A precedent set in July by the N.C. Supreme Court, which limited some Department of Social Services powers, enabled a Lumberton family to win a quick resolution in a dispute with social workers.
Robeson County District Judge J. Stanley Carmical ruled Sept. 25 that DSS workers had no grounds to demand private interviews with the three sons of Charles and Ramona Bevel. The judge’s decision was based at least partially on a recent state Supreme Court ruling in a similar case, in which a homeschooling family refused to allow social workers into their home.
On Aug. 20 Robeson County DSS received a tip that the Bevels’ children were “left at home every day” and that the Bevels “allowed [their] 9-year-old juvenile to quit school and stay home with the other juveniles.” The Bevels’ children are ages 12, 11, and 5, and they have homeschooled them legally since January 1999.
Ramona Bevel’s back started to hurt on Aug. 18 this year, which developed after an accident in which she had to turn her vehicle to avoid a propane tank that fell off the back of a truck. The pain was so bad that Bevel took her to the Southeastern Regional Medical Center in Lumberton. Despite Mrs. Bevel’s suffering, the Bevels were surprised that doctors wanted to keep her overnight for tests. They scheduled a MRI for the next morning.
“But as sometimes happens,” Bevel said, “things didn’t go as planned at the hospital.”
Mrs. Bevel ended up staying at the hospital for three days. Bevel, an assistant manager for a motorcycle dealership, stayed home with his sons the morning of Aug. 19 until he learned Mrs. Bevel’s MRI was delayed until Aug. 20. He went to work at 11 a.m. – a seven-minutes’ drive from home — leaving their 5-year-old son in the care of his older brothers. He instructed them not to open the door for anyone and to call him if they needed him. That evening he took the boys to visit their mother.
On Aug. 20, Bevel went to work for two hours, then returned home for a 2 1/2 hour-lunch with his sons. At 1:30 p.m. he left them home again and returned to work. He said that he is one of only two employees who answer the phone at the dealership and that he is always reachable.
At about 6 p.m. Bevel’s 11-year-old called and told him that a stranger had come to the door about an hour earlier, and that she was still sitting on the front porch. Bevel returned home immediately.
When he arrived, he encountered Heather Locklear, a social worker, who told him of the allegations. Bevel responded that the report was untrue, because he has no 9-year-old child and because his children are homeschooled. He also explained that the children were at home for a few hours at a time the previous two days because of his wife’s hospitalization, and that he was easily accessible.
Locklear started to interrogate Bevel, beginning with basic questions such as where he works. But the interrogation became more intrusive. Locklear asked Bevel whether his family had a history of abuse or mental illness and whether he or Mrs. Bevel had ever been arrested for drug use.
Bevel said at first he handled the questions “pretty nonchalantly,” but as the interview continued he said, “I felt I should be a little more guarded.”
Despite the false allegations, Locklear demanded to interview the three boys away from Bevel and to search their home.
“I said, ‘No, you can’t go through my house,’” he said, adding that he wouldn’t permit her to interview the children privately, either.
According to Bevel’s court affidavit, he offered for Locklear to interview the boys in his presence. She declined, saying she needed to interview them far enough away from their father so he couldn’t hear the conversation.
Bevel asked Locklear what law he had violated to trigger her inquiry and whether there was a law that placed limitations on age and length of time for children to be left alone at home.
“She said there’s not a set amount of time, and it’s up to the maturity of the kids,” Bevel said. He then felt that any judgment she reached would be subjective.
Locklear called her supervisor, Tina Dawson, to the Bevels’ home, who also demanded private interviews with the children and a search of the home. By that time, Bevel said, the children had been in and out of the house where Locklear could see they were in good condition.
The social workers wanted Bevel to sign the report Locklear had filled out about the incident, which he said he would do if they gave him a copy of it. The women refused. Bevel said they refused to tell him in writing what the allegations against him were or to read him his rights. He declined to sign the document. He also refused again Dawson’s request to interview the children privately, although he called the three boys so the women “could see that they were well dressed, well-fed, and healthy,” according to his affidavit.
The workers left without interviewing the children or searching the house.
Bevel contacted lawyers at the Home School Legal Defense Association the next day, Aug. 21. Meanwhile, another social worker, Verneice Oxendine, interviewed Mrs. Bevel at the hospital, who backed up her husband’s account.
On Aug. 22, Bevel told Oxendine that he would not consent for her to interview his children or search his home and that all future discussions would need to be with his HSLDA lawyer. He didn’t hear from DSS again, except for a court summons.
In September lawyers for the Bevels filed a motion to dismiss the DSS complaint. Based on a July state Supreme Court decision in In the matter of Joanie Stumbo, the lawyers argued that “not every report of neglect triggers a full-scale investigation.” The court ruled in Stumbo that “before any investigation is initiated…the proper inquiry that must be made by DSS is whether an investigation is mandated based upon the first…reports that show a pattern of neglect.”
Four years ago the Stumbo family, who live in Kings Mountain, was investigated by the Cleveland County DSS because the agency received a tip that alleged possible child neglect. In September 1999 two-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 to workers what happened. A complaint alleged obstruction of an investigation by the Stumbos, and a judge and the state Court of Appeals found in favor of DSS. The N.C. Supreme Court unanimously overturned that decision in July.
In his decision to dismiss the DSS complaint against the Bevels, Carmical wrote that because “the initial screening by DSS…failed to reveal any pattern of neglect or abuse of the children” or “any failure to provide proper care, supervision, or discipline…the Department should have concluded that a statutorily mandated investigation was not necessary and dismissed the report.”
Bevel said that it is not unusual for parents to leave 12-year-old children at home in charge of siblings. The American Red Cross even offers babysitting classes for youths as young as age 11. He said his two oldest boys are more mature than their years would suggest.
“Parents know their kids more than anybody else,” he said. “We wouldn’t leave them home for an extended period where they couldn’t contact us.
“I had no trepidation about it at all.”
Paul Chesser is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.