Because a 2-year-old, acting in typical toddler fashion, ran out of the house naked chasing a cat, a social worker demanded entry into the North Carolina child’s home to interview all children in the household, ultimately landing the parents in court.

Jim and Mary Ann Stumbo of Kings Mountain, N.C., have four children, the youngest of whom was seen “streaking” in her front yard in search of her pet cat in September 1999. The toddler’s older brother saw her and quickly brought the little girl back in the house, but someone had already complained to the authorities, prompting a same-day visit by a social worker.

The Stumbos, insisting that the Constitution protects the privacy of their home, did not allow the social worker admittance or access to their children. As a result, the parents were forced into court and found guilty of interfering with a child-abuse and neglect investigation. Claiming the Fourth Amendment protects them from searches without probable cause, the family eventually took the case to the North Carolina Court of Appeals where it will be heard tomorrow.

The Fourth Amendment states in its entirety: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

But according to court transcripts, both the social worker on the case and Cleveland County District Judge Anna Foster said social workers are not subject to the Fourth Amendment in civil child-abuse and neglect investigations. According to the lower court, the Fourth Amendment only “applies to criminal action and to the state,” but not to social workers. The lower court also said social workers investigating child abuse are not “state actors” and are therefore not subject to the Constitution.

The Stumbos argued there was not probable cause for the search because their daughter had simply run out to chase a kitten and was quickly brought back into the house by her older brother. But Foster excluded that testimony as irrelevant to the case, which she said centered on the parents’ interference with an investigation.

Concluding the September 1999 district court proceedings, Foster began detailing her order forcing the Stumbos to allow the social worker into their home. But the judge stopped short, vocalizing her realization that such an order would be in violation of the Fourth Amendment, which requires warrants to be issued only “upon probable cause.” There was no probable cause in the Stumbo case.

“You know, the sad thing about all this is that there are four children involved, and I don’t know that there’s anything wrong in this home,” said Foster during the hearing. “I’m not making a finding of that. These children could be great. These could be the best parents alive. I don’t know anything. But what do you do about the kids that aren’t OK? And you come along and you tell people not to let those social workers in there. What do you do about the abuse — I mean, I’m not saying this is the case. I don’t know anything about the facts in this case and these people.”

Had the toddler run out unattended in a busy urban area, the county may have been able to argue that a case of neglect could exist, giving the judge probable cause to issue a search order. However, the Stumbos live on a 10-acre plot at the end of a dead-end street in a rural area of North Carolina — hardly a dangerous setting for a toddler on a quickly squelched kitten hunt.

After a 120-day delay, the court finally issued its order requiring the Stumbos “to not obstruct, interfere with the investigation,” which was to take place according to Department of Social Services regulations.

Upon the social worker’s return visit, the Stumbos allowed their children to be interviewed while in the parents’ presence. Only the principal party — the 2-year-old — was interviewed privately. Once the interviews were completed, and the social worker presumably found no abuse or neglect to be taking place, Foster’s order would have been fulfilled and the case closed. But the social worker then demanded to privately interview all the children and not just the toddler in question, prompting a legal battle in the North Carolina Court of Appeals.

The Stumbos are members of the Home School Legal Defense Association, which represents the family in court. According to HSLDA, “The question to be answered by the appeals court is whether social workers are bound to obey the U.S. Constitution. Federal courts have already ruled in other cases that social workers are subject to the Constitution.”

Said HSLDA Chairman and General Counsel Mike Farris, “The bottom line is that North Carolina’s social workers seem to believe they don’t have to obey the Constitution when investigating child abuse. The federal courts have said that social workers are not a law unto themselves. They must obey the Constitution, just like the rest of us.”

The Cleveland County Department of Social Services referred an inquiry about the Stumbo case to attorney John Church of the Church, Paksoy and Wray law firm, which represents the county. However, Church was unavailable for comment.

Farris will present the Stumbos’ case tomorrow morning at 9:30 a.m. in Raleigh at the North Carolina Court of Appeals.

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