News: CJ Exclusives

DSS Case Sets Precedent

Stumbo decision by Supreme Court rejects demand for private interviews

In a report published on its website, the Home School Legal Defense Association says that the N.C. Supreme Court’s precedent-setting Stumbo ruling has already affected another action by child-protection services in the state.

HSLDA, which changed the names in the story of all involved in order to protect the privacy of the family, said Oct. 3 that in August a county Department of Social Services received a report that a family had left a 9-year-old as caretaker of younger siblings “all day every day.” The report alleged that the parents had removed the oldest child from public school in order to watch over the other children.

The target family has legally homeschooled all their children for more than four years, according to HSLDA. Also, the family has no 9-year-old child.

In reality, said HSLDA lawyer James Mason, the family has three children, ages 12, 11, and 5. The children’s mother was admitted to an emergency room on a Monday evening for severe back pains. She remained hospitalized until at least Thursday of the same week.

On Tuesday, after spending the morning with his children, the family’s father left for work after lunch, leaving the two oldest brothers to care for the youngest child. The father, Mason said, remained available by telephone and worked less than a 10-minutes’ drive from home. The following day, Wednesday, the children were home alone for two hours in the morning and after 1:30 p.m. while the father was at work.

At 6:00 p.m., according to the HSLDA account, a DSS worker arrived at the family’s home to investigate the false report. The father explained the entire situation to the worker, but the DSS agent still demanded to interview his children privately and to search the family’s home. He allowed the caseworker to see the children to prove they were in good health and offered to let the agent interview them in his presence, but she declined, insisting to interview them privately. The father refused to allow private interviews of his children.

On Friday the DSS filed a petition that alleged the father obstructed with a juvenile investigation. The petition asked the judge to order compliance without a hearing. HSLDA said it filed a motion to dismiss the petition based on the state Supreme Court’s July decision on the Stumbo case, which required DSS to close investigations once allegations are found to be false.

The judge agreed and dismissed the DSS petition without a hearing.

“After having seen the children in person and having talked to both parents,”the judge wrote, “it should have been apparent that the report of the children being left alone every day in the care of a nine-year-old was simply untrue.”

Four years ago the Stumbo family, who live in Kings Mountain, were investigated by the Cleveland County DSS because the agency received a tip that alleged possible child neglect. In September 1999 2-year-old Joanie Stumbo, who had yet to get dressed one morning, chased her kitten out the front door of her home. An older sibling retrieved Joanie and brought her back inside.

The Stumbos, defended by HSLDA lawyers, refused to allow DSS workers to interview their children privately, although they showed that the children were in good health and explained what happened. A DSS complaint, which alleged obstruction of an investigation, was upheld by the state Court of Appeals, but the N.C. Supreme Court ruled in July that the DSS actions violated the Stumbos’ Fourth Amendment rights against illegal searches and seizure.

If the Stumbo decision hadn’t been established as a precedent, the more recent case would almost certainly still be in litigation, Mason said.

The HSLDA account is on the Internet at www.hslda.org.