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Coercing Strip-Searching of Children and Child Endangerment

camera phoneTelios Law represents a family in El Paso County that has sued the Board of County Commissioners and others in federal court, claiming that the County’s Department of Human Services violated their constitutional rights. On April 19, 2012, an El Paso County caseworker ordered Y.C. Doe to pull down her pants so she could photograph her buttocks for bruises from a spanking. Y.C. Doe responded that this was “creepy” and refused to cooperate. The caseworker then called in city and county police in an effort to make the child and her parents cooperate with the proposed strip-search. When they did not cooperate, the County took away custody of the child and all her siblings. Y.C. Doe’s younger sister E.C. was told by the caseworker when she protested, “You have no rights.”

Because the County has taken the position that Colorado law gives it the right to strip children without consent when there is reasonable suspicion of abuse, we recently asked the Colorado Attorney General to state his position onwhether the Colorado statute lets caseworkers strip-search children without consent, and if it does, whether the statute is constitutional.

Perhaps even more important than the constitutional concerns, El Paso County is putting all children similarly treated at risk of trauma from sexual abuse. Research shows, "The two factors that correlate most highly with sex abuse trauma are coercion by the abuser and a substantial age difference between abuser and victim." Both of these factors are present in a DHS strip search when the caseworker is trying to force the child to strip and be photographed in a non-medical setting. Without policies and safeguards, the haphazard and unprofessional handling of the chain of custody of photos causes a risk that they will find their way to the Internet. That has the potential of making the innocent child a victim multiple times.

In the lawsuit, the County has taken the position that Colorado law entitled the caseworker to inspect and take color photographs of children’s private parts--without consent from child or parents, a court order, or the privacy protections of a medical exam, if the caseworker had “reasonable suspicion” of child abuse. The County's brief stated, “Even the search complained of had actually been conducted [sic]; Y.C.’s Fourth Amendment rights would not have been violated as the search would be based on reasonable suspicion and/or probable cause.”

This position is not in the public interest, and indeed, endangers children. Not only are casual strip-searches likely to be perceived as sexual abuse, but they erode child safety by creating confusion about which adults can legitimately ask to see a child’s private parts. If a caseworker, why not a teacher or coach, such as recently-convicted former Colorado Springs police officer and assistant wrestling coach Joshua Carrier? In fact, a government employee’s job description that includes forcing children to strip just invites abuses. We cannot ignore the very real possibility that some caseworkers could just as easily perpetrate child abuse as correct it.

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