At about 7 a.m. one day in September 1999, at a home on a dead-end road in rural North Carolina, a 2-year-old girl put her jammies into the hamper and was about to get dressed when she remembered her new kitten.
Which is to say, she got distracted and forgot to get dressed before wandering naked outside to look for her kitty. By her innocent actions, the little streaker, now 4, inadvertently opened a Pandora's Box and set in motion a court battle over Americans' constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure.
The abridged version goes like this: An anonymous tipster called the Cleveland County Department of Social Services and reported seeing the daughter of Mary Ann and Jim Stumbo outside alone. In fact, she was outside only minutes before her older brother brought her back inside. Mom was sick in bed that day; Dad was fixing breakfast for the couple's four home-schooled children.
Within a couple of hours, after Jim Stumbo had left for work, a social worker was at the door, asking to come inside and interview each of the children behind closed doors. Mary Ann Stumbo, who is smart enough to teach her own children, was also wise enough to call a lawyer at the Home School Legal Defense Association, to which the Stumbos belong.
The upshot is that Stumbo declined to let the social worker talk to her children without a witness, and she and her husband were charged with obstructing an investigation.
Fast-forward two years. Earlier this week (MAY 15), the North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled in a split decision that the Stumbos should have cooperated with the investigator, and that a child-abuse investigation doesn't qualify as a "search" covered by the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
In other words, in North Carolina and most other states, American citizens have no protections against well-meaning social workers acting on an anonymous tip and must cooperate or risk arrest and prosecution. And you thought you lived in a free country.
Rage is an appropriate response to such unwarranted intrusions, though it may be misdirected toward social workers themselves. The blame belongs to an overreactive system put in place by other well-meaning folks who, giving them the benefit of the doubt, failed to imagine the common-sense deficit soon to plague their nation.
That system was put in place in 1973 under the "Mondale Act" or the "Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act," which provides federal funding for child-abuse investigations. Although the act's funding is small and, therefore, relatively harmless, another $4.5 billion in federal Medicaid dollars are attached to the act's implementation.
That is, states wishing to get their hands on any part of that $4.5 billion also have to put in place a hot line system for accepting anonymous child-abuse tips and for mandatory investigation. If social services get a tip, they have no choice but to investigate.
And, given current laws, private citizens have to submit to the investigation. Usual rules of unreasonable search and seizure apply only to criminal cases. The Catch-22 for people like the Stumbos is: If they're criminally charged, they can invoke the Fourth Amendment. But because they aren't guilty of anything criminal, they're guilty of - um, well - what (ital) are (end ital) they guilty of?
That's the question Mary Ann Stumbo keeps asking herself. Of trying to protect her children from a stranger who, by her questioning, might do them harm? Of trying to protect her home from invasion? Of letting a toddler walk around without clothes?
The Stumbos are taking their case to the state Supreme Court to press for an answer. What they hope - what we all should hope - is that the court will decide that even well-intended social workers should be subject to constitutional guidelines. Hell needs no further paving.