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A stranger at the door

National | A social worker with an agenda, sent out by a relative with a grudge, provokes a confrontation that continues to play out in the nightmares of children. How one California family stood up and protected their own rights-and the rights of scores of other homeschool families across the country

Issue: "UNbelievable," June 17, 2000

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.

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"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!"

"No!"

"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.

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