Vol. 8, No. 1• November 2003

The Stumbo Ruling and CPS Investigations in North Carolina

By John McMahon

When the North Carolina Supreme Court chose to hear the matter of Stumbo many believed the case would have far-reaching implications for our state’s child protective services workers. Child advocates hoped the court would use the case to reaffirm the role of child welfare agencies and the methods they use to protect children from abuse and neglect. Civil libertarians and home schoolers hoped for a decision that would advance and protect parental rights. In the end, neither side got exactly what it wanted.

The Stumbo case began in September 1999, when the Cleveland County Department of Social Services (DSS) received an anonymous report that Jim and Mary Ann Stumbo’s two-year-old daughter was wandering in the driveway of their house, naked and unsupervised.

Soon after, a child protective services (CPS) worker arrived at the family’s home to look into the report and assess the child’s safety. When the Stumbos refused to allow the social worker to interview their children in private, DSS filed a petition with a court alleging that the parents were obstructing and interfering with the CPS investigation. The court agreed.

The Stumbos, who home school their children, appealed the decision with the assistance of the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA). In a divided decision, the North Carolina Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s ruling.

The Stumbos again appealed, this time to the North Carolina Supreme Court, which heard the case in February 2002. Lawyers for Cleveland County DSS argued before the NC Supreme Court that CPS workers were in compliance with the law in their efforts to investigate this report of neglect. The Stumbos and their supporters—including the American Civil Liberties Union—disagreed, arguing that because social workers are agents of the government, their demands to interview the Stumbo children amounted to an unreasonable search and seizure, in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

After an uncharacteristically long delay, on July 16, 2003 the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of the Stumbos, though in a way that sidestepped the Fourth Amendment issue. In the majority opinion Justice Robert Orr stated that although the Stumbos’ child did slip out of the house without their awareness, this kind of parental lapse “does not in and of itself constitute ‘neglect.’” The Court ruled that Cleveland County DSS was in error when it accepted the report for investigation because this report failed to meet the legal definition of neglect as defined by North Carolina statute § 7B-101. As an aside, the Court stated that if there had been a complaint of a pattern of lack of supervision of the child or other credible evidence that indicated a serious failing on the part of the parents to look after the child, the report would have merited investigation.

Though the family’s supporters trumpeted the decision as a victory for parental rights, it does not call into question the legal basis of DSS procedures. Asked to comment about the case, Kirk Randleman, Assistant Attorney General with the N.C. Department of Justice, said, “Agencies should not change the way they operate as a result of this ruling. They should continue to use the legal definitions and the information they have about the level of risk to the child when deciding whether or not to investigate.”

However, the Stumbo decision does have implications for the way child welfare agencies ask courts for noninterference orders when they feel parents are obstructing CPS investigations. According to a summary on Stumbo prepared by Randleman and his colleagues in the Attorney General’s office, when agencies petition the court in these situations they must first present sufficient evidence to demonstrate that the initial report meets the legal definition of abuse/neglect. Only after they have satisfied a judge on this point can they present evidence about parental interference.

Stumbo also sends the message that agencies must carefully screen child maltreatment reports to ensure they meet North Carolina’s definition of abuse, neglect, or abandonment. Recent developments in child welfare practice in North Carolina may make this easier for county child protection agencies.

As of June 1, 2003, every DSS in the state began using a new strengths-based, structured intake process designed to ensure child maltreatment reports are screened in a consistent way and that agencies get better information from reporters about families and their situations. The tools in this highly structured process emphasize learning about family strengths as well as needs, so that if they do need to intervene, agencies are better prepared to support families and protect children. These new screening tools can be found online at <http://www.dhhs. state.nc.us/dss/childrensservices/forms/DSS-1408.doc>.

The summary from the Attorney General’s office also urges county DSS’s to be aware of, place more emphasis upon, and comply with GS § 7B-302(h), which was passed into law on July 4, 2003. This law, which addresses Fourth Amendment issues implicit in CPS visits, reads:

(h) The director or the director’s representative may not enter a private residence for investigation purposes without at least one of the following:

  1. The reasonable belief that a juvenile is in imminent danger of death or serious physical injury
  2. The permission of the parent or person responsible for the juvenile’s care
  3. The accompaniment of a law enforcement officer who has legal authority to enter the residence
  4. An order from a court of competent jurisdiction

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Copyright 2003 Jordan Institute for Families