#makehomeschoolsafe and Michigan’s HB 4498

#makehomeschoolsafe and Michigan’s HB 4498 April 22, 2015

Last week Michigan State Representative Stephanie Chang held a press release announcing a new bill. According to her press release:

LANSING – State Representative Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) announced new legislation at a press conference today that would create a list of homeschooled children in an effort to avoid the kind of tragedy that saw the murder of Detroit schoolchildren and siblings Stoni Blair and Stephen Gage Berry. The press conference was held together with Detroit City Councilwoman Mary Sheffield (District 5) and family members of the children.

“We all failed Stoni and Stephen because Michigan does not maintain a list of homeschooled children, and so we have no way to identify and then protect any child who could be at risk for abuse,” said Chang. “Most homeschool parents have their child’s best interest in mind, and many do a fine job homeschooling, but with Stephen and Stoni, that wasn’t the case. Michigan can and must do better to ensure that every child is accounted for and not leave anyone behind. My bill could help prevent future tragedies like that of the Blair family.”

The bill would require that a parent wanting to homeschool their child or children provide their names and ages, and the name and address of the parent, guardian or other person in a parental relation to the child or children to the superintendent of the school district in which they reside. In addition, the bill requires that at least twice a year, the homeschooled children are seen by a person from the following list: a physician, licensed social workers, physician’s assistant, friend of the court official, school counselor or teacher, audiologist, psychologist, law enforcement officer, marriage and family therapist, member of the clergy or regulated child care provider.

Homeschooling parents and conservative media outlets went into overdrive arguing that Rep. Chang’s bill represents an assault on homeschooling. Michigan State Senator Phil Pavlov, chair of the senate education committee, issued a press release of his own:

Stoni Ann Blair and Stephen Gage Berry were precious children with limitless potential, and their senseless deaths at the hands of their mother have shocked and saddened the entire state of Michigan. 

Mitchelle Blair, the Detroit woman accused of killing Stoni and Stephen and then hiding their bodies, is a murderer who deserves, at best, to spend the rest of her life in prison. 

This tragic situation is not, and never was, however, a homeschooling problem. 

That’s why I am so dismayed by the introduction of a new bill in the state House of Representatives to exploit Stoni and Stephen’s tragic deaths as an excuse to impose new regulations on loving, committed, and law-abiding Michigan families.

Let’s be clear-this legislation would not have stopped Ms. Blair from killing her children. Blair was willing to break every law on the books, and routinely and effectively lied for years to hide her crimes. 

Instead, the new bill is a transparent attempt by some in Lansing to bully, threaten, and intimidate parents who choose not to send their children to traditional public schools. The legislation would force every homeschooling family to register with local officials and to open their homes twice yearly for police inspections, to prove that they have not murdered their own children. 

Parents have rights. Parents deserve choices. And parents deserve so much better from Lansing.

As the Chairman of the Senate Education Committee I wanted to write you today to assure you that this anti-parent legislation will not see the light of day in my Committee.

Parents who choose homeschooling as the best education option for their children lovingly pour themselves into their kids, and they get great results. Homeschooled children are among the most successful in the state, go on to attend colleges and universities, get and keep great jobs, and help lead our communities. 

Every child learns differently, and no one understands the needs of a child like his or her parents. That’s why when it comes to making education decisions for their children, or for choosing the kind of education that will work best, Lansing should trust parents, not bully them. 

Yes, you read that right. Sen. Pavlov claimed that Rep. Chang’s new legislation would force homeschooling parents to “open their homes to twice yearly police inspections.” Did you see that anywhere in Rep. Chang’s press release? Nope. Me neither. This is a blatant lie, and yet it popped up all over conservative media in the days following Rep. Chang’s press conference. Other homeschooling parents traded notes claiming that Rep. Chang’s legislation would require homeschooling parents to have their children tested academically, among other things.

It’s at moments like these that I wonder if it’s really so hard to read.

The text of Rep. Chang’s bill, House Bill 4498, was released yesterday, and guess what? There’s nothing in it about police inspections of families’ homes. The Coalition for Responsible Home Education summed the legislation up like this in their press release:

HB 4498 would require homeschooling parents to provide their local school district with the name and age of each child being homeschooled, along with the address of the parent or guardian. Homeschooling parents would also need to ensure that each homeschooled child meets twice a year with a mandatory reporter such as doctor, teacher, or member of the clergy, and maintain signed records of these meetings, making them available upon request.

And here is the actual bill text:

(2) In addition to the requirements of subsection (1), if a child is being educated at home, the child’s parent or legal guardian shall ensure that all of the following are met: (A) The child meets in person at least twice a year with a physician, licensed social worker, physician’s assistant, individual employed in a professional capacity in any office of the friend of the court, school counselor or teacher, audiologist, psychologist, law enforcement officer, marriage and family therapist, member of the clergy, or regulated child care provider. (B) The parent or legal guardian maintains and makes available upon request records of the meetings required under subdivision (A), including signed documentation from the individual meeting with the child.

In case you’re wondering, subsection (1) simply requires homeschooling parents to provide the local school district with the names and ages of the children being homeschooled, along with their address, at the beginning of each school year.

Sen. Pavlov has some serious egg on his face right now. It seems his prophesied police inspections existed only in his head. Michigan’s homeschooling parents spent almost a week whipping themselves into a frenzy, and for what? All of this over being required to have their children meet twice annually with a doctor or pastor? The only homeschooling parents who would have a hard time meeting this requirement are the ones isolating their children completely—and that’s rather the point.

As the CRHE press release notes:

“Currently, abusive parents who use homeschooling to isolate their children from any contact with mandatory reporters aren’t breaking any law,” said Coleman. “HB 4498 would change this . . . “

Let that sink in for a moment. Currently, in Michigan and in many other states, homeschooling parents can legally keep their children from ever having any contact with mandatory reporters. You may be wondering why this matters—aren’t most homeschooled children involved in church activities, local co-ops, dance classes, scouting opportunities, and so forth? Well, yes, most are. But then there are the parents who use homeschooling to conceal abuse, isolating their children from contact with those who might notice and offer help.

The fact that these individuals can homeschooling—legally—to make their home a literal prison for their children ought to bother the exact homeschooling parents making a fuss over Rep. Chang’s new bill. But for some reason it doesn’t, and as a homeschool graduate, I find that appalling. Instead of recognizing that the homeschooling laws they operate under can be abused and moving to close loopholes that allow parents to use homeschooling as a weapon against their children, they seem to be outraged that anyone noticed the problem in the first place.

This isn’t a homeschooling problem, they say. Bullshit. Sure, homeschooling doesn’t make parents abusive, but it does offer parents who are already abusive a powerful tool, allowing them to isolate their children and intensify their abuse.

Kids who attend public school are abused too, they say. This is pure derailing. Does the fact that children are starving in Africa mean we shouldn’t do anything to help starving children in other areas of the world? Of course not! Believe it or not, we can tackle more than one problem at a time. What they’re really suggesting is that abused homeschooled students should have to wait to get help until after public school children are helped first.

I should be clear that we’re not talking about hypotheticals when it comes abusive parents using homeschooling to hide their maltreatment. We’re talking about real parents and real children. Head on over to Homeschooling’s Invisible Children and read some of the stories posted there. Here are some examples: Matthew Degner:

After 14 year old Matthew Degner died, his mother dragged his dead body outside in hopes that officials would not look inside her home and see its squalid condition—or the 200 animals, riddled with disease, she kept there in cages. Matthew’s mother had isolated him and his four siblings, telling officials that they were being homeschooled. Neighbors reported that they had only seen the boy once. She sealed the doors and windows of her home with thick Styrofoam, plastic sheeting, and duct tape to keep the smells of the animals indoors. After Matthew’s death, authorities removed three of his siblings, age 12 through 17, from the home (all three needed medical care) and a fourth, age 18, was hospitalized. Matthew had special needs.

Jeannette Maples:

Jeannette Marie Maples was 16 when paramedics arrived at her home to find her dead. A Department of Human Services worker described the girl’s death as “horrific” and her mother, Angela Darlene McAnulty, and stepfather, Richard Anthony, were both subsequently charged with aggravated murder. Jeannette had attended school until she graduated from 8th grade in June 2008. Her teachers had been concerned by her thin and withdrawn appearance, and had reported their suspicions to child protective services, who visited the family but were convinced by Angela that all was fine. After Jeannette finished 8th grade, Angela opted to homeschool her in order to limit her contact with those outside the home. Court documents said the girl’s death was caused by “neglect and maltreatment” and occurred “in the course of, or as a result of, intentional maiming and torture.” The family lived in Oregon.

Mitch Comer:

Mitch Comer was removed from school after the eighth grade to be homeschooled by his mother and stepfather, Sheila and Paul Comer, who proceeded to imprison in his room and abuse him. On his eighteenth birthday, his parents bought him a one-way bus ticket to Los Angeles, gave him pamphlets for homeless shelters there, and threw away all reminders of him. He was found wandering the streets of Los Angeles. He was so malnourished that police thought he was a preteen child. The teen’s skin was translucent and his abuse had grown so bad that he had seen neither sunlight nor his younger sisters, who lived in the same home, in the past two years. Mitch’s sisters were removed by social services and his parents were arrested, tried, and sentenced to fifteen years in prison. The family’s neighbors were shocked when they learned that a teenage boy had lived in the home.

Erica Parsons:

Erica Lynn Parsons, who would today be 15, has not been seen since 2011, but she was not reported missing until August 2013, when her 19 year old step-brother went to the authorities. Erica’s adoptive parents, Casey and Sandy Parsons, claim that they left her with a biological relative, but their story does not add up and neither Erica nor the biological relative are anywhere to be found. Relatives who knew the family are now saying that the Parsons household was often violent, and that Erica frequently bore suspicious bruises. There was also a previous child abuse case that had been closed. Erica was not reported missing by her school because she was homeschooled from 2005, when she was seven, until her disappearance. When they began homeschooling Erica, Casey and Sandy filed the required North Carolina homeschool paperwork, establishing “Parsons Christian School.” Authorities did not know that Erica did not participate in the required standardized testing in the two years since her disappearance because the state does not check up on homeschools or require them to submit their test scores. As the adoptive parents of a special needs child, Casey and Sandy continued collecting state checks until she was reported missing. The search for Erica is ongoing, and her biological mother has been calling for greater oversight of homeschooling.

Rep. Chang’s bill is not enough to fix this problem, but it is certainly a start. Homeschooling parents who work hard to provide their children with a good education in a safe home environment should want to prevent cases like this from happening. And yet, incredibly, they’re too busy twisting everything into a smear against homeschooling to care about the real lives of actual children being harmed.

Take a look at the comments on Rep. Chang’s facebook page to see how homeschooling parents are responding to her proposed bill. Then remember that most of them profess to be Christians, and ask yourself whether this is how Jesus would have responded. To their credit, several homeschooling mothers voiced their support for the bill during a twitter conversation under the hashtag #makehomeschoolsafe earlier today. Now if only more would follow their example.

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