interview by Lee Ann Bisulca
|COURTESY OF THE STUMBO FAMILY|
|Jim and Mary Ann Stumbo in 2003 with their four children: Jonie (6), Allison (8), Stephen (9), and Scott (12).|
When Jim and Mary Ann Stumbo recall the warm autumn day that sparked a four-year battle for their rights, they say, "We never thought we'd be in this situation." The Stumbos, whose four children ranged in age from 2 to 9 years old at the time, had moved onto their 10-acre property just that summer.
On the morning of September 9, 1999, Jim was in the downstairs bathroom shaving, and Mary Ann was in bed, suffering from a severe headache and dizziness-symptoms of her as yet undiagnosed multiple sclerosis. As she did every day, their 2-year-old daughter, Jonie, knocked on the bathroom door to hug her dad good morning.
Jim is not sure exactly what happened after he sent her upstairs to get dressed. He assumes Jonie dropped her nightie in the clothes hamper on her way to the stairs, passing the window, and spying her kitten outside as she did so. A minute or so later, his oldest child, Scott, looked out his bedroom window and saw Jonie streaking up the driveway after her new kitten. By the time Scott caught up with her, she had chased the kitten all the way to the back of the house. Scott brought her inside and told his dad what had happened.
"Guess what? Jonie can open the door," Jim told Mary Ann in their bedroom, forgetting to mention the fact that she had done so sans-clothes.
"He didn't think twice about it," says Mary Ann. In fact, the parents were more surprised that Jonie had been able to unlock the door on her own. "We both had a good laugh," says Jim, who then left for work.
Later that morning, the family was on the back porch working on their homeschool assignments when a car appeared in their driveway. Mary Ann, still feeling weak and dizzy, went out to meet the visitor. It turned out to be a social worker, who informed Mary Ann that the Cleveland County Department of Social Services (DSS).had received a report that a naked female child was seen on the driveway. She would have to conduct an investigation of the home, as well as interview each of the children privately.
Mary Ann knew she couldn't allow this to happen. She had her son call Jim, who immediately called Home School Legal Defense Association to inform them of the emergency. HSLDA attorney Scott Somerville called the Stumbos' home right away and told Mary Ann to hand the cordless phone to the social worker. Even after speaking with Somerville, the social worker refused to leave, and Mary Ann refused to allow her into the house. Instead, she suggested that the social worker join her family on the back porch, where she could see that the children were healthy and safe.
When Jim arrived, he found the social worker sitting amicably on the porch, petting the dog. When the social worker realized that Jim would not let her into the home, she told him that her supervisor would be contacting them, and left.
"Quite honestly, I was scared," says Jim. What had begun as a typical day had suddenly blossomed into an out-of-the-ordinary fight for principle. Over the next few days, the Stumbos considered their options. If they allowed the DSS investigation to proceed, they would probably emerge with flying colors, since there was no hint of abuse in their household. But if they decided to fight for their rights, anything could happen.
They decided to stand their ground. "We truly at that point were somewhat concerned about us, but not too concerned, because we had nothing to hide. This could be a way to impact other families who didn't have the support of somebody like HSLDA," explains Jim. Mary Ann adds, "We have always stood on principle. We made the decision up front that we were going to fight it to the end."
Once they made their decision, the Stumbos struggled with the fear of what might happen next. They began screening all their calls and didn't let the children play outside without close supervision. "We were afraid of them taking the children to make a point-just to assert the power that they thought they had." By the time the case reached the appellate court in early 2000, these fears had dwindled, but the family was experiencing strain in other ways as well. "The first few months of the trial were very nerve-wracking for me," remembers Mary Ann. "They never heard our side of the case." The prosecuting attorney painted an unfavorable picture of the Stumbos, and the judge refused to allow the Stumbos to introduce any evidence beyond the answers to two basic questions. When the case reached the appellate level, "we didn't know that we still weren't going to get a chance to clear up what were basically lies."
"I was just getting so frustrated with the system," Mary Ann says. "I guess I was just losing faith." It was at those times that Somerville spent hours on the phone with the Stumbos, praying and talking with them. "We've gotten our hundred dollars a year-worth just from spiritual counsel!" laughs Mary Ann.
Looking back, though, the Stumbos are quick to mention all the things they learned throughout the long process of trial and appeal. They describe the hands-on education their children received in the Fourth Amendment and the judicial process. Their oldest son, Scott, became fascinated by the theme of liberty and propaganda in history. His studies took him all the way from William Wallace and George Washington, champions of freedom, to Hitler's propaganda and modern-day advertising techniques. "All of this has been sparked by what happened with the court case," says Mary Ann. Jim points out that the case had a broader impact as well, in a bill recently passed in North Carolina that clearly defines when a social worker may enter a private residence.
July 16, 2003, began like any other day for the Stumbos, just like the one four years ago when their daughter ran outside to play with a kitten-until Mary Ann received a phone call from HSLDA President Michael Smith, who told her that her family's perseverance had paid off: the Court had ruled 7-0 in their favor! "I think I said, 'What? There's no way! It's not Friday!'" says Mary Ann. (The North Carolina Supreme Court normally hands down opinions one Friday each month. The next batch of decisions wasn't due until August 22.)
Mary Ann immediately called Jim, who was out of town that day. "I found out about it because my cell phone was buzzing through all my meetings," says Jim. "I was ecstatic."
Having reached the end of their ordeal, the Stumbos have the satisfaction of knowing that they didn't just win a battle against an errant government agency; they won a battle for the constitutional rights of parents everywhere. They sum up the lessons they learned this way: "Join Home School Legal Defense-we tell everybody that!" On a more serious note they add, "Stand up for your rights. If we don't stand up for our rights, what are we teaching our children?"