A court case has developed in Missouri that raises the question of whether county officials are allowed to retaliate against the parents of a victim of abuse by one of its own employees.
The situation is that a 15-year-old boy was sexually abused by a deputy in Scott County, Missouri.
The parents threatened to sue the county because it allowed the deputy, who had been disciplined in previous employment situations, to have a job, and the authority of a deputy, in the county.
According to a report from the Institute for Justice, which is working on the case on behalf of the family, “Then, a few weeks later, the family heard a knock at their front door and found a juvenile officer and two highway patrol troopers accompanying a child-welfare investigator from the Scott County Children’s Division. The child-welfare investigator informed the parents that they were being formally investigated for child neglect, claiming that an anonymous source called the state’s child abuse tipline and reported the family.”
”If there are no constitutional checks on investigations, then they could become a default form for the government to punish its critics,” said IJ Attorney Christie Hebert. “Investigations are easy to launch, have little oversight, and can ruin their subjects’ lives before a court, let alone a prosecutor, has an opportunity to decide if there is any basis for the investigation. We’re hopeful that the Supreme Court will recognize that in many ways investigations are punishment in and of themselves, and thus, subject to constitutional scrutiny.”
The IJ has asked the Supreme Court now to hold that child protective services officer “accountable for launching an unwarranted, retaliatory investigation after the family criticized the county.”
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”From ordinary families to the highest echelons of power, government investigations are regularly used to punish innocent Americans for speaking out,” said Institute for Justice Attorney Anya Bidwell. “In many circumstances, being ‘under investigation’ is a punishment in and of itself. Retaliatory investigations ruin lives, drain bank accounts and cast an unsubstantiated cloud of guilt on everyone within their reach. Worst of all, they intimidate citizens into staying silent. That’s anathema to the First Amendment. There must be an ability to sue government officials when they do this to you.”
The case began with the deputy’s abuse of the 15-year-old son in 2018. The deputy was arrested and charged, and the family discussed a lawsuit for the county’s liability.
”What unfolded next only served to retraumatize the already-victimized family. The investigator returned to their home two more times. She demanded one-on-one interviews with the children and attempted to have the teenage son—the victim of the initial abuse—to have his genitals and rectum examined for evidence. The boy’s cellphone was also taken, and he was told that he could be charged with a sex crime. Because the family was lucky enough to find a dedicated pro bono lawyer, the visits stopped. But the investigation did not,” the IJ explained.
Eventually the “investigator” issued a report “finding the parents guilty of neglect.”
The investigator claimed that by allowing the teen to have access to a cell phone, the internet and a car they were “complicit” in the abuse.
The parents challenged the ruling and the Missouri Child Abuse and Neglect Review Board found that the investigator’s findings of neglect were unsubstantiated and a separate review by a county juvenile officer found no evidence of parental neglect.
They then settled with the county out of court.
Their lawsuit against the investigator, however, was blocked at the appellate level by the concept, created by judges, that officers are largely protected from lawsuits for any actions they take.
That decision from the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found “there is no such thing as a constitutional protection from retaliatory investigation,” the IJ said.
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