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Washington University Law Review

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Each year, state agents search the homes of hundreds of thousands of families across the United States under the auspices of the family regulation system. Through these searches—required elements of investigations into allegations of child maltreatment in virtually every jurisdiction—state agents invade the home, the most protected space in Fourth Amendment jurisprudence. Accordingly, federal courts agree that the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement applies to family regulation home searches. But almost universally, the abstract recognition of Fourth Amendment protections runs up against a concrete expectation on the ground that state actors should have easy and expansive access to families’ homes. Legislatures mandate searches and loosen warrant requirements; executive agencies coerce consent from families and seek court orders that violate the Fourth Amendment; and the judiciary rubberstamps these efforts and fails to hold the executive and the legislative branches to their constitutional obligations. Families under investigation—who are almost all poor and are disproportionately Black, Latinx, and Native—are left with nowhere to retreat.

This Article argues that the casual home invasions of the family regulation system are not just another story of lawless state action carried out by rogue actors or of an adversarial system failing to function. Instead, this is a story of a problem-solving system functioning exactly as it was designed. The problem-solving model emphasizes informality, information-gathering, and cooperation—values that sit uncomfortably with the individual rights-based principles underlying the Fourth Amendment. By uniting each branch of government in a project of surveillance, the problem-solving model reduces the potency of the separation of powers as a check on government overreach, while at the same time undercutting checks and balances outside the separation of powers. Protecting individual rights and preventing government overreach in the family regulation system will require more than rejecting the problem-solving model in favor of an adversarial model, as the criminal legal system shows. Guided by the heuristic of non-reformist reforms, the Article suggests a continuum of measures—some immediate, some over the course of generations—that will unravel the family regulation system’s wide net of surveillance and safeguard the welfare of children in a holistic sense. Ultimately, we must fundamentally rethink “child welfare services” and move from a model that holds individuals responsible for large-scale societal problems to one that addresses those problems on a societal level.



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