Nothing really changed after a New Jersey state social worker banged on Christopher and Nicole Zimmer’s front door, and yet everything was different.
Over the next two hours, the social worker quizzed their 15-year-old son, Chris, including questions on whether his parents fought or did drugs. She wanted to see his homeschool curriculum. She wanted to inspect their firearms. She told the Zimmers to sign papers agreeing to turn over their son’s medical records.
And then she left, and the Zimmers never saw her again. But they can’t let it go. They can’t erase the memory of what it felt like when they thought the state might take away their son.
In April the Zimmers filed a $60 million federal lawsuit against the New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency, along with several division officials and the social worker, Michelle Marchese, for an “unlawful and unconstitutional home intrusion.”
“It’s the fact that the government just came walking into my door without any cause,” Mr. Zimmer said.
Ms. Marchese arrived at their home Jan. 13 in Warren County to investigate a complaint about “improper homeschooling,” which turned into what the Zimmers describe as a protracted fishing expedition on topics ranging from their son’s video games to the family’s firearms.
“We want to change it so that they just can’t come pounding on your door and saying, ‘If you don’t let me in, you know who we are; we’re going to take your kid away,’” Mr. Zimmer said. “They need to start telling people what their rights are. If they want to act like cops, they can abide by the law like the police.”
The state has responded by filing to dismiss the complaint, arguing that the agency “received a referral and was simply fulfilling its duty by following up,” and that “a parent’s right to familial integrity ‘does not include a right to remain free from child abuse investigations.’”
Ms. Marchese has “qualified immunity” from prosecution for acting in her capacity as a state employee, while the Zimmers have “failed to allege facts that plausibly show that Marchese purposefully discriminated against them on any basis,” said the June 30 state motion.
Kenneth Rosellini, the Zimmers’ attorney, countered in an Aug. 3 reply brief that “there is a Constitutional Fundamental Right to be free from child abuse investigations where there is ‘no reasonable and articulable evidence giving rise to a reasonable suspicion that a child has been abused or is in imminent danger of abuse.’”
The case highlights the tension between state social welfare agencies and homeschool families as the number of children being educated at home continues to grow. More than 2 million children are now involved in homeschooling, said Michael Farris Jr., spokesman for the Home School Legal Defense Association.
“When we get calls, it will more than likely be about a social case worker who says, ‘I got a call from someone else who says you’re not educating your kids,’ or ‘We’ve heard that you’re spanking your kids,’” Mr. Farris said.
“Homeschoolers are a unique case, especially because there will be someone, a family friend or even a family member, who disagrees with their choice to homeschool, so they’ll call in an anonymous tip,” he said. “That’s what we’re seeing probably the most.”
The Zimmers say they don’t know who called the state to complain about them, although they have a theory. They also said they were stunned at how little the caseworker appeared to know about New Jersey’s homeschool laws.
Under the law New Jersey parents have discretion to choose a curriculum for their children that is “academically equivalent to what is provided in the public schools,” said Scott Woodruff, senior counsel with the Home School Legal Defense Association.
The Zimmers say they were well versed in the state law given that Ms. Zimmer had already homeschooled an older daughter who recently graduated from college, and that they were alarmed when Ms. Marchese told them they were “doing it wrong.”
She asked them to produce attendance records and textbooks, which is not required under New Jersey law, Mr. Zimmer said.
“We tried to explain to her that in the state of New Jersey, you’re not required to keep attendance records, you’re not required to have textbooks, [and] you’re free to teach your child what you want to teach your child,” he said. “This is where she started to say we have to follow the public school’s curriculum, and we said, ‘No, we don’t. If that were the case, we’d have our son in the public schools.’”
Their case also comes with New Jersey under pressure to crack down on child abuse and neglect. Since 2006 a court-appointed monitor has overseen the state’s child welfare agency in response to a 1999 lawsuit and the horrific deaths of several children that occurred in 2003 and 2004 despite oversight by social workers.
Cecilia Zalkind, executive director of Advocates for Children of New Jersey, said the former state Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) was split off from the state health department during that time, changing its name to the DCPP and becoming an independent state agency.
The agency, whose budget has since doubled to more than $1 billion annually, has received generally positive reviews since that time for improvements to its infrastructure and reducing its caseworker loads, she said.
“They handle thousands of cases a year, everything from the initial investigation to the more thorough assessment to bringing the case to court,” Ms. Zalkind said. “I think you would probably find a range of complaints about what the agency did or didn’t do.”
The Zimmers’ complaint includes an accusation that the state violated their Second Amendment rights by quizzing them on their firearms and insisting on an inspection of their gun safe. Both Mr. Zimmer and his son are licensed hunters.
“So I said, ‘Yes, there are guns in the house, but those guns are for hunting. And they’re locked up,’” Mr. Zimmer said.
“And then she said, ‘Well, you’re going to have to show me the guns. I have to see that they’re locked up,’” he said. “She realized she wasn’t really getting anywhere with any of the other questions.”
He said she inspected his gun safe, his son’s bedroom and the bathroom before telling them to sign papers agreeing to turn over their son’s medical records. The Zimmers did so, but later called their doctor to revoke the release.
Two months later the Zimmers received a brief letter saying that due to their lack of cooperation, “the DCP&P will not be providing services to your child [or] your family at this time,” which galled them.
“We didn’t ask you for any help,” Mr. Zimmer said. “We didn’t ask you for anything. They’re telling us, ‘We were unwilling to cooperate, so we’re not going to provide any services.’ Well, we didn’t request anything. I told you when you knocked on my door, you shouldn’t be coming in my house.”
Their lawsuit describes the March 9 letter as an “unlawful attempt to characterize DCP&P’s Un-constitutional investigation and Un-constitutional search of the Zimmers’ home under threat of removal of the child for ‘improper homeschooling’ as an attempt by DCP&P to offer to the Zimmers purportedly beneficial ‘services.’ “
The Zimmers emphasize that they fully support the state’s ability to protect abused and neglected children. It’s just that “they’ve gone past the point of just going for abused kids,” Mr. Zimmer said.
“They didn’t get a call saying my child isn’t getting fed or he’s dirty or he has bruises on him,” he said. “Honestly, she [Ms. Marches] didn’t care. She didn’t care what I had to say. She didn’t care what the laws were. And I didn’t have a choice.”