Sometime in 1988 to 1989, the incidence of cocaine use among the maternity patients, a practice that harmed the fetus and was a form of child abuse, was at an alarming rate at the Charleston public hospital operated by the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC). The staff members at MUSC volunteered to help the city of Charleston to prosecute women who tested positive for cocaine while pregnant.
Thereafter, Charleston Solicitor Charles Codon organized a task force that included representatives of MUSC, the police, the County Substance Abuse Commission, and the Department of Social Services, and which subsequently adopted a document entitled “POLICY M-7” that dealt with the “Management of Drug Abuse During Pregnancy”.
The policy included the following provisions: (1) procedures for identifying and testing pregnant patients suspected of drug use, (2) a chain of custody to be followed when obtaining and testing patients’ urine samples, (3) education and treatment referral for patients testing positive, (4) police procedures and criteria for arresting patients who tested positive, and (5) prosecutions for drug offenses or child neglect. The policy neither provided for any changes in prenatal care of mothers who tested positive, nor mandate any special treatment for these mothers’ babies.
Petitioners, 10 mothers who received obstetrical care at MUSC and who were arrested after testing positive for cocaine, challenged the validity of “POLICY M-7” alleging among others that the warrantless and nonconsensual drug tests for the purpose of criminal investigation constituted unconstitutional searches. Respondents, on the other hand, alleged that petitioners consented and the drug tests were for special non-law-enforcement purposes. The District Court found in favor of the petitioners.
On appeal, the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s decision, although ruled that the searches were reasonable under the “special needs” doctrine. Petitioners raised the case by certiorari to the Supreme Court on the issue of the validity of the searches. The immediate goal of the government in conducting the drug tests is the eventual arrest and prosecution of those found positive for cocaine as apparent in the roles and close participation of the police and prosecutors in the policy; although the ultimate goal may have been to get the mothers who tested positive into substance abuse treatment.
The Supreme Court held that the drug tests for law enforcement purposes conducted by MUSC are unreasonable searches in the absence of the patient’s consent thereto. The general rule on the unconstitutionality of a nonconsensual warrantless search applies in this case. The alleged interest of the city of using the threat of criminal sanctions to deter pregnant women from using cocaine can not justify the use of such searches that violate the Fourth Amendment.
The searches were found to be unreasonable because firstly, the court assumed that the drug tests were done without the consent of the mothers. Secondly, the MUSC, being a state hospital, whose staff members are government actors under the purview of, and the urine tests conducted by them are searches within, the Fourth Amendment. Therefore, MUSC employees are obliged to inform their patients of the constitutional rights and secure a waiver of these rights from the latter when they obtain evidence from their patients for the specific purpose of incriminating those patients.
Moreover, the immediate goal of “POLICY M-7” was to gather evidence for law enforcement purposes in order to coerce patients into substance abuse treatment. In view of that goal and of the involvement of law enforcement officials in the policy, the case does not come under the “special needs” doctrine, which involves some suspicionless searches performed for reasons unrelated to law enforcement. 2. Nicholson v. Scoppetta, 820 N. E. 2d 840 (2004).
The three questions that the New York Court of Appeals had to answer were as follows: (1) When a child is permitted by his parent or other persons legally responsible in caring for him see the commission of domestic abuse against such parent, would he be considered a “neglected child” under N. Y. Family Ct. Act § 1012(f), (h)? (2) Does the emotional injury caused upon a child who witnessed domestic violence be so grave as to constitute an “imminent danger” or “risk” to a child’s “life or health” and substantiate removal?
and (3) In order to justify that “removal is necessary” (N. Y. Family Ct. Act §§ 1022, 1024, 1027) or that “removal was in the child’s best interests” (N. Y. Family Ct. Act §§ 1028, 1052(b)(i)(A)), is the fact that the child witnessed such abuse sufficient or must there be a presentation of additional, particularized evidence? As to the first question, the court held that it is insufficient to rule that a child is neglected by simply showing that the child saw the commission of domestic violence upon the respondent parent.
The court reasoned that three requirements must first be proved by the petitioner by a preponderance of evidence before declaring a child to be a “neglected child” under the law, to wit: (a) the presence of an actual or imminent danger of physical, emotional or mental impairment to the child; (b) the respondent parent’s failure to exercise a “minimum degree of care” in providing the child with proper supervision or guardianship; and (3) a causal connection between that injury and the parent’s failure to exercise the necessary degree of care must be proved.
In regard the second issue, the court ruled that when a child witnesses domestic violence, such experience does not automatically cause impairment upon his life or health. Such a situation does not presumptively constitute a ground for removal of the child because such removal may sometimes do more harm than good to the child. The determination of the issue of whether the child is in imminent danger should be based on findings of fact.
Persuasive evidence of infliction of continuous and grave abuse that has a high possibility of repetition constitutes imminent danger to life or health. A blanket presumption favoring removal of the child was never intended as seen in the plain language of the law and the legislative history. The court must balance any risk of serious harm with the possible harm that may be caused by the child’s removal by factually determining which course of action is in the best interests of the child.
In addition, there is a necessity of considering alternative means, other than removal, that can be done by the court to eliminate the imminent risk to the child; e. g. issuance of a temporary restraining order. As regards the third question, the court said that the mere allegation of the child having witnessed domestic violence is insufficient as a ground for removal.
Specific factual findings must be offered to justify removal, including evidence of the impact of removal on the child and a demonstration of efforts taken to prevent or eliminate the need for removal. The utilization of expert testimony is preferred in showing (a) an imminent risk to a child’s emotional state, and (b) the causal connection between the unwillingness or inability of the respondent to exercise a minimum degree of care toward the child and any harm inflicted upon the latter’s emotional health.
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Topic: Ferguson v. City of Charleston
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