California Senate Bill (SB) 909 proposes changes to state law that would “permi[t] a social worker to authorize an initial medical, dental, and mental health screening of a child taken into temporary custody, prior to a detention hearing, for specified purposes.” In addition, the bill adds “mental health” to the list of care which social workers are specifically authorized to pursue while a child is in their custody. opposes this legislation as a threat to the liberty of parents to direct the upbringing and care of their children, and as a threat to due process and privacy rights found in the U.S. Constitution.

SB 909, authored by state Sen. Fran Pavley (D-27), is scheduled for a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, May 6. We need your help today to call committee members to oppose this bill, and to forward this alert to others who are likely to act.

Summary of Concern

Under current law, except in clear cases of imminent danger, a social services case worker cannot subject a child to a medical, dental, or mental health screening without parental consent until such time as the court has authorized the worker to do so. This authorization is granted at a detention hearing only when the court has determined that sufficient evidence of abuse or neglect exists to call for the state’s intervention.

SB 909 would authorize the social worker to pursue physical, mental, or dental health screenings from the moment the child is picked up, without requiring any involvement by the court or permission from the parents. This reduces to zero a parent’s right to due process prior to losing control over the medical or mental health care of their child.

In addition, the insertion of “mental health” into the list of screenings that would be authorized is troubling. While a recent (and welcome) amendment to the bill specifies that the social worker would not be permitted to authorize the administration of psychotropic drugs to the child without parental permission or court approval, nevertheless “mental health” remains a subjective field, and the scope of such screenings is left undefined by the bill.

In a worst case scenario, nothing would prevent a social worker from taking a child from an innocent family and having a “mental health care provider” (which could even include an unlicensed intern) conduct a psychological witch hunt under the guise of a “mental health screening,” prior to the initial detention hearing. The results of the screening (that is, the subjective analysis of one hand-picked mental health provider) could then be used as evidence to give the state authority over the child when in fact no abuse or neglect exists.

Another recent amendment (also welcome) specifies that any medical screening prior to court authorization be “non-invasive,” meaning it would not puncture the skin, i.e. for the taking of blood or other samples. But nothing specifies that a child or teen would not be subjected to a screening according to parameters published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, who are supporters of the bill. Their parameters include: “an unclothed external body inspection …[and] external genitalia inspection.”

Action Item

Please call the following member of the Senate Judiciary Committee today and urge them to reject SB 909:

If your last name starts with… Please call…
A – B Hannah-Beth Jackson
C – E Joel Anderson
F – H Ellen Corbett
I – L Ricardo Lara
M – Q Mark Leno
R – S William W. Monning
T – Z Andy Vidak

What Do I Say?

The following are a few talking points. Choose only one or two that speak to you and express them to the committee member’s office in your own words:

  • Emergency circumstances, such as where evidence exists that immediate medical care is necessary, are already allowed for in state law. There is no need to subject every child to immediate screening over the objection of parents, even before any hearing regarding the allegations of abuse or neglect have been held.
  • Nothing in this bill would prevent the kind of “strip-search” screening called for in the American Academy of Pediatrics’ manual, “Health Care of Young Children in Foster Care,” even without parental consent or authorization by the court, and even absent evidence of any imminent medical threat, during the initial period of temporary custody.
  • The area of “mental health” remains a highly subjective field, and the scope of “mental health screenings” is not clearly defined in this bill. While the recent amendment to exclude the authority to issue psychotropic drugs prior to court authorization is welcome, it does not go far enough. The child’s and the family’s privacy should be protected from such subjective scrutiny until such time as a judge has had opportunity to review the evidence and determine whether such screening is called for.

Explanation of Current Law

Under current law, a child can be taken into “temporary custody” by a social worker who must immediately file for a detention hearing. Such hearing must be held within 48 hours (generally on the next court day), or the child must be returned home. Prior to the hearing, abuse has not been validated, the child has not been adjudged to be a dependent of the court, and parental rights have not been formally limited.

If through the hearing the judge determines that sufficient evidence exists to show that state intervention is necessary, the child is taken into state custody (“detained”) by the court. If such evidence is lacking, the child must be returned to his home within 48 hours of his original removal.

Once a child has been detained, screenings such as those discussed in this bill could be authorized by the court as the evidence demands. In addition, a “jurisdictional hearing” must be held within 15 days to determine whether the child is a person in need of care as described in California law Section 300. If so, a third hearing – a “disposition hearing” – must be held within 60 days to determine whether the child remains a dependent of the court, whether parental rights should be limited, to establish a guardian, determine a placement, or otherwise provide for the needs of the child.

This lengthy current process is designed to protect the family by preserving the rights of parents as much as possible while protecting children from abuse or neglect. Significantly, this current system greatly limits the authority of the social services department absent judicial oversight. SB 909 would remove this limitation.


Michael Ramey
Director of Communications & Research

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