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North Carolina

July 16, 2003

North Carolina Supreme Court Rules Against Social Worker Investigation

In a long awaited decision the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled 7-0 against the Department of Child Protective Services declaring that the department did not have a legitimate basis to even begin an investigation of the Stumbo family.

"This is a great victory for parents in North Carolina. The decision means that families will be protected from aggressive social workers who are acting solely on the basis of anonymous tips," said Jim Mason Litigation Attorney for Home School Legal Defense Association. HSLDA represented the Stumbos throughout the case.

The Associated Press reports that the Stumbo decision could spark changes in the way the state's social workers investigate allegations of child abuse and neglect. Recent high-profile cases across the state have publicized families' dissatisfaction with the way some county DSS agencies conduct investigations.

The Stumbos' troubles began in September 1999 when their 2-year-old daughter slipped outside halfway through dressing - without any clothes - to chase her new kitten. Although an older sibling retrieved her a few minutes later, it was too late. A passerby reported the family to social services.

Two hours later, a social worker showed up at the Stumbos' door, demanding to enter their home and privately interview each child. At HSLDA's advice, the Stumbos refused to let the social worker in.

Despite having no probable cause for entry and private interviews, the social worker convinced a judge to issue a court order forcing the family to comply. HSLDA immediately challenged the order, but the North Carolina Court of Appeals upheld it, deciding that the order did not constitute a "search" under the Fourth Amendment. The Stumbos then appealed to the supreme court, which heard the case in February 2002.

According to HSLDA President Mike Smith, the Stumbo case is important because the court found that social workers have an obligation to examine the reports they receive alleging abuse or neglect to make sure is rises to the level of neglect or abuse as defined by statue before initiating an investigation.

"Not every report must be investigated and every report should be carefully scrutinized by social workers so citizens will not be unjustifiably traumatized because of a trivial or false allegation," said Mr. Smith.

In the majority opinion, Justice Robert Orr, called the Stumbo case "a circumstance that probably happens repeatedly across our state, where a toddler slips out of a house without the awareness of the parent or caregiver - no matter how conscientious or diligent the parent or care giver might be."

Orr further stated that, "such a lapse does not in and of itself constitute 'neglect'."

The majority opinion did not address the fourth amendment issue of whether there was probable cause to order the parents to submit to the interviews for the Stumbo's other children. However, the court issued a concurring opinion indicating that the fourth amendment applies in child abuse investigations. And in this case, there was not sufficient evidence to justify an order requiring the parents to submit their children for interviews.

"We're just glad this ordeal is over," said Mary Ann Stumbo. "Hopefully this decision will help other families across the country."

 Other Resources

Stumbo Decision in the North Carlolina Supreme Court

In the Matter of S