NASHVILLE — The Tennessee Department of Children's Services says case workers can no longer remove children from homes without hearings in court.
The Tennessean reports the agency told employees this month about the change, which comes on the heels of a pair of U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals opinions that said case workers have to abide by a constitutional amendment that guarantees people the right against searches and seizures without a warrant.
The move has received criticism from child advocates and juvenile judges, who say the safety of children is already being affected.
Before the court ruling, case workers and their supervisors could decide on their own whether to remove a child but had to petition a court to review their actions within 72 hours. The federal court found that practice was unconstitutional.
"I think they are being overly cautious," said Rob Huddleston, an attorney who is often appointed as guardian ad litem to represent the interests of children. "I do not agree with how they are reading the Sixth Circuit opinion. I think they are trying to protect caseworkers from liability instead of protecting children. My sense is this policy is going to be short-lived until something tragic happens."
Doug Dimond, the department's chief legal counsel, said he believes the only way caseworkers can remove a child from a home without a formal court hearing is if the situation meets a narrow definition of "exigent circumstances," which means there is a risk of harm that is "serious, immediate, physical or specific."
Davidson County Juvenile Court Judge Sophia Crawford said DCS officials were offered a middle ground, but declined. She said juvenile judges are willing to issue temporary, emergency orders known as "ex parte orders" to caseworkers who attest to a child being in danger.
"Myself and magistrates are available on a 24-hour basis to address any problems or questions that arise as the department works to protect children," Crawford said. "We've gone over and above by reminding them (DCS) we are available on a 24-hour basis for any issue that requires a court order of protection of children. As a juvenile court judge, I feel comfortable that we can do what we need to, but I don't have any control over the policies and procedures of the department."
Dimond said DCS could change its policy, but won't make a decision until the end of the year.