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Wyman v. James Revisited: Judicial Oversight, Constitutional Rights, and Social Services Investigations

Thomas R. Young


March 27, 2009

This article is focused upon administrative searches and seizures undertaken by social services agencies with respect to child welfare complaints. In addition to articulating the past and current state of the law, the article proposes changes to bring about a greater consistency among the federal and state courts in the United States.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in Wyman v. James, 400 U.S. 309 (1971), for the first time considered the issue of the applicability of the Constitution to social services investigations, though it has continued to explore the constitutional implications of the administrative search or seizure. The Court has not sought to address the issue since that time. Nevertheless, in the intervening thirty-six years, a large number of federal and a handful of state courts have reviewed the constitutionality of social services investigations and, in the process, have tackled the issue of the continued viability of Wyman: whether social workers are state actors for the purpose of the applicability of the Fourth Amendment, whether child welfare investigations constitute a search or seizure, whether a warrant and probable cause is required to conduct a search and whether a social worker special need exception exists to Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment scrutiny.

Given the on-going occurrence of the social services home investigation since Wyman, the need for an articulation of the current state of the law is great. Part One of this article attempts to provide such an articulation, giving an overview of both Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment protections as they apply to all governmental searches. Part Two undertakes a review of the Pre-Wyman case law regarding administrative searches, as well as Wyman itself, reviewing finally the post-Wyman case law from both the federal and state courts regarding administrative social services investigations and the applicability of the Fourth and Fourteenth amendments. Part Three of this article reconsiders Wyman in light of the most recent judicial developments and asks the question as to whether the requirement of a warrant and probable cause is appropriate for social services child welfare investigations or whether the Supreme Court's totality of the circumstances rationality test or its Special Needs doctrine may justify the creation of a social worker exception to the general warrant and probable cause requirements incumbent upon most searches and seizures.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 34

Keywords: social services, special needs, administrative search, constitutional law, search and seizure

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Date posted: March 27, 2009 ; Last revised: January 8, 2015

Suggested Citation

Young, Thomas R., Wyman v. James Revisited: Judicial Oversight, Constitutional Rights, and Social Services Investigations (March 27, 2009). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1369190 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1369190

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Thomas R. Young (Contact Author)
Independent ( email )
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