The Sixth Circuit recently issued its opinion in Schulkers v. Kammer, involving the question of how the Fourth Amendment impacts social worker interactions with students during school. Plaintiffs alleged that Defendants, Elizabeth Kammer (Kammer), Alison Campbell (Campbell) and Kara violated their Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights when, among other activities, they conducted in-school interviews of Plaintiffs’ children about potential drug usage, abuse, and neglect in their home.
Plaintiffs had five children in their home. Because of potential drug use, the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services (“CHFS”) investigated the risk of abuse to the children. The case was assigned to Defendant Campbell, the supervisor of Defendants Kammer and Kara. Kammer and another CHFS social worker visited Plaintiffs’ children’s schools to interview the children, despite lacking warrants to conduct the interviews and without having notified Plaintiffs. During the interviews, school personnel were not allowed to sit with the students, and the students felt they were not free to leave. The interviews explored Plaintiff mother’s drug use and potential violence in the home; the children allegedly went home terrified of being removed from Plaintiffs’ custody. When Plaintiffs learned of the interviews, they filed a legal action against Defendants.
Plaintiffs alleged that Defendants’ in-school interviews of the children violated their Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. Defendants sought dismissal of the case, arguing that they were protected under qualified immunity. The lower court had previously rejected the defense, finding the children had a clearly established Fourth Amendment right which was violated with warrantless interviews. Defendants appealed the district court’s dismissal of qualified immunity.
Defendants argued for dismissal of Plaintiffs’ Fourth Amendment claim, reasoning that they were entitled to qualified immunity because the law at the time did not clearly establish that social workers were bound by the Fourth Amendment for child abuse investigations. The Sixth Circuit, after having reviewed applicable law, agreed. However, the court also held that Defendants’ conduct ultimately violated the Fourth Amendment. It emphasized the importance of determining whether a seizure of a student from a classroom is “reasonable” in light of all the circumstances. The court held that the Fourth Amendment governs a social worker’s in-school interview of a child for abuse. For social workers to intervene without a warrant or consent, they must have reasonable suspicion of abuse — there must be some level of evidence giving rise to a suspicion that a child is being abused or is in imminent danger. Without such reasonable suspicion, such warrantless conduct is unconstitutional. In this case, the court opined that Defendants lacked reasonable justification to seize the children and interview them. Specifically, the social workers did not have a plausible suspicion of child abuse or neglect – the underlying basis for interviews was illegal drug use, but Plaintiff mother’s drug screen results were negative for the targeted substances.
Finding that Defendants had violated the Fourth Amendment but were entitled to qualified immunity, the court dismissed Plaintiffs’ claim; it remanded the case for further proceedings relative to a separate, Fourteenth Amendment claim. The opinion may be accessed here.