A ruling late last month by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court means child welfare agencies in the state may no longer conduct home inspections to look for signs of abuse or neglect on the mere say-so of an anonymous hotline caller but must first have probable cause under the Fourth Amendment.
In a time when critics say the nation’s child welfare systems are more appropriately called family surveillance systems that break up families simply because they’re poor and, all too often, Black, Latino or Indigenous, the ruling may well have broad racial justice implications beyond the Keystone State. The court affirmed that anonymous, unverified allegations that aren’t backed by solid evidence cannot justify authorities demanding to enter homes with little or no notice — a finding that child welfare reformers will now have stronger grounds to seek to litigate in other states.
The ruling stemmed from a Philadelphia child welfare investigation in which officials acted on an anonymous tip that a mother was homeless and might not have fed her child in recent hours. When they tracked the mother down, she refused to let them in, and they had no hard evidence to back up the allegations. The county child welfare agency went to a judge and obtained an order compelling the woman to let the inspectors in.
The mother appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which rejected the lower court’s finding that the authorities needed only to show a “fair probability” that the child was in need of services in order to inspect the home. Rather, the Supreme Court agreed that the woman was entitled to refuse entry under the Fourth Amendment, which protects citizens against unreasonable search and seizure by the government.
Organizations including the ACLU of Pennsylvania, Community Legal Services and Legal Aid of Southeastern Pennsylvania submitted amicus briefs in support of the mother.