Imagine the Department of Social Services threatens to remove your child from your custody unless you agree to have his urine collected. Under duress, you consent— only to watch hospital staff pin your three-year-old down and forcibly catheterize him as he screams in pain. Two days later, he is still in pain. You take him back to the hospital, where he is diagnosed with a staph infection in his penis.
This is not a hypothetical situation. One day this past winter, police and officials from the Department of Social Services (DSS) in Pierre, South Dakota, arrived at a home to arrest a man on suspicion of a probation violation. Because he tested positive for drugs, his girlfriend was told by DSS that her children would be removed from the home if she did not consent to having their urine tested. Because of that threat, she agreed to the test, but since her youngest child is not toilet-trained, DSS forced him to undergo the catheterization.
The distraught mother contacted the ACLU, and we were shocked by her story. It’s hard to imagine circumstances that would lead child welfare officials to think it was a good idea to catheterize a 3-year-old, subjecting a vulnerable child to trauma and injury, because of an investigation into potential drug use by an adult. Anyone who has spent any time around young children knows there certainly are other methods available to collect a sample from the child — like, for example, giving the child water or juice and waiting an hour. Or, DSS could have rightly concluded that the risk to the very child they were purporting to protect was just not worth it.
This incident raises a multitude of practical, moral, and constitutional questions. Collecting bodily fluids from a toddler to gather evidence against an adult member of the household is simply unreasonable. Period. Second, catheterization of anyone — adults and children alike — is an incredibly invasive procedure that should only be employed when absolutely necessary. Additionally, the compelled production of bodily fluids is a search under the Fourth Amendment, which, absent consent, requires a warrant supported by probable cause. In this case, the DSS conducted the search without a warrant, without legal justification, and without judicial oversight. (To be clear, when a parent “consents” to the collection of her children’s bodily fluids under the threat of losing her children, that consent is invalid.)
The ACLU of South Dakota has written to DSS to demand that they stop catheterizing children and provide explanations. We want to know why this search was conducted, why the catheterization was permitted, and who made the decision to have this child tested. Further, we have asked the DSS to release any written policies regarding searches of children and catheterization.
Forcibly catheterizing anyone — let alone a 3-year-old — to collect evidence is barbaric at worst and unconstitutional at best. No child, let alone one suspected of being a victim of abuse or neglect, should be subjected to such trauma, indignity, and abuse.
We want answers. We have no intention of letting DSS get away with this barbaric practice without accountability.
This post has been edited to clarify that it was DSS, not the police, that ordered the catheterization.