Not in my back yard
Local man says census takers crossed the line
When Orland-area farmer Wayne Birk stepped onto his back porch with cool drinks in hand last week, he was not expecting to see two strangers talking to his naked children in the family pool.
Although they did not immediately identify themselves, the strangers were two female census workers determined to collect information about the Birk household. While he was mildly surprised at their presence, as he had mailed in his census paperwork earlier in the year, he found their lack of respect for his family’s privacy shocking.
“I bought 40 acres of property so I wouldn’t have to worry about my kids swimming out back,” he said.
It was a particularly bad time for Birk and his family, as remodeling his 1930s-era farmhouse had left his property in dangerous disarray, and his wife, Rebecca, was on the verge of giving birth to the couple’s third child.
“We asked them to leave because it was a possibility that she would go into labor that day, and they were blocking the driveway,” he said. “I also told them that this is a construction site, and it’s too dangerous to just walk around the property like that.”
However, the census workers refused to leave, telling Birk that they were the “law.” The ensuing argument quickly escalated, with Rebecca and their children, Benjamin and Bailey, becoming hysterically upset. Birk ushered his family into their house to call the Glenn County Sheriff’s Department, and watched as one census taker returned to her vehicle and the other remained on the sidewalk.
According to Cecilia Sorci, a U.S. Census Bureau representative, no laws were broken by entering Birk’s back yard without permission.
“As federal agents, ‘no trespassing’ signs do not apply to them,” she Sorci, who is based in a regional office located in Seattle. “If a census worker knocks on the front door but doesn’t receive an answer, they are not out of order to try another door at that same household.”
Sgt. Sean Arlin of the Sheriff’s Department also finds no fault in the initial actions of the census workers.
“It’s like if I walked up to your door and asked for directions,” he said. “If you don’t want me there, you can ask me to leave. Unless I’m peering through windows or doing something I’m not supposed to, it’s not a trespass.”
Birk says that when deputies arrived on the scene, they “didn’t take kindly” to the census workers’ claim that they were the “law.” Birk added that the deputies also requested that he cooperate and fill out the paperwork. He did so begrudgingly.
Birk has since attempted to file a complaint with every level of the Census Bureau, including the local, regional and federal offices for what he considers a legitimate case against the workers for trespassing and harassment. He says that his pleas apparently are falling on deaf ears.
“It’s the inhumanity of it that’s the real crime,” he said. “When did respect for privacy and civil liberties go out the window? Are federal workers above the law?”
It is easy to forget that a census taker’s job is often a difficult one, said Sorci.
“They understand fully that some may not welcome their presence,” she said. “One person’s opinion of a dedicated and assertive census worker could be another person’s opinion of overzealous and intrusive.”
No customer-complaint system is in place on the Census Bureau website, but Sorci noted that census workers carry an identification badge that also includes the name of their supervisor and the office they report to. She maintains that contacting that office is the proper protocol for filing a complaint.
The census workers are pursuing criminal charges as well, stating that Birk sprayed them with water from a hose, Arlin said. Such an allegation could result in a charge of minor assault.
Birk refutes the claim, maintaining that if the workers got wet, it was purely accidental.
“That’s what you get when you stand in a yard with a swimming pool and 10 sprinkler heads running,” he said.
While the Sheriff’s Department has assigned a deputy to conduct an investigation, a lot of grief could have been easily avoided altogether, Sorci said.
“At the end of the day, we ask that folks cooperate with census takers,” she said. “It takes less than 10 minutes to answer their questions.”