How a family in Missouri almost lost their kid, and couldn’t fight back thanks to qualified immunity laws.
This article was produced in partnership with The New Republic.
Cooper Hill never fit within the confines of Sikeston, Missouri. He watched Jessie, the Disney show about a Texas girl who follows her dreams to New York City, and envisioned himself on Broadway. “When you come from a small town, you’re like, ‘Man, that’ll never happen for my kid,’” said his mother, Heather Hill. “But you hope it will.” Heather grew up in Sikeston, a rural town of about 17,000 in the southeastern corner of the state known as the Bootheel. It’s a place where everyone knows one another’s last name, and whether it can be traced to a wealthy family on the north end of town. Heather’s mother taught school. Her father worked at Walmart. When she married Tim Hill, a poor boy from nearby East Prairie, it wasn’t for status, and they got none.
Cooper was born between one older and three younger sisters. He understood girls. He was more awkward around boys. But as he got older, it was boys who he gravitated toward. In the seventh grade, Cooper told friends he was bisexual. By Cooper’s freshman year, he said he was gay.
Cooper discovered Grindr, the LGBTQ social networking app, when he was 13. His parents found out and took his phone away. But by the end of freshman year of high school, Cooper, who has the baby-faced good looks of the youngest member of a 1990s boy band, had his phone back, and was on Grindr again. The app, which is expressly for adults only, seemed like a better place to explore his sexuality than at school. Cooper’s friend Alexis Bailey remembers that Cooper’s classmates told him, “You’re going to go to hell because that’s not what God believes.”
One night in May 2018, Cooper chatted with a guy on Grindr about hooking up. He sent a photo. The man sent one back. Blond and a little wan, Cooper thought he looked familiar. When they agreed to meet, he told Cooper, who was 15, that he already knew where he lived. Cooper was spooked. As he waited for the man to come over, he worried about getting caught, or getting hurt. His 17-year-old sister Meghan was in his room that night when he stood up to leave. He said he was meeting a guy named Brandon Cook. Megan said she was shocked. “I was like, ‘What the fuck? He’s a cop.’”
At 1:46 a.m., Cook, a 29-year-old Scott County sheriff’s deputy pulled up to the dark side of the Hills’ house in his marked patrol car and uniform. Cooper slid into the passenger seat. Cook drove down the block while Cooper performed oral sex on him. When Cook finished, he dropped Cooper off. “He asked me if I wanted to do it again sometime, and he thanked me,” Cooper later recalled. The deputy then drove away to finish his night shift.
When Cooper was gone, Meghan got on the phone with one of her best friends to tell her that a deputy had just come to pick up her 15-year-old brother. Her friend, who was a dispatcher and therefore a mandated reporter of child abuse, then told the authorities.
Meghan had always felt motherly toward her younger siblings, even when Cooper didn’t listen to her. She thought she was being protective. What she couldn’t know was that call would be the beginning of an ordeal that would threaten to tear apart her family, put her parents on the brink of going on the state’s child abuse registry, and embroil the Hills in a civil rights lawsuit that would have them knocking at the door of the U.S. Supreme Court.
That next morning, Cooper’s dad, Tim, was across the state getting certified to transport explosives. It was his latest effort to provide for his family, which included working as Cook’s colleague, serving as a reserve deputy for the Scott County Sheriff’s Office.
Tim spent some of his 13 years in law enforcement as a full-time deputy, but the $30,000-a-year salary stretched only so far. Even after becoming a reserve, he remained part of the policing brotherhood. His kids hung around cops at local crawfish boils. Cooper was in the Explorer’s program, where kids learn about law enforcement. Tim believed in his blue line family. Other cops, he said, “are supposed to have your back 100 percent.”
Tim’s phone kept ringing from a blocked number. He stepped out of class to answer it. Missouri Highway Patrol Corporal Chris Hamlett was on the line: He said he had received a report that Cooper was sexually assaulted by a deputy. Tim knew Brandon Cook. He worked nights when Tim worked days. “I just wanted to leave and head home,” he recalled.
Hamlett tried to calm Tim. Cop to cop, he said, Tim needed to let the Highway Patrol do its job.
When Hamlett met Cooper that morning, he didn’t think he looked 19. He didn’t think Cooper could even pass for 17, Missouri’s age of consent. Down at the police station, Cooper reluctantly described what happened. His story was corroborated by the GPS data from Deputy Cook’s patrol car.
Later that day, when Hamlett interviewed Cook, the deputy said he didn’t know Cooper. He asked if he could check Facebook to see if he knew the teenager. When he opened the app on his phone, Cooper’s profile popped up. Cook admitted he had seen Cooper at the crawfish boil and that he knew Cooper was in high school when he drove to the Hills’ house for sex. “He said something to the effect of, ‘I’m 29, he’s 16, I get this,’” Hamlett later testified. But Cook also asked Hamlett if Cooper would be punished for being on an adult social networking app and, he claimed, at first pretending to be older. To Hamlett, it seemed as if the deputy was “almost taking the role of victim upon himself.”
Hamlett arrested Cook on charges of second-degree statutory sodomy. He posted bond the next day.
After Cook’s arrest, the Southeast Missourian ran a story saying that local officials warned Scott County Sheriff Wes Drury not to hire Cook. The paper reported that Cook had bounced from one small police department to the next and was fired from at least two. Ron Cummins, then the mayor of Scott City, told the paper that he told Sheriff Drury he saw Cook try to plant drugs. Drury hired him anyway. (The Sheriff’s Office did not respond to emails or phone calls for this story, and the County Commission declined to comment.)
Tim felt like the department he worked for had failed his family. He found a civil rights attorney in St. Louis. In September 2018, attorney Hugh A. Eastwood sent a letter to the Sheriff’s Office and the Scott County Commission alleging that by hiring and poorly supervising and training Brandon Cook and other deputies, the sheriff had committed constitutional violations that led to Cooper’s abuse. Eastwood hoped this first salvo would lead to a monetary settlement with the county that could provide for Cooper and let the family move on.
Even before Cook’s arrest, Cooper was bullied at school. After, it only got worse. His parents enrolled him in a homeschool program. But Cooper felt isolated and sought social connections online. In August 2018, Tim learned from one of Cooper’s friends that his son was in a relationship with a local martial arts instructor who gave him an Apple Watch, a MacBook, and tickets to Six Flags. Tim drove to the instructor’s house with Meghan—he wanted a witness in case anything happened. Meghan sat in the front seat of the truck and cracked the window so she could hear. “I’m Cooper Hill’s dad,” Tim said. “I don’t think you’re aware of his age.”
The instructor said he didn’t know Cooper, then kicked Tim in the chest. Tim threatened to call the police but decided against it. He used to trust other cops. Now he wondered, “Are you going to be the next one to victimize my family?” He was uncomfortable with Cooper’s sexuality, but he was also a parent who wanted to protect his kid. He hoped the confrontation with the instructor would end things.
But two months later, Hamlett showed up at the Hills’ door, accompanied by another trooper, an officer who worked for the juvenile and family courts, and Spring Cook, the manager of the local office of Missouri’s Department of Social Services, or DSS, the state’s child welfare agency. (Cook is a common name in this area, and there does not seem to be any direct familial relation between Brandon and Spring Cook.)
Other DSS workers had been to the Hills’ before. In 2008, there was a hotline call claiming Heather left the children alone and that the family wasn’t cleaning up after their dog. In 2012, Cooper, then 9, had a fight with his sister in the backseat of the car. Exasperated, Heather told him to get out. By the time she circled the block, a neighbor had called the police. After looking into both incidents, DSS determined there wasn’t cause to open a case.
Missouri law requires that DSS inform law enforcement when a report worthy of investigation comes in, and the agencies work together closely. Tim had accompanied Spring Cook on a few calls in the past. Hamlett and Cook told Cooper’s mom that Missouri’s Child Abuse and Neglect hotline had received a report that Cooper was sending and receiving nude photos, and that they were jointly looking into it. Tim was away. Heather let them in.
Spring Cook ushered Cooper’s sisters into a room and questioned them without their mother present. They told her Cooper had sent nude selfies to people online and thought he had “sugar daddies,” but that had ended after Cooper became boyfriends with a teenager from nearby Arkansas.
Then Cook and the officers talked to Cooper alone. The juvenile officer told Cooper he needed to be truthful because he could be charged as an adult—he was still just 16 at the time. “You could also stay in juvenile court,” an officer said in the recorded interview, suggesting that Cooper cooperate, “not having an adult record and we try to get you some help.”
Cooper said he went on Grindr because there weren’t many gay kids his age in Sikeston. “I don’t get much attention,” he said. “My family and friends talk to me and stuff. But nobody ever really, like, talks to me enough.” Cooper told them the martial arts instructor had given him gifts and they had sex. The troopers took Cooper’s phone, without a warrant, and Spring Cook insisted he go for a forensic interview with a sexual abuse counselor. “My job is to make sure you guys are safe,” she told Cooper, “and to make sure nobody’s doing something to hurt you or anybody else.”
That night, the officers and Spring Cook sat behind a two-way mirror as Cooper stumbled through the story again. He brightened at the counselor’s questions about his new boyfriend, who was his age, and squirmed at those about the martial arts instructor. He was uncomfortable talking about his sexuality in front of straight men. He asked if he could write something down. “I feel like I’m always being watched,” Cooper wrote. “I really do feel like I’m being watched.”
The troopers brought the instructor down to the station late the same night. He told them Cooper manipulated him, and called him “a little extortionist.” He said Cooper seemed sexually experienced, adding that when he found out Cooper was 16, he nearly vomited. But he acknowledged that he often dated younger men. “I’m not Brad Pitt, but I do well for myself,” he told them. Since his confrontation with Cooper’s dad, he said he changed the lowest age of the men he looked for on Grindr from 18 years old to 20.
The Highway Patrol referred the case to prosecutors, who declined to file charges. Two days later, however, Spring Cook and Hamlett were back on the Hills’ doorstep.
Today’s child welfare system descends from the Elizabethan Poor Laws of the 1600s, which provided state assistance to needy families, aiming to help them stay intact. For most of the next four centuries, families who received money, services, and counseling from the state were largely poor and white. Families of color—particularly Black families—were shut out of those services, and often labeled as delinquent.
In her book Torn Apart, Dorothy Roberts, a professor of law and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, describes how, as more Black and Native children entered the system in the 1960s, the philosophy of child welfare shifted away from services and toward what she describes as “family policing,” leading to millions of parents having their children taken from them, sometimes permanently. States assigned a slew of professionals—from teachers and doctors to ministers, funeral directors, and podiatrists—as mandated reporters, requiring they disclose suspected abuse to authorities. States created anonymous tip lines to put more eyes on children, widening the scope of surveillance.
Child welfare systems have buckled under the responsibility to assess nearly 4.5 million allegations of abuse and neglect each year nationwide. The costs of maintaining the system have ballooned, and employees grapple with huge workloads. Serious cases get lost, sometimes with dire consequences.
But the vast majority of the reports today concern not abuse, but the amorphous accusation of “neglect,” which can be anything from serious failure to parent to issues linked to poverty, including living in run-down housing, having an empty fridge, or a child left home alone. “Neglect’s boundaries are invisible,” writes Diane Redleaf, a civil rights lawyer who founded Chicago’s Family Defense Center, because “just about any act or omission related to a child could qualify.”
The families of about 3.5 million children—or one in every 20 kids—undergo such a probe each year, federal statistics show. Black families are disproportionately affected. More than half of Black children will be the subject of a maltreatment investigation by the time they turn 18.
Just 16 percent of total cases are substantiated, the vast majority for neglect. The slippery definition of neglect can make it difficult for families to defend themselves. Social workers rarely have a warrant when entering a home, yet “caseworkers seek information about every aspect of your family’s private life,” Roberts told me. “It opens up the family to so much government intrusion, far beyond what we would even expect of a criminal investigation.” Parents may not know they have a right to refuse to let a social worker in, and those who do often don’t defend themselves because custody of their children is at stake.Missouri ranks tenth in the nation on its rate of moving impoverished children from their homes, according to the advocacy group the National Coalition of Child Protection Reform. More than 20,000 children were in its foster care system in 2020, up 37 percent from a decade prior, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch found. Southeastern Missouri, where the Hills live, contributed to that spike with a 79 percent rise.
Spring Cook visited the Hills’ house at least three times in November 2018. The family let her in. “We were trying to be compliant,” Heather said, but soon it began to feel as if their whole life could become evidence for Cook. “She made us, as the parents, look like we were the criminals.”
To Cooper’s sister Meghan, it felt as if DSS came daily, insisting on speaking to the kids without their parents. “They wanted to go into our bedrooms,” said Meghan. “They wanted to look through our nightstands and our dresser drawers. They wanted to look through everything.” Meghan said Spring Cook found condoms and a sex toy that Meghan, then still 17, had hidden, and indicated it posed a danger to her younger siblings. “I felt out of place in my own home,” she remembered. “They were looking for or asking for any reason that they possibly could to get us taken away.”
According to her case notes, Spring Cook said it was good that the Hills tracked their kids through Life360, an app they installed on their kids’ phones, and told them to monitor it more closely. She suggested that the Hills install an alarm system to prevent Cooper from leaving the house. Take Cooper’s phone, she told them. If that didn’t work, she suggested, they should cut off the phone plan. Cook disapproved of Cooper going to Arkansas to meet his boyfriend, and suggested the Hills needed to monitor all their children more rigorously. Cooper, she said, needed “treatment,” though Heather and Tim did not know what kind she had in mind. In her notes, Cook writes that she called the juvenile officer on the case to ask about a support group for “kids like [Cooper] and the struggles he goes through.” The officer told her he didn’t know of any, but would make an appointment with a counselor the department had on contract, who also provided addiction and sex offender treatment for other agencies in the state. “We were deeply skeptical,” said Eastwood, the Hills’ lawyer. “At best, it was an inappropriate type of provider,” he said, “and at worst, an attempt to further gin up evidence against either Cooper or his parents.”
The Hills’ marriage, which had been through many rough patches, became strained. Tim had stopped picking up shifts at the Sheriff’s Office, which forced him to take more jobs out of town. They fought about how to monitor the kids when Tim was on the road. And their children chafed under the strict guidelines from DSS. Each had been given a card with DSS’s phone number. They understood the power the state wielded against their parents.
As a cop, Tim had seen DSS work a case. What was happening to his family felt like an aberration. Tim knew that Spring Cook and the Scott County Sheriff’s Office often partnered, and he began to suspect Cook’s investigation was retribution for pursuing a settlement from the Sheriff’s Office after Cooper’s sexual abuse by its deputy. He’d had enough. During one November visit from Spring Cook, Tim told her, on the advice of his attorney, that she could not come in without a warrant. He said Cook threatened to put him on the child abuse registry, which would cost him his law enforcement license.
That month, the Hills refused to take Cooper to the mental health assessment the juvenile officer scheduled, which they understood included a physical exam of his genitals for evidence. They weren’t averse to getting Cooper therapy—he’d done counseling before—but Tim worried that rather than helping Cooper, this would traumatize him more. “They wanted him to go in and grill him over and over and do an anal swab and all kinds of stuff,” Tim said. “He’s done been through enough.”
Eastwood, the Hills’ lawyer, sent letters to both the state director of DSS and the Highway Patrol. Eastwood wrote that because Deputy Cook and Tim Hill had worked together for the Scott County Sheriff, which collaborated closely with DSS, it was a “conflict of interest for any Scott County officials or employees to be involved in any investigations of the Hills.” He added that the Hills had also asserted civil rights claims against the county for the hiring of Deputy Cook. Eastwood wrote that charging Cooper with a crime in a case in which he was a victim would “shock the conscience” and could be considered retaliation. He requested DSS, and Spring Cook specifically, to stop investigating, or to transfer it to another office. DSS did not respond.
In early December 2018, Spring Cook spoke to her supervisor to say that the Hills had failed to seek treatment for Cooper or take actions to protect him, and were refusing to cooperate with her office. They allowed Cooper to have a phone and drive across state lines to visit his boyfriend in Arkansas. Moreover, Tim was accompanied by Meghan when he confronted the martial arts teacher, and hadn’t reported the incident. “If Cooper Hill doesn’t get any treatment,” she wrote in a report, “he will continue these behaviors and end up seriously hurt, with an STD, or even dead.” She recommended Cooper be taken into protective custody, and asked a juvenile officer to remove him from the home.
Only a doctor or law enforcement official can take a child into custody in Missouri. The chief juvenile officer responded to Cook’s referral four days later. “There was no evidence to prove the parents neglected the child,” he wrote. “The father confronted the man alleged to have had sex with Cooper and that man has stopped all contact with Cooper; the parents set up an app on Cooper’s phone where they could monitor his phone usage; and it is unknown why the parents not taking Cooper for a mental health assessment is being neglectful of the child.”
Despite that rebuke, Cook continued her investigation. In January 2019, letters from DSS, signed by Cook, arrived at their household saying the agency substantiated the allegation that the Hills had neglected their child by not properly supervising him or seeking out help. Tim and Heather had 60 days to appeal. If DSS upheld the finding, they could go to the Child Abuse and Neglect Review Board, an independent panel appointed by the governor. If they did nothing, their names would go on the state’s child abuse registry.
A “preponderance of evidence,” the standard of proof in child welfare cases, is lower than that of criminal cases. Because these cases are civil, parents are not automatically provided an attorney, and often represent themselves, even when they face family court’s most severe punishment: termination of parental rights, which has been described as “the civil death penalty.” Lesser sanctions also have serious consequences. Going on the registry would prevent Heather from going back to substitute teaching or childcare and cost Tim any future work in law enforcement. Once a name goes on the registry, it remains there for life.
With the help of a legal services lawyer, the family appealed the DSS finding of neglect. They followed the regulations, asking the local circuit manager to review the case. They anticipated the findings would be upheld, because the circuit manager was Spring Cook.
Nearly a year after Cooper’s assault, the Hills felt their efforts to protect their kid had pulled them into an ever more complicated web of legal proceedings. Deputy Cook’s criminal trial had been repeatedly delayed, and they were in ongoing legal negotiations with the county for the hiring and supervision at the Sheriff’s Office, which the Hills said led to Cooper’s abuse.
In April 2019, Scott County agreed to pay a $175,000 settlement. It offered some vindication. But Heather and Tim still faced the possibility of being labeled child abusers by the state if the Review Board didn’t reverse Spring Cook’s findings of neglect.
In August, the couple drove to Jefferson City, Missouri’s capital. Tim, who lived in shorts and T-shirts, wore new khakis and a button-down. They had 20 minutes to make their case to the Review Board. Spring Cook appeared by phone. The knot in Tim loosened when one of the board members asked Cook how parents were supposed to stop their kid from getting on the internet when even Walmart had Wi-Fi. Two days later, the board reversed Cook’s finding of neglect.
After the hearing, the family started to sense some measure of calm. But in March 2020, FBI agents knocked on their door. Agents questioned Meghan at length about Cooper’s sex life, much like DSS had. They left and never came back. The family attorney believes the FBI closed the investigation for lack of probable cause for the allegations. Tim suspected, but could not prove, that Spring Cook had contacted the FBI. Braced for more DSS investigations, they decided to sue.
The Hills filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Missouri against DSS and Spring Cook that October, claiming Cook’s investigation was conducted in retaliation for the family standing up against Scott County after Deputy Cook “groomed Plaintiffs’ minor son through the Scott County Sheriff’s Explorer program for young people; at a crawfish boil at the Scott County rodeo ground; and through a smartphone app called Grindr.”
Suing government officials for damages is usually futile. The legal doctrines of absolute and qualified immunity give public officials wide discretion to act in the course of performing their job duties. In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that qualified immunity protects “all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.” These protections were criticized by criminal legal system reformers after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 and have also been a target of right- and libertarian-leaning groups who believe it emboldens government officials to act with impunity. Multiple efforts have been launched to restrict qualified immunity, including the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act; nearly all have stalled or been defeated.
Spring Cook did not respond to calls or emails, and a spokesperson for DSS declined to comment, noting that child welfare investigations are confidential under state law. In court filings, Missouri’s attorney general, which defended the agency and Cook, asserted that she had “ample evidence” that the Hills were not providing proper care for their child, and that Cooper was at “imminent risk for further abuse or neglect.” The attorney general also argued that Spring Cook was protected by both qualified and absolute immunity, an even broader protection usually reserved for prosecutors, lawmakers, and the U.S. president.
In June 2021, a federal judge dismissed most of the Hills’ claims. But in a surprising and rare move, she ruled Cook wasn’t shielded from a civil rights suit under either immunity doctrine. Cook’s investigation and finding of parental neglect could “chill a person of ordinary firmness” from speaking out, the judge wrote, which could be considered retaliation against the Hills for exercising their First Amendment right to free speech.
But that month, Cooper was focused on a different case when he walked into a courtroom in Cape Girardeau County, Missouri: Deputy Cook was going to trial. On the witness stand, 18-year-old Cooper sat all six feet, five inches of himself up straight to steady his rattling limbs as Brandon Cook’s defense attorney cross-examined him, asking over and over why he had initially lied about his age. The jury found Cook guilty of second-degree statutory sodomy. He was sentenced to two years in prison.
Cooper tried to move on, paying little attention to the lawsuit against Spring Cook that continued to move through the federal court system. The state attorney general appealed the case to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, a staunchly conservative court. Last July, the court ruled in the state’s favor, reversing the lower court to find that Cook was protected by qualified immunity, adding that the court had “never recognized a retaliatory investigation claim of this kind.”
The libertarian-leaning nonprofit law firm Institute for Justice, along with the Hill family attorney Eastwood, petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that appeals courts in other parts of the country have recognized that an investigation can be retaliatory. But in January, the Supreme Court declined to review the case, leaving a split in the lower courts. Most do not currently allow First Amendment claims for retaliatory investigations. Only in the Ninth Circuit, which covers much of the West, can people bring such lawsuits. To the Hills’ lawyers, allowing the Eighth Circuit decision on qualified immunity to stand sets a dangerous precedent. “It goes beyond protecting government officials from mistakes and instead it gives them a wide berth to engage in retaliation or harassment,” said Eastwood. “We know that will fall particularly on our most vulnerable citizens and those with the least resources to fight back.”
This summer, when Cooper turns 21, he hopes to leave Missouri. “There’s just so many bad memories,” Meghan said. For Christmas this year, Tim bought his son a trip to Manhattan. Cooper walked through every room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, snapping photos of knights, mummies, and brocades. Cooper plans to move there this summer, but his mom worries. “New York isn’t just a big city,” Heather said. “It’s a whole new world.” But she’s getting used to the idea of her son in a place far from Sikeston, where the last name Hill can mean whatever Cooper wants.