HSLDA Defends Special Needs Cages Family, Redux

HSLDA Defends Special Needs Cages Family, Redux November 10, 2014

Last year my post, HSLDA: Man Who Kept Children in Cages ‘a Hero’, garnered enough attention that HSLDA felt the need to respond. In a nutshell, HSLDA chose to respond to child abuse accusations against homeschooling father Michael Gravelle by praising him as a hero for adopting special needs kids. The allegations were subsequently found to be true. HSLDA ostensibly exists to protect the legality of homeschooling, but in practice the organization defends its various members against charges of child abuse or educational neglect. I asked at the time whether HSLDA vets the parents it defends or does anything to ascertain whether the accusations are true. As I later concluded, the answer appears to be “no.”

Now take a look at this HSLDA release from 2009, five years ago:

Hearing Canceled After School District Received Letter from HSLDA

When Tim and Karen Sue Tolin received notice that officials with Ubly Community Schools in Michigan had called a due process hearing for their son Sean, they turned to HSLDA for help.

Tolin Family
Courtesy of the Family

Tim and Karen Sue Tolin have devoted their lives to helping special needs children through foster care and adoption.

Having already raised five biological daughters, the Tolins devoted their lives to helping special needs children through foster care and adoption. They currently have nine adopted children, seven of whom they homeschool.

Sean, their 8-year-old, has been diagnosed with multiple challenges, including congenital brain anomalies, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, gastroesophageal reflux disease, asthma and Asperger syndrome. This year, Sean started second grade at Ubly Elementary School, where his parents found that he was not receiving the care he needed. After a final incident with the school last fall, the Tolins withdrew Sean from public school to homeschool him.

Although the public school was pursuing special services for Sean, his parents were providing extra care through private professionals. After withdrawing Sean from Ubly Elementary School, Mr. and Mrs. Tolin no longer needed or wanted the public school’s services. However, school officials insisted that the Tolins have Sean undergo the evaluations they recommended and that he be given an Individual Education Plan. When Mr. and Mrs. Tolin refused, the school’s attorney called a due process hearing.

The Tolins, who were members of Home School Legal Defense Association, contacted us for help. Litigation attorney Darren Jones wrote a letter to the district’s attorney explaining that the Tolins have chosen to home educate Sean and waive his right to a free appropriate public education for the school year. He further explained that a recent decision by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals (litigated by HSLDA) affirms a parent’s right to refuse special needs evaluations for their homeschooled children. (See Fitzgerald v. Camdenton R-III School District, 439 F.3d 773, 777 (8th Cir. 2006).)

After receiving the letter, the district’s attorney quickly drafted an agreement that both parties signed, and Ubly Community Schools dropped the proceedings.

The Tolins report that Sean is now happily making great academic progress at home.

In summary, HSLDA praised the Tolins for adopting special needs kids and defended their choice to find private means of handling their children’s special education needs rather than going through the school district (in Michigan, children homeschooled under the state’s minimalistic private school law are eligible for special needs services through their local public schools).

Now of course, it is true that homeschooling parents in Michigan are within their rights to forgo all public school services for special needs children. The problem is that, without accountability, there is nothing ensuring that those parents actually find private service providers, or that they make any efforts at all to meet their children’s special needs. You could argue that this is not HSLDA’s fault, but there is a serious problem with this line of argument: Over the past thirty years HSLDA shaped homeschooling law across the country, and they have always pushed for minimalistic policies. In other words, these minimalistic policies, without accountability to ensure that children’s needs are being met, are both a product of HSLDA’s advocacy and HSLDA’s stated goal.

Five years after HSLDA defended the Tolins’ right to find their own service providers for their adopted son Sean’s special needs without accountability from the school district, Sean, now 14, has been removed from the Tolins’ custody. Why? Because last month authorities present in the Tolins’ home to resolve a civil dispute discovered that their standard of care for their adopted special needs children left something to be desired.

Police responded to investigate a civil dispute about 4 p.m. Monday, Oct. 20, to a home at 3700 Minden Road south of Priemer, when they discovered the mentally challenged male teen in a caged bed with the door chained shut, the Huron County Sheriff’s Department said in a prepared statement.

“The odor was very noticeable as the deputy began to climb the stairs,” [Huron County Sheriff Kelly] Hanson said.

Huron County Prosecutor Timothy Rutkowski said the teen was found naked in the cage with feces and urine around him, based on his review of the police report. The 19-year-old has a developmental disability called Angelman syndrome, Rutkowski said, reading from the report.

When the deputy saw the scene, the sheriff’s department immediately contacted the Michigan Department of Human Services.

“There was no doubt in the deputy’s mind that something was wrong,” Hanson said.

“Whether the parents felt they had done anything wrong or not, the individual was being confined under unsanitary conditions,” Hanson said. “DHS agreed something was wrong and orchestrated the removal. It just wasn’t us making the decision.”

He said the sheriff’s department is not releasing the police report at this time.

All of the special needs individuals, including those who were still minors (such as 14-year-old Sean) were removed from the home, and Timothy and Karen Tolin were arrested, and are currently out on bail.

“It’s not a situation that’s being blown out of proportion,” [Hanson] said. “We were concerned about the health and safety of all involved.”

There’s a lot that could be said here, and it’s clear that the system failed the Tolins’ adopted special needs children at numerous points. I’m not trying to blame the entire situation on homeschooling by any stretch. But I do think there are some things we can learn from what went wrong here.

First of all, this is another verifiable case where HSLDA defended the rights of people who turned out to be abusers. In this case, it was actual legal assistance. (I know several individuals whose abusive parents were also defended by HSLDA, but these are stories where social services never became involved and the abuse was never discovered.) Now yes, abusers should have legal defense. It’s how the system works. But HSLDA doesn’t position itself as an organization that defends all comers and sometimes has to do dirty work, it positions itself as the family-friendly smiling face of homeschooling and actively works to shape policy. That HSLDA doesn’t vet those it defends, and does in fact defend abusive and neglectful families, needs to be more widely understood.

Second, we need to be aware of the way homeschooling can contribute to concealing abuse and neglect, especially when it comes to special needs children, who are more vulnerable. I can name names, if you like—lots of names. I understand that children with special needs can be abused or neglected in public school, too, and when that happens I think it should be called out and that reforms should be implemented to keep it from happening again. But that’s the point, isn’t it? Any system needs accountability, and in our current system there is often little accountability for parents who homeschool special needs children. I’m not saying parents with special needs children shouldn’t be allowed to homeschool, I absolutely think they should be. It’s just that I think there needs to be some sort of accountability system in place to ensure that they are meeting their children’s developmental needs.

I’ll also add that parents raising special needs children need resources, and community support. I understand that raising special needs children is incredibly demanding. For this reason, families adopting special needs children need to not adopt more children than they can adequately care for, and resources like therapy need to be available and affordable. We need to call out abuse as abuse and neglect as neglect, yes, but ensuring that special needs children have the care they need involves more than this. It also means committing, as a society, to being there for those who need extra help.

My heart goes out to the Tolin children. They have been failed on so many levels.

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