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Court to hear case over child interviews involving alleged sex abuse

By Bill Mears, CNN Supreme Court Producer
  • The case involves the interview of a child without a warrant and without a parent present
  • The delicate balance between protecting children and the rights of parents is at issue
  • More than two dozen states asked the high court to intervene to settle the issues involved

Washington (CNN) -- The Supreme Court has agreed to hear an emotionally divisive dispute on when children can be interviewed about sex abuse allegations without a warrant and without parents present.

Oral arguments will be held early next year. A federal appeals court ruled in favor of an Oregon mother after concerns were raised about the well-being of her two daughters. But the judges noted the "delicate" balancing interests that will be weighed in the upcoming high court review.

"On one hand, society has a compelling interest in protecting its most vulnerable members from abuse within their home," wrote the judges. "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."

In 2007, states around the country investigated 3.2 million reports of child abuse or neglect, according to the federal Administration for Children and Families.

The case the Supreme Court will hear involves Nimrod Greene, who had been arrested in Eugene, Oregon, in February 2003, for suspected sexual abuse of a 7-year-old boy, the child of a family friend. The boy said Greene had touched his private parts while the man was intoxicated. Greene has denied any wrongdoing.

The boy's mother also told authorities Greene had acted inappropriately around his own two young daughters. And Greene's wife, Sarah, had allegedly revealed her concern that he made the girls sleep with him in his bed when he was intoxicated.

Based on that information, a deputy sheriff and a state social caseworker a few days later interrogated one of the Greene girls -- identified as S.G.-- in a private office at her school for two hours without a warrant, without establishing "probable cause" and without the parents' approval.

The state then secured a court order to remove the girls from the mother's custody, and to have doctors conduct sexual abuse examinations outside her presence.

Sarah Greene sued, claiming violations of her due process rights.

Child welfare experts ultimately could not determine whether the two girls had been sexually abused, but according to their report they "remained concerned for [S.G.], especially as there appears to be a high likelihood that S.G. may have recanted her statements about her father touching her privates in an attempt to expedite her return home."

Despite these concerns, the local juvenile court, at the request of social services officials, ordered the children returned to their mother's custody on March 31, 2003.

Nimrod eventually stood trial on charges of sexual abuse but the jury did not reach a verdict. Faced with a retrial, Nimrod accepted a reduced charge related the neighbor boy. Charges concerning Greene's daughter were dismissed.

Sarah Greene's lawsuit on behalf of her and her daughters has yet to go to trial as it await resolution of the larger constitutional issues.

A federal appeals court in San Francisco in December allowed the litigation to proceed, saying there were legitimate questions for a jury to consider over whether the caseworker for the Oregon Department of Human Services secured the order for the children's removal from the home "by misrepresenting his conversations with Sarah."

The court also concluded the decision to prevent the mother from attending her daughters' state medical examinations violated the family's constitutional rights.

The two Oregon officials who were named in Sarah Greene's lawsuit then appealed to the high court.

Twenty-seven states had separately urged the high court to intervene in this case, to resolve the liability question and other issues raised in the case.

The consolidated cases are Camreta v. Greene (09-1454) and Alford v. Greene (09-1478).