Social services under fire for forced strip search on 3-year-old

Two forced strip-searches of a child by authorities at a Head Start program prompted by vague claims from an unreliable source could be considered child abuse, argues a friend-of-the-court brief urging the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to revive a lawsuit.

A lower court judge, Kristen Mix, dismissed the complaint brought by Jane Doe and I.B. against April Woodard, Christina Newbill, Shirley Rhodus and Richard Bengtsson.

At issue were two strip searches of the little girl enrolled in a Head Start program near Denver when she was just 3 years old and again when she was 4.

The Pacific Justice Institute explained the background: A military family from Denver enrolled their child in the Head Start program, a federally funded preschool that meets on public school property. The child’s teacher perceived the father’s tough appearance of riding motorcycles and having several tattoos as an indication that he was a child abuser. Several allegations of abuse were recorded against the military working-class family, which led to a home search that concluded there were no signs of abuse.

Despite the lack of evidence, however, “a social worker proceeded to go to the school and strip search the child at the age of 3 in the presence of the teacher and another school employee.”

Later, it was done again.

However, in a friend-of-the-court brief, the Pacific Justice Institute pointed out that “while many children find themselves strip searched for the purpose of finding evidence of abuse, from the perspective of the child, the strip search in itself comprises a form of abuse to the child.”

It continued: “It sexual abuse cases two factors correlate most highly with trauma. The first trauma factor centers on the use of force or coercion by the abuser. The second factor creating trauma revolves around the substantial age difference between the abuser and the victim. In a strip search of a child, both of these factors are present.

“The child finds herself coerced to remove her clothes by an adult. In that situation, the child of ordinary sensibilities experiences trauma as she stands naked before an unfamiliar adult arrayed in authority.”

The filing from Pacific Justice noted that the adult that did the strip search “found no bruising or other evidence of abuse” in the first search. And during the second, which also “failed to produce any evidence of abuse,” the adult was “continuously photographing the child.”

“The frightening experience of being coerced by unfamiliar adults in authority to expose herself and allow her body to be searched left the child humiliated and traumatized. When the mother asked why the school failed to notify her of the strip searches conducted on her child or to allow her to be present for the searches, the social worker informed her that parental rights are void upon suspicion of abuse, even suspicion as weak as an unspecific allegation from an unreliable source repeatedly proven wrong,” the institute reported.

“No governmental authority should have the right to strip search preschoolers and violate parental rights based on unfounded allegations,” said Brad Dacus, president of PJI.

The brief said it is a “quantum leap” from searching clothing and backpacks to forced strip searches.

“Mental health practitioners recognize that people who experience strip searches often suffer psychological symptoms of trauma similar to those endured by rape survivors,” the brief notes.

Pointedly, it brought to the court’s attention that “I.B.’s family stood as the target of approximately six false allegations, subjecting them to searches of their home. … Every allegation that precipitated the two strip searches proved false.”

And both strip searches found no evidence of abuse, proving “the falsity of the reporter’s statement,” it said. “Here, upon receiving a half dozen or so false allegations, the reasonableness of thee strip search missed the mark due to the absence of a reliable source.”

It explained the need to restore the complaint: “In that strip searches described are presumptively unreasonable, the burden shifts to the defendants to rebut that presumption. Hence, the lower court erred by dismissing the complaint.”

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