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Greene v. Camreta

December 10, 2009


Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Oregon Ann L. Aiken, District Judge, Presiding D.C. No. CV-05-06047-AA.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Berzon, Circuit Judge


Argued and Submitted March 6, 2008 -- Portland, Oregon

Before: Marsha S. Berzon and Carlos T. Bea, Circuit Judges, and Philip Gutierrez,*fn1 District Judge.


We are asked to decide whether the actions of a child protective services caseworker and deputy sheriff, understandably concerned for the well-being of two young girls, exceeded the bounds of the constitution. Specifically, the girls' mother, Sarah Greene, alleges, on behalf of S.G., one of her children, that the caseworker, Bob Camreta, and deputy sheriff, James Alford, violated the Fourth Amendment when they seized and interrogated S.G. in a private office at her school for two hours without a warrant, probable cause, or parental consent. Sarah also argues that Camreta's subsequent actions, both in securing a court order removing the girls from her custody and in subjecting the girls to intrusive sexual abuse examinations outside her presence, violated the Greenes' familial rights under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

As this brief description makes clear, resolving the constitutional claims at issue in this case involves a delicate balancing of competing interests. On one hand, society has a compelling interest in protecting its most vulnerable members from abuse within their home. The number of child abuse allegations is staggering: In 2007, for example, state and local agencies investigated 3.2 million reports of child abuse or neglect. See U.S. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES, ADMINISTRATION ON CHILDREN, YOUTH AND FAMILIES. CHILD MALTREATMENT 2007 (2009), available at chapter2.htm.

On the other hand, parents have an exceedingly strong interest in directing the upbringing of their children, as well as in protecting both themselves and their children from the embarrassment and social stigmatization attached to child abuse investigations. Of the 3.6 million investigations conducted by state and local agencies in 2006, only about a quarter concluded that the children were indeed victims of abuse. See id. This discrepancy creates the risk that "in the name of saving children from the harm that their parents and guardians are thought to pose, states ultimately cause more harm to many more children than they ever help." Doriane Lambelet Coleman, Storming the Castle to Save the Children: The Ironic Costs of a Child Welfare Exception to the Fourth Amendment, 47 WM. & MARY L. REV. 413, 417 (2005).

With these competing considerations in mind, we turn first to Sarah's constitutional claims. As we explain below, we hold that the investigation conducted by Camreta and Alford and the removal and examination instigated by Camreta all violated Sarah and the girls' constitutional rights. As to the investigation, however, we conclude that Camreta and Alford cannot be liable in damages because they have qualified immunity.



Nimrod Greene ("Nimrod") was arrested on February 12, 2003, for suspected sexual abuse of F.S., a seven-year old boy. Nimrod's arrest was based on statements made by F.S. to his parents and similar statements later made to investigators, all alleging that Nimrod had touched F.S.'s penis over his jeans when Nimrod was drunk in F.S.'s parents' home. F.S. reported that Nimrod had done this to him once before. In addition, F.S.'s mother told officers that Sarah, Nimrod's wife, "had talked to her about how she doesn't like the way Nimrod makes [their daughters, S.G. and K.G.,] sleep in his bed when he is intoxicated and she doesn't like the way he acts when they are sitting on his lap." Along the same lines, F.S.'s father told officers that:

Nimrod himself has made some type of prior comment about how his wife Sarah was accusing him of molesting his daughters and Sarah reportedly doesn't like the girls laying in bed with Nimrod when he has been drinking. [F.S.'s father] said neither he nor his wife [ ] have any direct knowledge of abuse at the Greene home, but this type of comment and/or accusation has come in several ways from Sarah and Nimrod.

The Oregon Department of Human Services ("DHS") heard of these allegations about a week after Nimrod's arrest. The next day, Bob Camreta, a caseworker with DHS, learned that Nimrod had been released and was having unsupervised contact with his daughters. Camreta was assigned to assess the girls' safety. Based on his training and experience as a DHS caseworker, Camreta was "aware that child sex offenders often act on impulse and often direct those impulses against their own children, among others. For this reason, [he was] concerned about the safety and well-being of Nimrod Greene's own small children."

Three days after hearing of Nimrod's release, Camreta visited S.G.'s elementary school to interview her. Camreta thought the school would be a good place for the interview because it is a place where children feel safe and would allow him "to conduct the interview away from the potential influence of suspects, including parents." According to Camreta, "[i]nterviews of this nature, on school premises, are a regular part of [child protective services] practice and are consistent with DHS rules and training." Sarah was not informed of, nor did she consent to, the interview of her daughter. Camreta also did not obtain a warrant or other court order before the interview.

Throughout the interview Camreta was accompanied by Deputy Sheriff Alford. Upon arriving at the school, Camreta told school officials that he and Alford were there to interview S.G. and requested use of a private office. Terry Friesen, a counselor at the elementary school, visited S.G. in her classroom and told the child that someone was there to talk with her. Friesen took S.G. to the room where Camreta and Alford were waiting and left.

Camreta interviewed S.G. for two hours in Alford's presence.*fn2 The interview was not recorded. Alford, who had a visible firearm, did not ask any questions during the interview. According to Camreta, S.G. told him:

* " 'When he drinks he tries to do it,' meaning, 'he tries to touch me somewhere in my private parts. Then I go to my room and lock the door.' "

* The last incident occurred " 'just last week' on the outside of her clothing and she had tried to tell him to stop."

* "The touching of private parts started when she was three."

* "The touching involved the chest and buttock areas, outside of clothing. Her father sometimes 'mumbled' during the touching."

* "Her mother knew about the touching . . ." and it was " 'one of our secrets' with her little sister, K.G.' "

Camreta maintains that he "certainly did not coerce [S.G.] or try to induce her into making any accusations."

In contrast, S.G. recounted the interview as follows:

[Camreta] ask[ed] me if sometimes my dad touched me all over my body. I thought back to the times when my dad hugged me, kissed me, gave me piggy-back rides, rides on his shoulders and horsey rides. I remembered all of my dad's touches with fondness. He was a very loving father, and I loved hugging and kissing him. These were the touches that I was referring to when I said my dad touched me. So I told the man, yes, my dad touches me all over. And then the man started asking me if sometimes those were bad touches, and I said, no they weren't, but he kept asking me over and over again, and I would say, no, I don't think my dad touched me in a bad way. He would say, "No, that's not it," and then ask me the same question again. For over an hour, Bob Camreta kept asking me the same questions, just in different ways, trying to get me to change my answers. Finally, I just started saying yes to whatever he said. And then after a while, he said I could go. I believe I was there for two hours.

According to Sarah, later that night S.G. told her that when Camreta asked her what bad things her father had done, she initially told him "nothing," but that Camreta kept asking questions and confused her. S.G. stated that she was "scared" when Friesen left her with Camreta and Alford, although she did not ask to call home, did not ask to have Friesen or her parents with her, and did not cry. With respect to Alford's presence, S.G. stated that she is generally comfortable around police officers, that Alford was nice to her and did not do anything to scare her, and that she trusted him.

Based on the interview and other information he had gathered, Camreta believed that Nimrod had sexually abused S.G. As a result, Camreta and Alford visited the Greenes' home and spoke with Sarah and Nimrod. Both parents denied any sexual abuse but agreed to a safety plan whereby, pending an investigation, Nimrod would not have unsupervised contact with his two daughters, S.G. and K.G. The safety plan also provided that S.G. would undergo a sexual abuse examination at the KIDS Intervention & Diagnostic Service Center ("the KIDS Center"), which specializes in child sexual abuse. Camreta advised the parents not to speak with their children about the allegations of abuse.

On March 6, 2003, Nimrod was indicted on six counts of felony sexual assault of F.S. and S.G. He was shortly released but ordered not to have any contact with his daughters. That same day counsel for the Greenes informed Camreta that he had been retained to represent the family, that all family members had been advised of their Fifth Amendment right to remain silent and had chosen to invoke that right, and that no one from DHS had permission to meet with a member of the family without counsel present.

The next day, Camreta went to the Greene home to inform Sarah of the court's no-contact order and assess whether Sarah would comply with it. Sarah indicated that she had hired an attorney to defend her husband, that the allegations against him were lies, and that she had talked to S.G. about the allegations of abuse.

Sarah's and Camreta's accounts of the conversation between them on March 7 diverge in two respects. First, with regard to the no-contact order, Sarah stated that she told Camreta:

[W]hile it would be significantly detrimental to [her] family finances, there was a place [her] husband could stay so that he would have no contact with [her] children. [She] specifically informed Mr. Camreta that [she] intended to abide by [the] Safety Plan and that [she] would take the children to the KIDS Center.

In contrast, Camreta maintains that Sarah told him "that she had no extra resources for Nimrod to obtain alternative housing, which [Camreta] understood to mean [Nimrod] would be returning home."

Second, Sarah stated she told Camreta that she "did want [her] children interviewed at the KIDS Center" and "would not interfere with them being interviewed," although she "wished to attend [their] medical examination[s], to be there to help them through the emotionally traumatic event." Camreta maintains that "[Sarah] refused to sign an informational release form to facilitate the pending sex abuse examination of her daughter at the KIDS Center."

Following the March 7 conversation, Camreta was concerned that DHS would not be able to ensure the safety of the children because Sarah denied Nimrod's abuse and was unwilling to place her children's interests over those of her husband. Convinced that he had a duty to take protective action, Camreta decided to seek an order removing both children from Sarah's home.

On March 11, 2003, Camreta petitioned the Deschutes County Juvenile Court for an order removing S.G. and K.G. from the Greene home and placing them in foster care. In an affidavit filed with the Juvenile Court, Camreta represented that "[Sarah] indicated the family had no alternate resources for either the children or Nimrod to ensure there would be no contact," and that she "refused to sign an information release form for a Kid's Center evaluation for the girls." Citing the letter from the Greenes' counsel, Camreta stated that "[w]ithout access to the family members[ ] and the home DHS is unable to monitor and ensure the safety of the children and unable to ensure that the children receive forensic interviews and exams to determine the health and welfare of S.G. and K.G., and to conclude the investigation."

After reviewing Camreta's petition and affidavit, the Juvenile Court issued a protective custody order authorizing the removal of S.G. and K.G. from the Greene home. DHS took ...

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