Fourth Amendment; Probable Cause for Child Protective Services Home Inspection
Interest of Y.W.-B., 241 A.3d 375 (Pa. Super. 2020), allocatur granted Jan. 5, 2021, appeal dockets 1 & 2 EAP 2021
Following an anonymous tip regarding Y.W.-B., born in 2012, and N.W.-B., born in 2015 (collectively, Children), the Department of Human Services (DHS) filed petition seeking to compel the parents’ cooperation with DHS inspection of parents’ home as part of child neglect investigation. DHS’s petition summarized the following relevant background:
On September 4, 2013, DHS received a [General Protective Services (GPS) ] report alleging that [Mother], hit [Y.W.-B] on the arm; that it was unknown if [Y.W.-B] sustained an injuries, pain, or impairment; that [Mother] often hit [Y.W.-B]; that [Y.W.-B] was often heard yelling and screaming; that his basic needs were met, but the home was dirty and disordered; that [Mother] was unemployed; that she might have substance abuse issues; and that the home was heavily trafficked. This report was determined to be valid.
On October 18, 2013, DHS received a GPS report alleging that the family’s home was in deplorable condition; that there were holes in the walls; that the home was infested with fleas; that the home lacked numerous interior walls; that the interior structure of the home was exposed; that the home lacked hot water service and heat; and that the home appeared to be structurally unsound. The report further alleged that when [Y.W.-B] and his family’s dog left the home, they were covered with fleas, and that [Father] was incarcerated. The report was determined to be valid.
On October 18, 2013, DHS obtained an Order of Protective Custody (OPC) for [Y.W.-B] and placed him in foster care.
On October 29, 2013, [Y.W.-B] was adjudicated dependent and committed to DHS.
[Y.W.-B] remained in foster care until July 20, 2015, when the [c]ourt transferred physical and legal custody of [Y.W.-B] to [Parents]. [Y.W.-B] remained under protective supervision of DHS.
[Mother] gave birth to [N.W.-B in January 2015].
The family received in-home services through Community Umbrella Agency (CUA)-NorthEast Treatment Centers (NET) from January 26, 2015 through November 10, 2015.
On November 10, 2015, DHS supervision and [Y.W.-B’s] dependent matter were discharged.
On May 22, 2019, DHS received a GPS report alleging that three weeks earlier, the family had been observed sleeping outside of a Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) office located at 2103 Ridge Avenue; that on May 21, 2019, [Mother] had been observed outside of the PHA office from 12:00 P.M. until 8:00 P.M., with one of the children in her care; that Project Home dispatched an outreach worker to assess the family; that [Mother] stated that she was standing outside of the PHA office in protest; that she stated that she was not homeless and that her previous residence had burned down; and that it was unknown if [Mother] was feeding [Children] she stood outside of the PHA office for extended periods of time. This report is pending determination.
On May 22, 2019, DHS confirmed the family’s home address through a Department of Public Welfare (DPW) search.
On May 22, 2019, DHS visited the family’s home. When DHS arrived at the home, only [Father] was present, and he refused to allow DHS to enter the home. [Father] contacted [Mother] via telephone and allowed DHS to speak with her. [Mother] stated that she was engaging in a protest outside of the PHA office; that she did not have [Children] with her while she was protesting; and that she would not permit DHS to enter the home. [Mother] subsequently returned to the home with [Children] in her care. DHS observed that [Children] appeared to be upset before [Mother] ushered them into the home. [Mother] further stated that [Children] had not been with her when she protested outside of the PHA offices; and that [Children] were fine and were not in need of assessments or services. [Mother] exhibited verbally aggressive behavior toward DHS and filmed the interaction outside of the home with her telephone. DHS did not enter the home, but observed from the outside of the home that one of the home’s windows was boarded up.
On May 22, 2019, DHS returned to the family’s home with officers from the Philadelphia Police Department (PPD). [Parents] continued to exhibit aggressive behavior and refused to allow DHS to enter the home. The PPD officers suggested that DHS obtain a court order to access the home.
[Mother] has a criminal history that includes convictions for theft-related and trespassing offenses.
[Father] has a criminal history that includes convictions for drug-related offenses in 1993. [Father] was also convicted of rape in 1994 and was sentenced to a minimum of 5.5 years to a maximum of 11 years of incarceration.
To date, [Parents] have failed to make the family’s home available for evaluation and have failed to make [Children] available to DHS so that DHS can assess their safety. As a result, DHS is unable to complete its investigation of the May 22, 2019 GPS report.
Slip op. at 19-21 (internal paragraph numbers omitted). The trial court held a hearing. During the cross-examination of DHS’s investigator, the trial court interjected and noted that it was familiar with the Children’s parents and then “questioned Mother regarding her address, whether she had utilities and income, and whether Children were “up to date” with medical checkups.” Slip op. at 3-4. Then, after the trial court addressed Mother regarding the need for an assessment of her home, Mother and her counsel objected, and the trial court stated that it found “ample probable cause,” and that it was granting the petition. Slip op. at 4. In its 1925(a) opinion, the trial court reasoned that:
The [petitions to compel] and the hearing confirmed that one of the main factors of the DHS investigation is the matter of homelessness and if the alleged address of the family was suitable for Children. The home assessment by DHS would be able to determine if the claims for both homelessness and inadequate care of Children have merit. The trial court determined that the [petitions to compel] provided probable cause for DHS to complete an assessment of the family home. The allegations of the [petitions to compel] was, in part, that Mother was sleeping outside of PHA with Children. It was reasonable to ascertain whether [Mother and Father] had stable housing; therefore, [Mother and Father] needed to allow a home assessment.
Slip op. at 23. Parents appealed on the basis of the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution and Article 1, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution’s prohibition against illegal searches, arguing:
…that the trial court applied a lower standard of probable cause than the standard applied in criminal cases involving anonymous tips. Mother asserts that the allegations in the initial GPS report came from an anonymous report. Mother contends that the trial court wrote “Fourth Amendment protections out of the law” for petitions to compel cooperation with home visits. Specifically, Mother argues that “[s]hould this Court adopt the trial court’s standard, any allegation from any anonymous source would be sufficient to trigger a [DHS] ability to enter and search a home.”
Mother also refers in passing to the “four corners” rule for reviewing a criminal search warrant to argue that DHS’s petitions to compel lacked any independent basis to confirm the reliability and veracity of the reporter’s tip. Specifically, Mother argues that nothing in the petitions to compel or the testimony at the hearing substantiated the allegations in the GPS report.
Additionally, Mother asserts that DHS’s petitions to compel lacked sufficient particularity because “it did not describe anything within the family’s home that was relevant to [DHS’s] investigation.” Mother further contends that “[t]here were no facts, in either the testimony presented by DHS nor in the [petition] itself, that there was anything within Mother’s home that would further DHS’s investigation or lead it to a conclusion. There was no ‘specific link’ here connecting anything inside the home to DHS’s investigation.”
Mother adds that the testimony at the hearing contradicted the allegations in DHS’s petitions. Specifically, Mother notes that DHS’s petitions alleged that when DHS workers attempted to conduct the home visit on May 22, 2019, Mother took Children inside the home and she became aggressive when she denied DHS access to the home. Mother emphasizes that Ms. Richardson testified at the hearing that Children were outside with Mother when Mother was talking to the DHS workers, and that Mother was not aggressive. Moreover, Mother asserts that the trial court erred in finding that the GPS report alleged homelessness. Mother maintains that there was evidence that both the anonymous reporter and DHS were aware that the family had an address to contact them. In sum, Mother contends that DHS failed to assert any reliable information to sustain the trial court’s finding of probable cause to have DHS enter her home to conduct a GPS assessment.
Slip op. at 9 (internal citations omitted). DHS countered that the trial court properly found probable cause to enter Mother’s home on the basis of the Child Protective Services Law (CPSL) and the enabling regulations, which require DHS to conduct investigations of reports of suspected child abuse and visit a child’s home during its investigation. DHS further argued that, unlike the scope of review in a criminal case, a trial court may consider matters outside the four corners of a petition to compel.
Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s conclusion that there was a fair probability that the Children could have been in need of services, and that evidence relating to the need for services could have been found inside the home, reasoning:
The averments in DHS’s petition, supported by evidence at the hearing, corroborated the initial report that Mother was outside the PHA office and the allegation that there was a fire at Mother’s current residence. Although Mother asserted her previous residence was damaged by fire, the trial court was under no obligation to credit Mother’s alleged explanation, particularly since DHS workers ultimately observed at least some damage to Mother’s current residence, namely the boarded-up window, which was consistent with damage from a fire. Cf. Commonwealth v. Torres, 564 Pa. 86, 764 A.2d 532, 538 n.5, 539 & 540 n.8 (2001) (corroboration of information freely available to the public does not constitute sufficient indicia of reliability, but indications that a sources had some “special familiarity” with a defendant’s personal affairs may support a finding of reliability).
The trial court was also entitled to consider its prior experiences with the family, as well as Mother’s demeanor at the hearing. See Pet. to Compel, 875 A.2d at 380 (Beck, J., concurring). Moreover, it was within the province of the trial court to resolve conflicts between the petition to compel and the testimony at the hearing when evaluating whether there was probable cause to compel Mother’s cooperation with the home visit. Cf. Marshall, 568 A.2d at 595.
Therefore, under the circumstances of this case, we find no merit to Mother’s arguments that the trial court applied an improper probable cause standard, erred in ordering her compliance with the home visit based solely on an anonymous tip, or abused its discretion when weighing the totality of the circumstances. Unlike Petition to Compel, DHS did not rely solely on its duty to complete an investigation into allegations. See Pet. to Compel, 875 A.2d at 378. Moreover, there was a “link” between the allegations and DHS’s petition to enter the home. See D.R., 216 A.3d at 295.
Slip op. at 24.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allocatur as to the following issues:
(1) Did the Superior Court err in creating a rule of law that violates Article 1, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, when it ruled that where a Pennsylvania Child Protective Services agency receives a report that alleges that a child is in need of services, and that there is a fair probability that there is evidence that would substantiate that allegation in a private home, where the record does not display a link between the allegations in the report and anything in that private home, then that government agency shall have sweeping authority to enter and search a private home?
(2) Did the Superior Court err in creating a rule of law that violates the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, when it ruled that where a Pennsylvania Child Protective Services agency receives a report that alleges that a child is in need of services, and that there is a fair probability that there is evidence that would substantiate that allegation in a private home, where the record does not display a link between the allegations in the report and anything in that private home, and there was no showing of particularity, then that government agency shall have sweeping authority to enter and search a private home?