Case of shackled kids revives home-school regulation debate

Just over a week after California officials found 13 malnourished siblings allegedly held captive and apparently not missed by schools because they were being home-schooled, home-schooling advocates say they are bracing for calls for stricter oversight of the practice.

The advocates say they were horrified by accusations that the children's parents kept them shackled in a filthy home in the Southern California city of Ferris, and some said they support mandatory medical visits or regular academic assessments of home-schooled children.

But others contend moves to step up home-schooling controls in the name of exposing child abuse earlier could lead to overregulation and intrusion that punishes parents.

"Right now the biggest threat is that lawmakers might make a decision based on the emotion of the moment, rather than looking at the empirical evidence," said Scott Woodruff, senior counsel with the Virginia-based Home School Legal Defense Association. He said national organizations that track risk factors for child abuse, including the U.S. Commission to Eliminate Child Neglect and Fatalities, don't list home-schooling among them.

One California lawmaker has floated the idea of requiring annual walk-throughs of home schools by state or county officials because of the case of the 13 siblings and "a number of legislators have expressed interest in doing something," the HomeSchool Association of California said in a statement.

"We can't prevent evil," the association said, "and trying to prevent it by taking away the freedom of law-abiding people is not a price our society should pay."

In Watertown, Connecticut, Chemay Morales-James home-schools her 4- and 6-year-old children because she wasn't comfortable with her local school options and says she worries that "things are going to change now."

She rejected the notion that home-schooling hurts children's socialization and said many home-schooled children, like hers, spend most of their time out and about in their communities. 

"I'm hoping this is one of those things where it's hot for the moment and then it dies down," Morales-James said.

Disputes over the right level of home-schooling regulation have simmered for years as the number of home-schooled children in the U.S. skyrocketed from about 15,000 in the 1970s to about 2 million today.

The practice was first driven largely by families' preferences to include religious teaching at home along with standard education. It gained wider acceptance as parents dissatisfied with their neighborhood schools turned to it to customize their children's education and nurture family bonds. 

In the absence of federal guidelines, levels of oversight vary widely by state. Alaska and Idaho have virtually no regulations, while New York and Pennsylvania families must submit annual instruction plans to the district, administer standardized tests taken by public school students statewide and provide academic progress reports.

California treats home schools like other private schools and requires them to register. Private schools are subject to annual fire inspections but no agency regulates or oversees them.

The Massachusetts-based Coalition for Responsible Home Education lobbies for mandatory medical visits or academic assessments that would ensure home-schooled children are seen by someone trained to recognize abuse. Less than half of the U.S. states now require academic assessments, the Education Commission of the States said in a 2015 report  on home-school regulations.

"There's no better way to isolate your child if you are an abusive parent than to home-school," said Rachel Coleman, executive director of the coalition, which maintains a database of home-school abuse cases.

In recent years, the trend in state laws has been toward loosening government oversight of home-schooling, said Joseph Murray, a Vanderbilt University education professor who has researched home-schooling.  West Virginia, for example, in 2016 reduced the number of annual assessments parents must submit to the district, and Arkansas eliminated an academic assessment requirement in 2015. 

"There are states now where you don't really have to do anything. You don't even have to notify anybody that you're home-schooling," Murphy said.

Recent efforts to put more controls on home-schooling at the state legislative level have largely failed.

Senate leaders declined to consider a 2017 Kentucky bill introduced after an 8-year-old home-schooled girl was tortured by her father and his live-in girlfriend that would have barred families with histories of child abuse from home-schooling. 

After two home-schooled children were found dead in a Detroit freezer, a 2015 Michigan bill would have required documented meetings with a teacher, doctor or clergy. The bill stalled in a legislative committee.

In Iowa, a bill requiring quarterly checks of home-school students was introduced in 2017 after a home-schooled teen starved to death. It, too, remained in committee.

And in Kansas, a grandmother unsuccessfully pleaded for stricter home-school control in 2015 after her 7-year-old home-schooled grandson was starved and killed by his father, who fed his body to pigs. 

In the California case, authorities have said the 13 children of David and Louise Turpin -- ranging in age from 2 and 29 -- who were rescued Jan. 14 from a home that looked well-kept on the outside but where authorities say they were kept chained to beds for months and so malnourished their growth was stunted. The parents have pleaded not guilty to torture, abuse and other charges.

State Assemblyman Jose Medina, a Democrat who represents the area, said he is "extremely concerned about the lack of oversight the state of California currently has in monitoring private and home schools." He said he is considering proposing legislation mandating an annual walk-through of home-schooling residences "to ascertain the safety and well-being of the students."

Morales-James, the Connecticut mother, said part of her decision with her husband to home-school her children came about because she is of Puerto Rican descent and her husband is a black Trinidadian and that they feared their kids could face racism and marginalization. She was concerned that regulations could lead to more restrictions that would threaten her home-schooling option.

Alarmed by some of the anti-home-schooling commentary in recent days, Morales-James noted traditional schools have had their share of abuse scandals.

"Do we have to shut down public or private schools or increase regulations?" she asked. "I don't think I've ever seen a huge debate over that."
Associated Press writer Michael Melia contributed from Hartford, Connecticut.