CLS contributed to a big victory for Pennsylvania families! On June 16, 2020 the PA Supreme Court unanimously held that Children & Youth agencies cannot force a parent to submit a drug screen in the context of a child welfare investigation. This case was brought after a child welfare agency attempted to compel a parent to take a urine test in front of an agency employee, based only on an anonymous complaint. CLS joined National Advocates for Pregnant Women to submit an amicus brief in support of parents’ right to privacy.
In a case that garnered a great deal of media attention, a father of 5 children, an attorney who was recently elected district attorney for Greene County, was the subject of several anonymous calls to the child abuse hotline. Although the calls did not allege abuse nor neglect, they did allege that the father had been observed to be “out of it” and “impaired” on a few occasions, including one incident when he was in the presence of one of his children.
Fayette County Children & Youth Services (“the Agency”) investigated the matter. Each of the children was interviewed, and neither the interviews nor the remainder of the investigation revealed any cause to suspect abuse or neglect of the children. Nevertheless, the Agency requested that the father submit to an involuntary observable urine screen, meaning an Agency employee would accompany father to the restroom and observe his urination into a sample cup, which would then be tested for illicit substances. Father refused to comply, and the Agency asked for an order compelling the father to submit to the screen, which was granted by the trial court. Father filed an appeal to the Pennsylvania Superior Court.
The Pennsylvania Superior Court reversed the trial court’s order, recognizing the Father’s Fourth Amendment right to privacy and further holding that there was not statutory authorization to compel a parent’s drug screen in the context of an investigation. The Agency appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which agreed to review the matter.
Holding of the Court
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Superior Court, unanimously holding that “In no event does the CPSL [Child Protective Services Law] expressly or implicitly authorize collecting samples of bodily fluids, without consent, for testing.”
The court also expressed skepticism that compelled drug screening was necessary to the Agency’s mandate to investigate child abuse, noting “The Agency’s implication, that precluding this avenue of investigation handicaps its ability to provide the mandated assessment, is over-stated. The Agency has not explained how any results obtained from the proposed testing would further its determination of whether or not child abuse occurred or to identify a perpetrator.”
Finding that the statute was clear on its face, the court declined to reach the constitutional arguments raised by father and amici. However, it noted that the Agency’s efforts to find authorization for compelled screening in other areas of law, including those governing private custody matters, “is less a demonstration of legislative authorization than an illumination of the potential constitutional considerations such an authorization would face had it been granted.”
Community Legal Services, led by staff attorney Caroline Buck, and National Advocates for Pregnant Women filed an amicus in support of this result, which was joined by dozens of child welfare and drug policy experts. The brief argued that:
- No statutory authority permits a compelled drug screen in the context of a child welfare investigation, and the Fourth Amendment to the United States as well as Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution would render such a statute unconstitutional even if it did exist.
- Drug screen results are unreliable and often inaccurate, and even positive drug screens are not evidence of inability to parent.
- An expansion of Pennsylvania law would have a disparate impact on families of color and poor families in a system already rife with race and class bias.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, joined by the Home School Legal Defense Association, also filed a brief highlighting the significant constitutional protections at play.