, not understanding that she was not required to let them in without a warrant. The authorities proceeded to inspect both her apartment and her son, finding nothing out of order.

L.B. contends that ACS caseworkers “inspected her home or examined and questioned her son at school more than two dozen times” over the past three years despite the fact that L.B. “has never been found to have committed any type of child maltreatment.” ACS caseworkers have allegedly required L.B.’s son to remove portions of his clothing so that they can check him for signs of abuse; they have also asked him questions about his mother’s sex life. Once L.B. began refusing to let ACS caseworkers into her home without a warrant, they proceeded to apply (unsuccessfully) to the court for warrants; when that did not work, they began inspecting and questioning her son at school without her permission.

L.B. believes that a person with a grudge against her has made a series of false reports to the Statewide Central Register of Child Abuse and Maltreatment that have triggered the repeated visits to her home and to her son’s school. L.B. further asserts that her son suffers from severe anxiety due to the visits and intrusive questioning from the authorities. Her employment has been impacted by the situation, and she has received complaints from her landlord.

For its part, ACS contends that it is required by law to investigate every call passed on to it by the Central Registry. L.B.’s attorneys argue that ACS caseworkers are not required to conduct repeated full searches once they have established that a child is safe.

A 2022 investigation by NBC News and ProPublica found that ACS caseworkers search more than 50,000 homes per year, but obtain warrants for their searches less than 0.5% of the time. Furthermore, the study showed that ACS only removes a child from a home in 4% of its cases. 

ProPublica reports that there are two bills that have been introduced that could help prevent situations like L.B.’s from occurring in the future. The first would require caseworkers to read a “family Miranda warning” to parents when they request entry to their homes. The warning would advise parents that they have the right to counsel, and that they have the right to refuse entry to caseworkers who do not have warrants. The second bill would cut down on false and malicious child abuse reports by requiring callers to the Central Registry to identify themselves. (Callers’ identities would be kept confidential.)

Child protective caseworkers have difficult jobs. They are called upon to investigate crimes against children, and they must investigate them thoroughly. If they mistakenly opt to leave a child in a household that turns out to be abusive, that child’s life can be at risk. With that said, L.B.’s allegations—if true—reflect a deeply troubling state of affairs at ACS that cannot be allowed to continue. New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms urges the Legislature to give serious consideration to the two bills mentioned above. No one should be allowed to misuse the system by making false accusations with impunity. Furthermore, investigations of child abuse reports should not cause children to be traumatized, and caseworkers should respect the constitutional rights of the persons that they visit.

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