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.
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