The Stumbo Decision - Turning the Tide
- Wednesday, October 01, 2003
Each year, 1-2 million allegations of child abuse and neglect are reported to social workers across America. Most allegations launch a mandatory investigation. Each investigation poses a constitutional question: Where does the state's power end and the family's privacy begin?
One HSLDA member family has spent the last four years in court over this issue. But on July 16, 2003, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled 7-0 against the Cleveland County Department of Social Services, declaring that the department did not have a legitimate basis to even begin an investigation of the Stumbo family.
"This is a tremendous decision for family rights," said HSLDA President Michael Smith. "If social workers are required to carefully examine the tips they receive before launching investigations, innocent citizens will no longer be unfairly traumatized by trivial or false allegations. Not every report warrants an investigation."
HSLDA Litigation Attorney Jim Mason called the ruling "a great victory for parents in North Carolina," adding, "Families will now be protected from aggressive social workers who are acting solely on the basis of anonymous tips."
Although HSLDA usually only provides initial consultation in non-homeschooling social services cases, our legal team saw Jim and Mary Ann Stumbo's case as a significant precedent-setting opportunity.
"A big part of our mission is protecting the rights of families," explained Mike Farris, HSLDA's General Counsel and Chairman of the Board. "Underlying parents' right to homeschool are the right to privacy in that home, the right to be secure behind their own front door from illegal searches and seizures, and the right to be protected from false accusations of criminal activity, like anonymous tips from vindictive relatives." Farris was the lead attorney for the Stumbos and argued the case before both the Supreme Court of North Carolina and the North Carolina Court of Appeals.
HSLDA handles literally hundreds of social services contacts each year. Our most recent statistics show that from July 2002 through June 2003, we received 815 calls from homeschooling families facing a social services investigation. That's an average of 68 calls per month, more than two calls per day, including weekends, taken by HSLDA's seven contact and litigation attorneys and their legal assistants. Most contacts don't end up in court because we resolve them and protect liberty at the same time. The vast majority of contacts are eventually determined unfounded by social services and never develop into a case.
According to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services statistics, out of 1,789,252 tips received by state and local child protective service agencies in 2001, nearly 60% were unsubstantiated.1 That means over one million tips were investigated and no abuse or neglect was taking place.
IT STARTED WITH A KITTEN
The Stumbos' troubles began on a September morning in 1999 when their then- 2-year-old daughter, Jonie, slipped outside to chase her new kitten. Unfortunately, she had only completed the first half of her morning dressing routine—taking off her p.j.s—before running outside the house. Although an older sibling retrieved her a few minutes later, it was too late. A passerby reported a naked child wandering outside to social services.
Two hours later, a social worker showed up at the Stumbos' door, demanding to enter their home and privately interview each child. At HSLDA's advice, the Stumbos refused.
Despite having no probable cause for entry or private interviews, the Cleveland County Department of Social Services (DSS) convinced a judge to issue a court order forcing the family to comply. At the hearing, the judge refused to allow HSLDA Attorney Scott Somerville to introduce evidence showing that there was no abuse or neglect occurring in the Stumbo household. Instead, completely ignoring the Fourth Amendment issues, the judge limited evidence to the Stumbos' answers to two questions—did the social worker ask to conduct an investigation, and did the parents refuse to permit the investigation?
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