Protecting kids

In Oregon, back in 2003, a 9-year-old girl was taken out of her public school class and escorted to a conference room, where she was grilled for two hours by a male child-welfare case worker. Also in the room was a male police officer wearing a gun.

No one the girl knew -- no teacher, no principal, certainly neither of her parents -- was present. Nor had either of her parents given consent for the questioning. The girl was not informed she had the right to remain silent, nor that she could have a lawyer because she was not a suspect.

Although they had no evidence the girl's father had molested her, he was suspected of a related crime. The child spent most of the two hours denying she had been touched inappropriately, but the case worker continued to question her until she told them what they wanted to hear.

The case -- Camreta v. Greene, on which the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments Tuesday -- centers on the girl's father, Nimrod Greene. All charges involving his daughter were eventually dropped. The family sued the case worker, Bob Camreta, and Deputy Sheriff James Alford.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the two men were entitled to immunity for their official actions, but also said the questioning of the girl violated the Fourth Amendment ban on "unreasonable search and seizure."

Mr. Camreta decided to appeal the Fourth Amendment portion of the ruling.

Supporting the Oregon officials are the Obama administration, 40 states, school boards, district attorneys and the National Association of Social Workers.

"Protecting children from abuse is one of society's fundamental goals," Oregon Attorney General John Kroger argued. "The government has a compelling interest in conducting child-abuse investigations in a manner that is least likely to be traumatic for the child and is least likely to taint disclosures of abuse."

The other side is represented by 70 groups across the political spectrum.

"The fact that the seized person here was a 9-year-old girl requires, as a matter of constitutional law, more vigilance about protecting individual liberty from state abuse," the Center for Individual Rights said in its brief.

Concerns about parental child abuse are legitimate and serious. But while it may make investigators' work more difficult, the default setting should be respect for the family unit and constitutional protection from badgering witnesses.

The court should craft firm guidelines to protect children -- and their parents and guardians -- from well-intentioned officials who run roughshod over the rights enshrined in the Constitution.