RALEIGH, N.C. — A little girl’s naked five-minute romp in her family’s driveway has sparked a legal fight in which the North Carolina Supreme Court will decide whether to expand privacy rights or restrict investigations of suspected child neglect or abuse.
Someone who saw 2-year-old Jonie Stumbo’s alfresco frolic as she chased a kitten outside her rural Kings Mountain, N.C., home early one morning in September 1999 reported it to Cleveland County’s Department of Social Services.
When investigator Tasha Lowery showed up at the Stumbo home two hours later, Jonie’s parents, Jim and Mary Ann Stumbo, let Miss Lowery see their four children but refused to let her interview them privately or enter their house without a search warrant.
“It’s our constitutional rights,” said Mrs. Stumbo, 35. “Once you let them in your house, your rights are gone, and you can’t kick them out. We didn’t like it very much at the time, but God brought us there for a reason. The further we go, the better it will be for other families if we wind up winning.”
Two courts have since ordered the Stumbos to allow the investigation, saying no warrant is necessary. But the Stumbos have appealed their case to the state Supreme Court, which has never ruled on whether social workers must get a judge’s search warrant to compel private interviews or force their way into people’s homes actions state authorities say are necessary in abuse investigations.
The Stumbos say they have nothing to hide, but they don’t want their child’s innocent streak to spark a baseless criminal investigation.
The case highlights a common conflict between two major societal values: protecting a family’s privacy at home and protecting children.
The Stumbos and the national Home School Legal Defense Association, which represents them, hope their case influences major new law across the state and nation.
“This is a precedent-setting case, for good or ill,” said association lawyer Scott Somerville of Purcellville, Va., the Stumbos’ attorney.
John Church, who represents the county agency in the case, said a victory for the Stumbos would be a defeat for neglected and abused children across the state.
“If word gets around that all you have to do is say, ‘I’m not going to let you into the house or interview the children,’ it would greatly affect investigations, to the detriment of the children,” Mr. Church said. “A large majority of reports are not substantiated, but they have to be investigated.”
Chuck Harris, child welfare director in the state’s Division of Social Services, said requiring search warrants would create difficult and inconsistent barriers that could jeopardize children’s safety statewide. And showing up with search warrants or police is more confrontational, he said.
Mr. Harris said investigating charges thoroughly does include going into the home to evaluate the children’s environment and interviewing them privately to get the truth.
“Being able to interview children in the home without the parents there is a very important source of information,” he said. “We believe that is what we need to do to protect children. It’s a fine line we walk between protecting children and respecting people’s privacy.”
But the Stumbos say they’re just standing up for the rights of all parents and children.
It’s remarkable, they say, that the case began because Jonie wandered outside to chase a kitten. They say Jonie, who walked outside while in the process of changing from her pajamas to fresh clothes, was outside less than five minutes before her brother spotted her and brought her back inside. They surmise that the person who reported them was a passing school bus driver.
“We’re assuming she bent over to get the kitten and mooned a school bus full of kids,” her mother said.
Distributed by Scripps Howard