When a CPS social worker knocks on your door, they normally intend to do more than just stand on your front porch. In addition to typically wanting to interview your children, they also normally want to inspect your home. They may make you feel like you have no choice but to let them in, but is this really true? Do parents have a right to keep CPS investigators and even law enforcement from entering their home?
The answer is yes, at least most of the time. Unlike other areas of law, the basic answer does not vary by state. While there are legal issues surrounding investigations, or searches and seizures, can be rather complex, the basics are simple.
This general concept is derived from the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which reads:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
Almost every state constitution also includes a section in its statement of rights (or equivalent) with nearly identical wording to the same effect.
Generally, there are three circumstances under which a government agent may legally enter a home: with consent, under exigent circumstances, or with a court order.
These requirements apply in every state. So what do they mean?
- Consent. This is fairly straightforward. Investigators may enter a home if a parent consents or allows them in. We generally recommend against giving consent without first speaking with an attorney.1
- Exigent Circumstances. This is basically an emergency. Essentially, CPS social workers or law enforcement who reasonably believe that a child is in immediate danger of harm may be allowed to enter to stop or prevent the imminent harm and, depending on state law, potentially take temporary protective custody of the child.
- Court Order. In the criminal context, this would be called a warrant. Since CPS cases are generally considered “civil,” it is called a court order. Without consent or exigent circumstances, investigators must have authorization from a judge.
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1 Other situations may qualify as exigent circumstances, but these are less relevant to most CPS investigations.