I'm a social worker!" squeaked 9-year-old Andrea Taylor, as she maneuvered a little doll toward the make-believe house where her brother held two more dolls, a pretend father and son. "You need to let me in! You've abused your children and we need to investigate! We know you did it, so you need to let us in!" Vicky Taylor, the children's mother, stood listening just outside the bedroom where the children played. It was January in Sacramento.
"I didn't do it, I haven't done anything!" 11-year-old Timothy said in a deep Dad-voice, inclining his Dad-doll toward Andrea for emphasis: "I love my kids, I didn't abuse them."
"You have to let us in or we're going to arrest you!" called the social worker doll shrilly.
"Okay, okay," Timothy's doll relented. "You can come in."
Andrea's doll then entered the pretend home, leaned over Timothy's child-doll, and launched an angry interrogation: "Your Dad is abusing you, isn't he?"
"No, no!" Timothy protested in a tiny voice, shaking the child-doll's head side-to-side: "My Daddy loves me!"
"Tell the truth! I know he's abusing you, tell the truth!"
"Tell me what he does to you!"
"Okay, okay, he does abuse me," Timothy's child-doll gave in, exhausted. "When I'm bad, he puts me on the roof!"
Vicky Taylor couldn't help a small giggle at Timothy's childlike, make-believe twist, but inside, her heart ached. Time had healed many wounds since February 1997, when a Los Angeles County social worker and two sheriff's deputies illegally coerced their way into the Taylor home. In October 1999, Mrs. Taylor and her husband Andrew transplanted their 4 homeschooled kids from the scene of their nightmare, an upscale L.A. suburb, to a 20-acre slice of Sacramento farmland. Just last month, the county paid the Taylors $70,000 to settle their lawsuit. That, and their new bucolic setting, served to put distance between the Taylors and "the incident," as they now refer to it. But the children's doll-play showed Mrs. Taylor that some memories are still as sharp as the day Kathleen O'Keefe, a social worker and a stranger, used state power to force the Taylors to allow their children to be questioned about sexual situations the kids had never even imagined.
At the time, Ms. O'Keefe was a social worker with the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). She has since left the agency and, through her attorney, declined to comment for this story. WORLD's account of Ms. O'Keefe's actions that day are based on statements by the Taylor family; Mrs. Carol Neese, a neighbor who was present when Ms. O'Keefe questioned Taylor children; Upland, Calif. psychologist Benedict Cooley, who in 1998 evaluated members of the Taylor family to assess the impact of the incident; and Virginia-based Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), an organization that, in the courts and legislatures, defends the right to homeschool.
Ms. O'Keefe had no warrant or court order that day. Instead, she was acting on an anonymous tip. The tip, which Mrs. Taylor was able to prove was bogus within five minutes of the social worker's arrival, came from Mrs. Taylor's mentally ill father, Robert Cassell. Mrs. Taylor's brother, Scott Cassell, had filed a restraining order against Robert Cassell the day before. The elder Mr. Cassell didn't like it, and he phoned DCFS, alleging that Scott Cassell was sexually abusing his landlady's children. (DCFS's interview of the children that day showed the allegations to be groundless.) Still, Scott Cassell went to his sister's home the next day to warn Mrs. Taylor that she and her family might be next on their father's hit list.
The Taylors' home on Gary Drive was cradled in Canyon Country, an affluent Los Angeles suburb populated by white-collar professionals. (Mr. Taylor was then a vice president at a reinsurance brokerage firm.) Rows of newer, two-story homes nestled in the canyon system between the San Gabriel and Sierra Pelona mountains. Landscaped lawns rolled down to clean, wide avenues. Even in February, the mild climate nurtured impatiens and lavender lantana that bloomed in window boxes and raised flowerbeds. The Taylor kids-Andrea, 6, Timothy, 8, Matthew, 10, and Valerie, 11-were neighborhood fixtures; Vicki Taylor had homeschooled the older kids there since 1991; Andrea and Timothy arrived there in diapers.
On Valentine's Day 1997, Scott Cassell came to his sister's door with the news that their father was on the warpath-and that he was using county social services as his tomahawk. Mrs. Taylor had read about clashes between homeschoolers and child welfare agencies. She immediately called HSLDA to find out what to do if a social worker appeared at her door. HSLDA's advice: Call us immediately to speak with an attorney, and don't let anyone into your house without a warrant. Hoping her call to HSLDA would turn out to be merely a precaution, Mrs. Taylor and the kids then tried to move on with their day. Mr. Cassell hung around-just in case.
Three hours later, the doorbell rang. It was a sound that the Taylor family that day learned to fear.
When Mrs. Taylor opened the door, Kathleen O'Keefe identified herself as a licensed clinical social worker and said she needed to speak with the Taylor children. Eleven-year-old Valerie could see the social worker from her upstairs bedroom window. She noted bright red eyeglasses, a large green watch, and clothes that seemed ill-matched.
Mrs. Taylor smiled at the stranger on her doorstep: "We've been expecting you."
Ms. O'Keefe, perhaps unused to such greetings, seemed taken aback, according to Mrs. Taylor. Quickly, Mrs. Taylor and her brother tried to explain their father's mental condition, the restraining order against him and the false charges he'd brought against Mr. Cassell the day before. "Can't you see what's happening here?" Mrs. Taylor asked, still smiling. "My father's using you to retaliate against the restraining order. It didn't work on my brother, so now he's trying it on us."
Ms. O'Keefe was unmoved, Mrs. Taylor says, even when Mr. Cassell offered to show her a copy of the restraining order against their father. I don't need to see the restraining order, she said bluntly: This complaint is against Andrew Taylor, for sexually abusing his children.
Vicky Taylor felt the blood drain from her face. Her mind raced: Her father hated homeschooling, thought it was illegal. She'd thought he might report her for that. But sexual abuse? How do you prove your innocence with that? If there's physical abuse, you look for bruises. If there's sexual abuse ... what do you do: genital examinations?
She couldn't bear the thought.
"Ms. O'Keefe," said Mrs. Taylor firmly: "You may not come into my house. I'm going to go and call my attorney."
According to Mrs. Taylor, the social worker's eyes narrowed, her jaw set, and she insisted, threatening to return with a sheriff's deputy.
"You may not enter my home," Mrs. Taylor repeated: "I'm going to call my attorney now."
Mrs. Taylor says Ms. O'Keefe shot back that she didn't care whether an attorney came or not; she still needed to interview the children.
Inside, those children could hear the confrontation. "I was scared they might take our Dad away because they thought he abused us," Andrea told WORLD. Now a fair-skinned fourth-grader with pixyish blue eyes and long hair the burnished color of autumn leaves, she was only 6 when Ms. O'Keefe appeared on her family's doorstep. "I remember thinking it was kind of not fair that they could come in our house, since it was our house and we should be able to decide."
Vicki Taylor felt the same way. Leaving Ms. O'Keefe alone on the porch, she retreated into her home. First she called her husband Andrew at work, and asked him to hurry home. Then she called HSLDA. It was already past 5 p.m. in Virginia, so she left a message on the group's emergency line, then returned to the front door. Grasping for a way to communicate to the social worker how outlandish the charges against her husband were, she explained to Ms. O'Keefe the family's deep religious convictions-the Taylors were, and are, very active in the 7th Day Adventist church-and the traditional, sheltered upbringing they were trying to mold for their children. She also offered to bring the children into the DCFS offices the following day: "I would happy to let you interview them there."
Ms. O'Keefe refused that offer. At that point, she asked to use the Taylors' phone to call her supervisor, Michelle Lorenz. Mrs. Taylor handed the family's cordless out onto the porch; the social worker punched in the number to DCFS. Then Ms. Lorenz and Ms. O'Keefe agreed to enlist the police to gain access to the children. Disconnecting the call with her supervisor, Ms. O'Keefe immediately dialed 911 on the Taylors' phone, and asked the L.A. County Sheriff's Department to send officers to Gary Drive. Then she hung up, handed Mrs. Taylor the phone, spun on her heel, and walked to her car.
There she settled in to wait for the police.
The Taylors weren't the first homeschooling family to become a target for child welfare agencies. For example, in 1995 a lesbian public-school teacher in Iowa made an anonymous call against her sister, a Christian homeschooler. When the parents would not allow social workers to enter their home, the social workers obtained a court order to remove the children. All four kids were taken from the home and kept for a week, based on one child's statement that the children were tied up "millions of times" as a disciplinary tactic. HSLDA represented the family, which was quickly reunited. As it turned out, the child had given false information, prompted by a grandmother who told him that he could live with her, eat mountains of cake and ice cream, and watch all the television he wanted.
In separate California cases in 1994 and 1998, child welfare investigators made derogatory notations in case records regarding the families' Christianity, and the fact that they homeschooled. Ms. O'Keefe made similar notations in the Taylors' file. One of the California cases, Calabretta vs. Floyd-in which child welfare workers coerced entry into a Christian home, and forced the strip-search of a 3-year-old-would eventually come to bear on the Taylors' case.
"Nearly every day, we field calls from homeschool families who've gotten some kind of notice that says the social workers are coming," says HSLDA executive director Michael Farris. Mr. Farris says he's seen ample evidence that child-services workers consider serious Christianity a risk factor. "I can't recall a time when we've gotten inside the [caseworker's] records, and haven't seen some mention of the family's religion in a pejorative, risk-factor kind of way."
Douglas Phillips knows firsthand that in the Taylors' case, the family's faith was a sign of imminent danger for Ms. O'Keefe. Mr. Phillips was the HSLDA attorney who responded to Mrs. Taylor's call for help.
"When I called, Mrs. Taylor handed Ms. O'Keefe the phone. I told her that she could not enter the home without a warrant," says Mr. Phillips, who now works with Vision Forum, a distributor of classic children's literature. "She was extremely hostile in her attitude, and to the rights of the parents. I gathered from our conversation that this was her job and she had to do it. But her sense of urgency, her insistent tone that she had to immediately enter the home seemed based on her idea that the Taylors were possibly religious fanatics. She made several references to that in our conversation."
It was after Mr. Phillips spoke with Ms. O'Keefe that Andrew Taylor arrived home from work. "It took him, like, half the time it normally takes him to get there," remembers Matthew, a friendly, dark-haired teen who was then 10 years old. "I thought that was cool, like,"-he makes a sound like a trumpet-"Da-ta-da-dah! Dad to the rescue! I thought he was going to make everything all right. But when the police officers got there, I got kind of scared because I thought my Dad was like the toughest person in the world. But then I thought, oh boy, they're over him."
An L.A. County Sheriff's cruiser pulled to a stop on Gary Drive about 15 minutes after Andrew got home. Two uniformed deputies got out and Ms. O'Keefe met them in the driveway. After a brief chat, she advanced with them to the Taylor doorstep.
The deputies are here, she told Mrs. Taylor: Now you have to let me in.
It was the beginning of an hour-long standoff. As the Taylors steadfastly refused to let the state officials into their home without a warrant, they say that Ms. O'Keefe became increasingly aggressive and coercive. According to the Taylors, both Ms. O'Keefe and the deputies began using the possibility of a warrant as a threat, rather than as a required legal instrument. WORLD attempted to contact the deputies through their attorney, but without success.
Ms. O'Keefe told the Taylors to let her and the deputies in. She said she'd go and get a search warrant, leaving the Taylors with no choice in the matter. Mrs. Taylor says a deputy urged her to cooperate, saying that an entry under warrant would render the family powerless, that they would no longer have jurisdiction over whatever occurred in their own home.
"We were faced with an unbelievable situation," Mrs. Taylor says now. "If we disobeyed a search warrant to protect our very innocent children from unnecessary government intrusion and force, and an irate, hostile person, this could go on my husband's record as a sex offender."
After a tense 60-minute standoff, at the end of which it appeared the deputies would leave to seek the threatened warrant, the Taylors relented. "We wanted to maintain some measure of control," Andrew Taylor says. "We felt that if they got the warrant, they could come into our home and do whatever they wanted."
Ms. O'Keefe would not allow Mr. or Mrs. Taylor to be present while the children were questioned. But she did agree to let the Taylor's neighbor Carol Neece sit in. "I also asked them to go easy on the kids," says Mrs. Taylor, "since they were very sheltered about sexual issues." The Taylors had chosen to wait until their children were older to explain how babies were made, and used exceedingly benign terminology ("pee-pee," "bottom") to refer to private parts of the anatomy. In fact, they had been planning to have their first special, birds-and-bees talk with Valerie on her 12th birthday, just 2 months away.
Instead, Valerie's first talk about sex took place in the presence of police-in the context of incest.
As the state workers entered their home, the Taylor family gathered in the living room. Mr. Taylor prayed with the children and tried to reassure them: "Just tell the truth. Everything will be fine." Still, little Andrea built a pillow-fortress and hid in it. Then, one by one, the Taylor children climbed the stairs in their home to meet with Ms. O'Keefe in a bedroom shared by Matthew and Timothy. According to Mrs. Neece's written account of events in the upstairs room, both deputies initially posted themselves in the bedroom doorway. In the children's eyes, they towered in their khaki uniforms and gun-belts. ("I felt trapped, like I couldn't escape," remembers Matthew.) About halfway through Ms. O'Keefe's interviews with the children, one deputy went downstairs. The Taylors say he posted himself near the bottom of the stairs, and at one point refused to let Mr. Taylor ascend when one of the children called him.
Once in the bedroom, the children say Ms. O'Keefe flipped a demeanor switch. "I remember being really scared at the time, because she was talking nice to me," says Valerie, "but I had heard how she was talking to my Mom before that, so I knew she was just putting on a show. I felt like she wanted to take my Dad away."
According to Mrs. Neece, Ms. O'Keefe had each child draw a picture of a human body. The children told WORLD that during the interviews, Ms. O'Keefe told them the real names of private parts of the anatomy as she asked a series of sexually explicit questions:
Does anyone come in while you're taking a bath?
Does anyone try to come into your bed at night?
Have you ever been hurt on your private part or bottom?
Has anyone ever touched your private part?
Has anyone ever shown you their private part?
Has anyone ever put anything in your bottom you didn't like?
Has anyone ever forced anything into your mouth?
Each child answered no to every question (with innocuous exceptions, as when Andrea said she sometimes crawled in Valerie's bed when she was feeling scared or lonely). Andrea remembers that the social worker became irritated with her: "She got mad if we said the wrong things." Valerie, now nearly 15, recalls the interview as "crude and intimidating ... especially for little kids because [those topics] are not something we needed to be aware of. So when they were saying all these things it was kind of scary because, you know, she was basically giving us an education."
While Ms. O'Keefe educated the children upstairs, Scott Cassell used the downstairs phone to check his home voice mail. There was a message there from his father. Rewinding it, he replayed it on the Taylor's speakerphone. Everyone downstairs, including the deputy, heard Scott and Vicky's father say: "You should never have gotten your sister involved in this restraining order. I warned her."
The downstairs deputy, says Mr. Taylor, became nicer after that.
That wasn't true of Ms. O'Keefe, however. When the interviews were concluded, she marched down the stairs and said that nothing was disclosed and no charges would be filed. Then, as she and the deputies headed for the door, she allegedly let fly a parting shot along these lines: They say there's one mentally ill relative. They're all disturbed!
Andrew and Vicki Taylor were indeed disturbed-enough to take Ms. O'Keefe and the deputies to court. HSLDA represented the family, arguing that the coercive government entry had violated the Taylors' 4th Amendment right to be safe and secure in their home. But in May 1999, U.S. District Court Judge Margaret Morrow threw the case out, saying Ms. O'Keefe and the deputies had not violated clearly established law. In Judge Morrow's opinion, it was unclear as to whether officials needed a warrant to enter a home on a child abuse or neglect investigation.
The Taylors were outraged. "Maybe the social worker and the deputies weren't well-trained and blew it," says Mrs. Taylor. "But here was a judge-a judge-who should have known the law."
Other judges did. In August 1999, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling in Calabretta vs. Floyd, the California case in which a social worker illegally ordered the strip-search of a homeschool family's 3-year-old. In a unanimous opinion, the court ruled that the claim that "'a search warrant is not required for home investigatory visits by social workers' is simply not the law."
Circuit judge Andrew J. Kleinfeld wrote that "the principle that government officials cannot coerce entry into people's houses without a search warrant or applicability of an established exception to the requirement of a search warrant is so well established that any reasonable officer would know it." In another part of the Calabretta opinion, Judge Kleinfeld wrote, "The facts in this case are noteworthy for the absence of emergency.... The police officer was there to back up the social worker's insistence on entry against the mother's will, not because he perceived any imminent danger of harm."
It was a carbon copy of the Taylor case and HSLDA immediately moved to reinstate. In December 1999, Judge Morrow reinstated Taylor vs. O'Keefe. And by February 2000, the County of Los Angeles had agreed to pay the Taylors $70,000 in an out-of-court settlement. Another stipulation: The county agreed to purge all references to religion and homeschooling from the Taylors' case file.
The Taylors are glad to have extracted a measure of justice. Mr. Taylor, in particular, is happy that the resolution of their case is helping other homeschoolers around the nation fight courageously for their own civil rights. Still, the monetary settlement does nothing to repair the damage done to their family.
After the incident, psychologist Benedict Cooley evaluated the Taylors. According to Mr. Cooley's written report, Timothy suffered from recurring nightmares in which Ms. O'Keefe burst into his home with a knife in her hand. Matthew battled fears that the social worker's head "would be peeking into his bedroom at night," and dreamed for months of a "big red ugly monster" invading his home. Andrea told Mr. Cooley she had been afraid the social worker would "shut the door and kidnap me." For weeks, all the children would run to the rear of the house whenever the doorbell rang. Even today, none views government authority figures with the trust typical of other children.
Mr. Cooley concluded that Mr. Taylor's self-image was "badly damaged. His ability to protect his family from outside intrusion was taken away from him. He was outraged and helpless," and his ability to work was impaired after the incident. Mrs. Taylor experienced depression, crying, fear, nausea, and nightmares. Her trust in the legal system, due process, and the American notion of civil rights remains in shambles today.
"It makes me furious that we were a private family in our own home, and had done nothing wrong, and government officials were at our door saying they were coming in whether we liked it or not," Mrs. Taylor says. "Who do you call? Who do you call when the lawbreakers are the law?"