Mother sues state for strip-searching child without parental consent
A Colorado mother is suing employees of a county Department of Human Services (DHS), alleging they strip-searched and photographed her daughter without her consent or knowledge.
The mother, referred to as Jane Doe in the case, says the searches and photographs happened on at least two occasions in 2013 and 2014 while her daughter was ages 3 and 4. In both cases, DHS caseworkers from El Paso County, home to Colorado Springs, took the child aside at her school, asked her to remove parts of her clothing, and photographed private areas of her body. In both cases, DHS later dismissed the reports of suspected abuse as unfounded.
“I absolutely believe kids are being endangered by this,” said Theresa Sidebotham, the attorney representing Doe and her daughter. She argued the Colorado DHS guidelines about searching and photographing children leave the door open to sexual abuse. In addition, she said, the photographs are not handled securely enough and could be leaked online.
State law requires DHS to investigate and photograph suspected abuse, “especially in light of multiple allegations at issue here. Further, state law mandates that photos be taken to confirm or dispel concerns regarding visible injuries,” according to a statement from the El Paso County Attorney's office.
Colorado law allows social workers to take or have someone take color photographs of areas of trauma visible on a child if the person “reasonably believes” the child has been abused or neglected. That includes documenting suspected injuries on children, regardless of where those injuries are found on their bodies. According to two depositions of El Paso County DHS employees taken by Sidebotham, employees are not required to ask for parental consent to search a child.
Jane Doe claims the actions of DHS violated her daughter’s and her constitutional rights under the Fourth Amendment and that they have both suffered psychological distress as a result of the searches and photographs. The child reportedly told the caseworker and school nurse she did not want them to take pictures of her unclothed body, but they proceeded.
“It is established federal law that the Fourth Amendment reasonable standard for search and seizure applies to caseworkers,” Sidebotham said.
Supporters of DHS policy argue requiring parental consent could protect parents who abuse their children; abusive parents could simply refuse to allow their child to be examined. But Sidebotham argued viewing and photographing should be done in the context of a medical examination. She said if parents do not wish to consent to a medical examination, it is easy for DHS to get a court order if there is probable cause. “And if there is not probable cause, the child should not be examined,” Sidebotham said.
Last month, more than 80 Colorado lawmakers signed a letter of no-confidence to Gov. John Hickenlooper concerning Colorado DHS leadership, according to the Denver Post. DHS Executive Director Reggie Bicha is facing criticism for overseeing searches of developmentally disabled adults in a residential facility in Pueblo, Colo. Critics argue legal guardians were not notified before DHS nurses strip-searched the residents for suspected abuse. The state Department of Public Health and Environment is conducting an investigation.
Sidebotham hopes the public outcry over the Pueblo incident will shed light on DHS policies and the need for more restrictions. “At a minimum we should have a public discussion about this,” Sidebotham said.
The defendants in the El Paso suit have 60 days to file a response to the complaint.
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