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Stumbo Victory Protects North Carolina Family From Social Worker Investigation
The importance of the North Carolina Supreme Court's unanimous decision in the Stumbo case, which was handed down in July of 2003, became apparent when social workers took another North Carolina family to court after the parents declined to allow social workers into their home or to hold private interviews with their children.
The case began in August when the Department of Social Services (DSS) received a false report that the Boyds1 had removed their 9 year-old from public school to care for his younger siblings all day every day. The Boyds do not have a 9 year-old child and had instead left their 5 year-old in the care of a 12 year-old for a few hours after Mrs. Boyd had been unexpectedly admitted to the hospital. The Boyds have been legally homeschooling all of their children for over four years.
The juvenile judge rejected the DSS petition, relying on Stumbo. In Stumbo, the Supreme Court held that some reports to DSS are so trivial that no investigation should be commenced at all. In the Boyd case, the judge ruled that while the report may have warranted an initial inquiry, the social workers should not have proceeded once they learned that the allegations were false and that the truth did not amount to neglect.
"The juvenile judge understood that full-scale neglect investigations are intrusive and should not be conducted once the social workers learn that the report is completely false," said Home School Legal Defense Association attorney, James R. Mason, who represented the Boyds. "Stumbo stands for the proposition that both common sense and the constitution apply to social worker investigations," he added.
The Boyds' ordeal began on a Monday evening in August, when Mrs. Boyd began experiencing severe pains in her back. Her husband took her to the emergency room. They took their three sons, ages 12 ½, 11 and 5 ½ to the emergency room with them. Around eleven o'clock the hospital admitted Mrs. Boyd and scheduled an MRI for the next morning.
On Tuesday morning Mr. Boyd stayed home with the children hoping that the MRI would be concluded so that he could bring his wife home. Unfortunately, the test was delayed to the next day and Mrs. Boyd had to stay at the hospital.
Mr. Boyd left for work after lunch, leaving instructions with his older boys to watch the 5 year-old and to call him at work if they needed him. Mr. Boyd is always available by phone and if needed can be home in less than ten minutes. He arrived home around 6 p.m. and after dinner took his children to the hospital to visit their mother.
On Wednesday morning, Mr. Boyd left for work at 9:00 a.m., again leaving his older boys to baby-sit. He came home for lunch at 11:00 and stayed home till 1:30 p.m. when he returned to work.
At six o'clock, one of the Boyd's sons phoned his dad at work and reported that a stranger had come to the door earlier. They had not answered the door as Mr. Boyd had instructed them. The boy reported that he had just noticed that the stranger was still sitting on the porch close to an hour after she first knocked. Mr. Boyd came home immediately.
When he arrived home, Mr. Boyd was met by DSS worker Heather Smith who told him that DSS had received a report that the Boyd children were left home alone every day in the care of a 9 year-old. Mr. Boyd explained that he does not have a 9 year-old child and that his older boys, age 12 ½ and 11 were babysitting the 5 year-old for a few hours each day due to his wife's unexpected admission to the hospital. He fully explained to Ms. Smith the situation, including the times he was at home on Tuesday and Wednesday and that he worked less than ten minutes away from home.
Nevertheless, Ms. Smith demanded private interviews with each of the children and demanded to search the Boyds' home. Mr. Boyd declined, citing concern for protecting his children from intrusive questioning out of his presence and for the privacy of his home. He did, however, offer Ms. Smith the opportunity to interview the children in his presence. She declined stating that this would not be satisfactory-she had to interview them far enough away from him so that he could not hear the conversation.
Ms. Smith summoned a supervisor, Tina Jones, who came to the Boyds' home and also demanded that Ms. Smith be allowed to privately interview the children and search the home. When Mr. Boyd again declined, the supervisor asked to see the children. Mr. Boyd called the children to him and the DSS workers could see that they were well dressed, well fed and healthy.
On Thursday, DSS worker Valerie O'Hara interviewed Mrs. Boyd at the hospital. Mrs. Boyd confirmed that the older boys had babysat on Tuesday and Wednesday and that they were not left home alone every day in the care of a 9 year-old.
On Friday, DSS filed a Petition alleging obstruction or interference with a juvenile investigation. The petition cited the allegation about a 9 year-old, but recognized that the two older boys were 12 and 11. Although no emergency existed, DSS asked the judge to issue the order without a hearing, which the judge rejected because North Carolina law requires a hearing unless there is an emergency situation requiring immediate action.
HSLDA, filed a motion to dismiss the petition arguing that Stumbo required DSS to close its file once it learned that the allegations were false. The juvenile judge agreed and dismissed the noninterference petition without even holding a hearing. The judge wrote in his order:
"That after having seen the children in person and having talked to both parents 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."
"That after conducting an initial screening the Department should have concluded that a statutorily mandated investigation was not necessary and dismissed the report."
Tragically, some children are abused and neglected. Equally tragic is the fact that DSS's limited resources to protect those children are stretched thin by false reports. In this case, the time and energy of no less than three social workers and a juvenile judge had been needlessly expended because of a false tip.
But DSS also bears some responsibility. Once the social workers learned that the allegations in the report were false that should have ended the matter. In Stumbo, the North Carolina Supreme Court held that social workers should be guided by common sense and by the constitution.
1. All names changed to protect the privacy of the family.
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