In a landmark ruling, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has held that Fourth Amendment protections extend to home inspections conducted by child welfare agencies investigating anonymous hotline calls, and that child welfare agencies may not search family homes without first demonstrating probable cause under the law. This case has broad-ranging racial justice implications for Black and brown families facing extraordinary levels of child welfare surveillance, in a nation where 53% of Black children will experience a DHS investigation in their lifetime, and in a Commonwealth where Black children are overrepresented and face worse outcomes at every level of child welfare involvement. The Court has affirmed that anonymous, unverified allegations that are not supported by competent evidence cannot justify forced entry into family homes.
In this matter, a mother who was protesting in front of the Philadelphia Housing Authority was the subject of an anonymous call to the Philadelphia Department of Human Services (DHS) alleging that she was homeless and that it was “unknown” whether she fed her child during this single eight-hour period while she was protesting. Although the agency failed to find evidence to corroborate these allegations, it sought to enter the mother’s home to further its investigation. The mother refused, and the trial court issued an order directing the mother to allow DHS to investigate her home. The mother appealed, and the Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s order, holding that an agency may search a parent’s home whenever it can show “a fair probability that a child is in need of services.” The mother appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which agreed to review the matter.
Supreme Court Ruling
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected the lower court’s “fair probability” analysis, holding that “nothing short of probable cause, guided by the traditional principles that govern its federal and state constitutional limitations, will suffice when a trial court makes a determination as to whether or not to authorize a home visit.” The Court rejected arguments that a lower evidentiary threshold is permissible in child welfare cases, explicitly holding that there is no “social worker” exception to the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, and affirming that “the Fourth Amendment applies equally whether the government official is a police officer conducting a criminal investigation or a caseworker conducting a civil child welfare investigation.”
The Court also held that in this particular matter, DHS failed to meet a probable cause evidentiary threshold, noting that the allegation of homelessness was moot, because DHS had identified the family’s home for its inspection request, and also that the allegation that one child had not eaten for one portion of the day was lacking in corroboration. The Court found that the Superior Court had erred in finding that a “nexus” existed between the allegations against the family and any information that could be gleaned from a home inspection. It also assailed the lower court for relying on stale allegations from years ago pertaining to the family, and for failing to address the credibility and reliability of the underlying allegations in affirming the home inspection. Finally, the Court emphasized that in proceedings to compel home inspections, parents are entitled to due process, namely notice and an opportunity to be heard, finding that parents were deprived of due process when DHS presented evidence contrary to its own petition at trial.
Community Legal Services, led by staff attorney Caroline Buck, joined the ACLU of Pennsylvania in an amicus brief in support of this result. The brief argued that:
- The Fourth Amendment protection for privacy in the home may not be breached by a standard as broad and vague as a possibility that a child may be “in need of services.”
- Anonymous allegations of child neglect in a public place do not justify an intrusion into a parent’s home.
- Robust Fourth Amendment protections are necessary to prevent racial injustice, which is rife in the child welfare system, where Black families and families of color are disproportionately represented at every stage of child welfare intervention, and also experience disparate outcomes.
Briefs supporting the mother were also filed by Legal Aid of Southeastern Pennsylvania, Bucks County Dependency Court Parents’ Conflict Panel and the Home School Legal Defense Association.
Majority Opinion (Donohue, joined by Baer, Saylor, and Wecht)
Concurring and Dissenting Opinion (Dougherty and Todd)
Dissenting Opinion (Mundy)
LASP/Bucks County Panel Amicus