It all started with an unwanted knock on the door by a government worker and it’s being answered with a $60 million lawsuit.
A New Jersey family is suing the state child-protection agency after it allegedly sent a caseworker to their home to interrogate them on everything from their son’s homeschool education to questions about vaccines and guns in the house.
Christopher Zimmer and his wife Nicole of Belvidere filed a civil rights complaint in April in U.S. District Court in Trenton alleging “unlawful and unconstitutional home intrusion.”
“I won’t forget that morning for a long, long time,” said Christopher Zimmer, thinking back to Tuesday, Jan. 13, which began with a caseworker knocking on his front door.
He said Michelle Marchese, a caseworker for the state Division of Child Protection and Permanency, demanded she be let inside the house, “Now!” according to court documents. Startled by the aggressive confrontation, Christopher Zimmer asked the purpose of her visit.
Marchese refused to answer the question, saying only that 15-year-old Christopher Zimmer Jr. was not getting a “proper education” and she was at the Zimmer home under the authority of DCP&P to make sure they were homeschooling their son “correctly,” the suit states.
Not knowing the extent of his rights, Christopher Zimmer phoned local police. The police arrived on the scene but allowed Marchese to enter the home and continue to issue threats to the family and inspect the house, all without a warrant, the lawsuit states.
The Zimmers let the woman inside, attempting to prove they had nothing to hide, but after two hours of what the family described as intense interrogation, it became clear this issue would not be quickly resolved.
“My fear was, if I didn’t let her in the house, if I had closed the door and didn’t let her in the house then the police would be knocking at the door and think I’m hiding something,” Christopher Zimmer Sr. told the Warren Reporter.
The questions started out simple, about home life and happiness, but Zimmer said the questions quickly turned pointed and intrusive.
Marchese demanded to see records on textbooks used, attendance and test scores, the lawsuit states, when in fact New Jersey law doesn’t require homeschool parents to maintain and turn in such records to the state.
Marchese then allegedly told the Zimmers that their homeschooling materials “had to include what the public school system would have taught him, and that they had to both work with the public school and follow the public school curriculum,” according to the lawsuit.
In fact there is no such requirement for homeschooling curricula to line up with what’s taught in the public schools, according to state regulations published on the New Jersey Department of Education website.
“The law does not require or authorize the local board of education to review and approve the curriculum or program of a child educated elsewhere than at school. When parent/guardian educate a child elsewhere than at school, they are responsible for the educational outcomes of the child. The local board of education is not required or authorized to monitor the outcomes of the child.”
Marchese then began to interrogate the couple’s 15-year-old son about his school work.
Zimmer said he told Marchese she had no legal authority to be in his home questioning his family about what type of education their son was receiving.
More questions about guns, ammo
Marchese then asked the boy what he wanted to be when he grew up. He said he wanted to be a Marine scout sniper.
She asked the boy why and before he could answer she asked him if he’d ever played the video game “Call of Duty.”
Zimmer again told his son he did not have to answer the question because Marchese had no legal right to be in the home interrogating the family about schooling techniques.
Marchese said she had the authority to be there and asked if their son was up to date on his vaccines. The boy’s mother, Nicole Zimmer, said she had concerns about the risks of vaccines and was provided a religious exemption.
Marchese then demanded that the Zimmers sign a HIPAA medical release form that would allow DCP&P to have full access to all of their son’s medical records. She also demanded the last four digits of the couple’s Social Security numbers so she could run a background check on them.
And that’s not all.
The questions get more intense
According to the suit, Marchese ask the boy if his parents ever argued, whether they threw things at each other, whether they drank alcohol or used drugs.
The boy answered no to all of the questions.
Marchese then asked the boy if there were any guns in the house, and he looked at his father. His father assured the caseworker that his firearms were legally owned and locked in a safe.
Marchese then asked who had the keys to the safe. Mr. Zimmer said he had the keys. She then demanded to see the firearms and where the boy sleeps.
Once at the safe Marchese tried to open it herself but it wouldn’t open.
Marchese then asked Zimmer if the ammunition was kept separate from the firearms.
She also demanded that he remove the guns from the safe and show them to her, which he did.
The woman then attempted to quote from a New Jersey law requiring that guns and ammo be kept separate.
She then went to Zimmer’s son’s bedroom and inspected it, asking if the teen had ever “appeared suicidal,” according to the suit. Zimmer said no.
A tip from a child?
The Zimmers believe the intrusive visit was brought on by a confidential tip about “improper homeschooling” from a minor child known to their son.
“If they had come with a complaint of neglect and abuse, come in and ask us, but to question us about home schooling. … For us it was a good choice, and I will always advocate for home schooling,” Nicole Zimmer told the Warren Reporter.
Their suit claims home-schooling issues aren’t the responsibility of the DCP&P.
After Marchese left their home they revoked the HIPAA release form and retained an attorney, who sent a letter demanding the state agency cease and desist from all direct contact with the Zimmers and their healthcare providers.
Nicole Zimmer said she homeschooled her daughter, and her husband’s stepdaughter, from sixth grade through graduation. She said her daughter is now on her way to becoming a teacher, working as a classroom aide and making the dean’s list at her school.
Defendants in the case, filed April 9 in New Jersey District Court in Warren County, include the DCP&P, its director Lisa Von Pier, the New Jersey Commissioner of DCP&P Allison Blake, a local supervisor and Marchese, the caseworker. The plaintiffs have demanded a jury trial.