Supreme Court Declines to Hear Parents’ Case Against Child Protective Services Investigator for Retaliation Against Their Family

Court leaves open the question of whether retaliatory investigations by government officials, even when they lack probable cause, are unconstitutional

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · January 10, 2023

Yesterday, the United States Supreme Court declined to hear a case against a child protective services (CPS) official who abusively investigated a Missouri family. The result of the Court’s decision will serve to embolden CPS and other government officials nationwide to wield retaliatory investigations against average people as punishment for standing up for their rights.

This case started with a tragic incident involving a sexual assault of a minor boy by a sheriff’s deputy for Scott County, Missouri. The incident happened while the officer was on duty, so the parents (who are going by their initials in this case to maintain their son’s privacy) threatened to take legal action against the sheriff’s department. After all, it was known to the department that the deputy had been disciplined in previous law enforcement jobs. In response, the local child protective services investigator—who has worked with the department—opened a retaliatory investigation into the parents for child neglect. She claimed that the parents were the ones to blame for letting their son be sexually abused.

What followed was a nightmare for the family, involving multiple interviews of the already traumatized boy, a referral to a clinic for an inspection of the boy’s genitals and rectum, and a threat to take away the father’s law-enforcement license. The investigator only backed off from harassing the family after the family found pro bono lawyers to help them defend their rights. These lawyers helped the family appeal the investigator’s findings of child neglect, which were quickly overturned by the review board based on the lack of evidence.

Once the parents cleared their names, they sued the investigator for violating their First Amendment rights. The district court agreed with their claim and denied the investigator her defense of qualified immunity. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, however, writing that “[e]ven assuming that the facts in the complaint are true,” there is no such thing as retaliatory investigation claims in the Eighth Circuit. In other words, the court gave a blank check to government officials to punish individuals by investigating them. 

By refusing to grant the parents’ petition for certiorari, the Supreme Court allowed this decision to stand. 

“Government investigations are reputation-damaging, stressful and costly,” said Anya Bidwell, an attorney for the Institute for Justice, which represented the parents in their appeal to the Supreme Court. “No one should be the victim of retaliation through a governmental investigation just because they seek to vindicate their rights. This is government intimidation and abuse of power at its worst. The Court should have taken the parents’ case and made it clear to all government officials that retaliatory investigations are unconstitutional.” 

Department of Health and Human Services statistics indicate that CPS case workers investigate the home lives of roughly 3.5 million children every year. And CPS investigations represent just a fraction of governmental investigations launched each year against citizens. “The Institute for Justice is committed to the idea that government officials do not have carte blanche to make citizens’ lives miserable and bully them into silence through investigations,” said Patrick Jaicomo, IJ’s senior attorney and a co-counsel in the case. “Officials can’t be allowed to weaponize their investigative powers. We will not rest until the Supreme Court says so.” 

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