Roe v. Conn
417 F. Supp. 769 (M.D. Ala. 1976)
- Mr. Coppage (white) lived off and on with Plaintiff Wambles until March 1975, and claimed to have fathered Richard Roe.
- On June 2, 1975, Coppage went to the office of Barbara Ward, Director of the Montgomery County Youth Facility, and told her that he was the father of Richard Roe; that he had once lived with Margaret Wambles, who was now living with a black man and entertaining other black men; that he had reported this to the Montgomery Police Department; that he wanted to get the child out of the house due to neglect; and that he wanted custody.
- Ward then conferred with Judge Thetford, who then issued a pick-up order based only on the fact that Wambles was white, unemployed, and living with a black man in a black neighborhood.
- Officer Conn then went to the house and removed the child.
- Richard Roe was clothed, clean, and in “fairly good” physical condition with no signs of physical abuse. The home was “relatively clean” and stocked with “adequate food.”
- Coppage was later awarded custody, and a class action was brought challenging the constitutionality of Alabama’s child neglect law.
(1) Whether Alabama’s “summary seizure” statute was constitutional.
(2) Whether Alabama’s “removal upon a finding of neglect” statute was constitutional.
As an initial matter, the court noted that there is a fundamental right of family integrity, therefore strict scrutiny applied in this case.
(1) Summary Seizure
- Alabama Code, Title 13, s 352(4), authorized summary seizure of a child “if it appears that the child is in such condition that its welfare requires.”
- This violated procedural due process because in the absence of exigent circumstances, the fact-finding process should provide notice to the parents and an opportunity for rebuttal. Moreover, the “welfare” standard was unconstitutionally vague.
- Alabama Code, Title 13, s 350, defined a “neglected child” as “any child, who, while under sixteen years of age has no proper parental care or guardianship or whose home, by reason of neglect, cruelty, or depravity, on the part of his parent or parents, guardian or other person in whose care he may be, is an unfit or improper place for such child.”
- The State’s interest in achieving its objective of child protection would become “compelling” enough to sever entirely the parent-child relationship only when the child is subjected to real physical or emotional harm and less drastic measures would be unavailing.
- Here, family integrity was violated because there were various alternatives available to achieve the State’s objective, no real harm was present, and no assistance was offered to Wambles.
- Additionally, the definition was unconstitutionally vague.