September 27, 2002

New York CPS Hassles Its Heroes

America has just finished a solemn observance of September 11, but New York City spent the weekend threatening one of its firefighters with Child Protective Services, all because of one picture drawn by his seven year old.

Brian Burr (not his real name) is a New York City firefighter who survived the terrorist attacks last year. He had some difficulties sleeping after the attack and decided to take advantage of the Counseling Services Unit of the New York Fire Department. His children expressed fears that "Daddy might not come home again," so the family decided to bring them in for counseling too. Their seven-year-old daughter told the counselor that one of the other children was mean to their dog. The counselor wanted to know more. The little girl drew a picture of her brother being "mean to the dog with a smile on his face." On the basis of this picture alone, the counselor and her supervisor decided to insist that the boy be taken to a psychiatrist. Although it was after hours on a Friday evening, the family called Home School Legal Defense Association's emergency answering service to find out what they should do.

While "being mean to a dog" is hardly a typical homeschool issue, HSLDA is proud of any opportunity to serve New York City's heroes. HSLDA attorney Scott Somerville advised the family what steps to take first thing Monday morning. The first item of business was to hand the counselors a release to speak to HSLDA attorneys.

When Mrs. Burr went in to talk to the counselors on Monday morning, she gave them the signed release and explained that the family had decided to use a therapist of their own choice rather than one the government had specified. When she told them she was waiting to find out whether her private medical insurance company would cover the cost, the counselor's supervisor put her foot down saying, "We have to call CPS," solely because the child had not yet seen a therapist. Mrs. Burr immediately called HSLDA, and attorney Somerville called the supervisor on her cell phone. In a brief but unpleasant conversation, Mr. Somerville asked whether the supervisor had received the release to talk to him. She said, "No, I haven't seen it." Then, rather than agreeing to contact her office to verify that the release had come through, she refused to talk to any attorney about the matter.

Mr. Somerville then called the main office of the Counseling Services Unit, only to find that they could not locate the supervisor, the Burr's counselor was out, and there was no one in the office who could discuss the family's situation. A very patient receptionist listened (with growing concern) as attorney Somerville explained that it was "truly urgent" to get in touch with somebody who could help avoid a federal civil rights lawsuit. Within the hour, an official from the main office in Manhattan called back to resolve matters.

Fortunately, it only took a few minutes of calm, professional conversation to untangle the situation. The fire department official agreed that the family had every right to choose their own therapist. She agreed that the Burrs had not done anything that was either abusive or negligent. She agreed wholeheartedly with HSLDA's analysis of the facts and the law, and offered to help in any way she could to make sure that the fire department covered any expenses the family might incur for a therapist of their own choosing. After a long, tense weekend, someone began to treat this family like the heroes they are instead of villains.

HSLDA social services contact policy

We desire to assist and advise our members in every contact with a social worker and/or police officer in investigations resulting from allegations of abuse or neglect. If home schooling is an issue, we will represent our member families until the issue is resolved. On Fourth Amendment unreasonable search and seizure issues, HSLDA will assist and advise our members whenever the privacy of their home is violated by forced or coerced entry for the purpose of an unsubstantiated investigation. HSLDA membership benefits do not extend to court actions resulting from non-home schooling matters. However, in circumstances where there is a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment, HSLDA may, as we have done in the past, choose to take the case in an effort to establish legal precedent.