An Oregon case argued this week before the U.S. Supreme Court that stemmed from a controversial child welfare investigation is hindering police and making it harder to protect children from sexual predators, officials say.
"This bad case has resulted in some bad case law," said Medford Police Detective Diane Sandler, one of three Medford detectives who specialize in crimes against children.
"The full implications of this decision won't likely be known for years to come."
The case stems from an incident on Feb. 24, 2003, when social services investigator Bob Camreta and Deputy Sheriff James Alford removed a 9-year-old from her Bend classroom to interview her in a school conference room about alleged sexual abuse by her father.
According to her family's court brief, the girl repeatedly denied that any such abuse had occurred, then changed her story after two hours of intense questioning.
"Fearing that the school bus would leave without her at dismissal time, the frightened child decided to lie, just to get out of the room," according to the brief.
The girl was removed from her home and placed in foster care. Three weeks later was she allowed to return to her mother, Sarah Greene. The charges against the father, Nimrod Greene, regarding his daughter later were dropped. He did accept a plea agreement, entailing no jail time, to an earlier allegation that Greene had attempted to fondle the 7-year-old son of his employer.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, weighing a lawsuit filed by the girl's family, ruled that her rights had been violated. The state of Oregon appealed, and the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.
Experts say Camreta v. Green is the first major case involving child-protection services to go before the Supreme Court in 21 years.
The 9th Circuit ruling has had a chilling effect in Oregon, prompting some school districts to forbid the questioning of children by police or child protection workers without parental consent or a warrant. Such interviews often are necessary because parents may have an interest in covering up wrongdoing, and physical evidence that might help justify a warrant often is absent in child abuse cases.
The fallout for children in Jackson County from this case began over a year ago when a decision was made to disallow police officers from accompanying child welfare workers to schools to investigate allegations of child abuse. Unless or until there is a finding of abuse by a Department of Human Services worker, police are required to get parental consent or a motion from a judge, she said.
"That all takes time," Sandler said. "I am worried about the children who are falling through the cracks. We can't go out to the schools now."
Police prefer to do their initial interview in a neutral area such as a school or the Children's Advocacy Center. Investigating allegations of abuse at a child's home is problematic for the police, and for the alleged victim, she said.
"We don't know that a parent is a safe person at this point because we're investigating child abuse. The parent may refuse to allow us to talk to the child. And, even if they do, it's very difficult to get a disclosure from a child when a perpetrator is sitting in the next room," Sandler said.
Pam Bergreen, Jackson County DHS coordinator, agreed the changes have placed a burden on her agency and put children at risk.
"It has made it more difficult in some ways," Bergreen said. "It's a parent-focused perspective rather than a child-focused one. I'm very, very concerned that this might interfere with a child's reaching out for help."
Bergreen said many children will recant an initial disclosure, only to come forward later in life to say they were protecting their parent or their home or because they were threatened or felt frightened.
"There are lots of reasons why we have concerns about Camreta versus Greene," Bergreen said.
Oregon officials, supported by briefs from the U.S. government, 40 other states and various law enforcement and child-advocacy groups, say requiring a warrant in such cases would undermine a proven method of investigating child abuse. They say investigators initially may lack sufficient evidence to obtain a warrant and need the leeway to interview a possible victim without the parents' presence, at a school or another site away from home.
The lead argument was presented Tuesday by Oregon Attorney General John Kroger, whose brief says the girl's interrogation was justified and reasonable.
Kroger's brief depicts child abuse as a "national epidemic," affecting more than 750,000 children annually. It notes that parents are the abusers in more than 80 percent of the cases.
At issue is whether the two officers violated the Fourth Amendment's ban on "unreasonable search and seizure" when they questioned the girl in that manner without a warrant, without her mother's consent, and in the absence of emergency circumstances.
On the other side, an attorney representing the Greene family argued that the interrogation was unconstitutional, and a warrant should have been sought. In support of this stance, 18 friend-of-the-court briefs have been filed by 70 groups that are concerned about overzealous child-protection policies and encroachment on parental rights.
Marlene Mish, executive director of the Children's Advocacy Center in Jackson County, said she would argue that the word "interrogation" is a misnomer.
"We don't interrogate our kids," said Mish. "The child is the presumed victim. We talk to them. You interrogate the suspect."
Mish said she hopes the court will side with the agencies who are fighting to protect the rights of the child victims.
"We've worked so hard for 25 years to develop a system that works in favor of the victim," Mish said. "They're starting to hack away at it."
Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or e-mail email@example.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.