For Immediate Release: Lax Homeschooling Laws Offer Abusive Parents a Way to Hide Child Fatalities
Canton, Ma., 01/14/2019—On December 23, the body of 7-year-old Caden McWilliams was discovered in a storage unit in Denver, Colorado. Police believe that Caden was already dead in August 2018 when his mother, Elisha Pankey, notified his elementary school that he would be homeschooled, and that Pankey used homeschooling to hide his death and conceal her crime. “Caden is not the only child whose death has been concealed by homeschooling,” said Dr. Rachel Coleman, executive director at the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, a national nonprofit organization run by homeschool alumni. “The fact that parents can homeschool children who are dead without school districts finding out throws into stark relief how inadequate current homeschool laws are.”
When the bodies of Stoni Blair and Stephen Berry were discovered in a Detroit freezer in 2015, the children had already been dead for two years. No one had reported them missing, and there was no school to notice the children’s truancy and make contact with the family. Because Michigan, like many other states, does not ensure that homeschooled students have contact with officials or mandatory reporters, the children’s deaths went unnoticed.
Minnet and Jasmine Bowman’s bodies were stored in a Maryland freezer for two years before their deaths were discovered. Christian Choate of Indiana had been buried for two years before officials learned of his death. In North Carolina, Erica Lynn Parsons’ death was not reported for two years; it took longer for officials to locate her body. Other cases have gone unnoticed for far longer. Austin and Edward Bryant had not been seen for over six years when they were reported missing in Colorado; their bodies were never found. Adam Herr’s death was not reported to Kansas authorities for nine years. In each of these cases, homeschooling allowed abusive parents to conceal their children’s deaths.
Coleman believes things can be different, and points to the cases of Timothy Boss and Janiya Thomas as a starting point. Both children were murdered by their parents. At the time of their deaths, each child lived in a state that mandated annual assessments for homeschooled students. In each case, school district officials contacted the child’s parents when their required assessments were not turned in. In each case, their parents told officials that they had left the state to live with relatives. “If district officials had followed up on these claims, these children’s deaths could have been discovered,” said Coleman. “Additionally, barring parents with concerning child welfare histories from homeschooling might prevent some of these cases entirely. We can create policies that make it harder for parents use homeschooling to conceal abuse and disappear children.”
After Stoni and Stephen’s bodies were discovered in Detroit, Stephanie Chang, a Michigan lawmaker, introduced a bill that would have required homeschooling children to document at least two mandatory reporter contacts for their children each year. The goal? To ensure that homeschooling could not be used to hide a child fatality. While Chang’s bill died in committee, Coleman hopes its introduction will encourage other lawmakers to create their own solutions.
“It is outrageous that we have so few protections for homeschooled children that parents can literally homeschool dead children and no one can tell the difference,” said Coleman.
The Coalition for Responsible Home Education is a national organization founded by homeschool alumni and dedicated to raising awareness of the need for homeschooling reform, providing public policy guidance, and advocating for responsible home education practices.
For Immediate Release: House bill would prevent school districts from verifying identity of homeschooled students
Canton, Ma., 01/14/2019—Virginia House Bill 2654, introduced by Delegate Christopher Head this week, would prevent school districts from asking homeschooling parents for any more information than that which is explicitly outlined in the state’s current homeschool statute. This bill appears to stem from a case in Franklin County, part of Del. Head’s district, where a homeschooling couple has challenged the district’s policy of requiring parents to submit a copy of a child’s birth certificate when registering their intent to homeschool.
“In public schools, millions of parents across the country provide school officials with copies of their child’s birth certificate every year in order to verify their child’s identity and age,” said Rachel Coleman, executive director of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, a national nonprofit founded by homeschool alumni. “We urge Virginia lawmakers to oppose HB 2654 as an overreaction to a completely reasonable request.”
In July, Kirk and Kristen Sosebee filed a complaint against the Franklin County School Board, seeking an injunction against the Board’s policy of requiring homeschooling parents, like other parents, to provide a copy of their child’s birth certificate and proof of residence when enrolling the child in the district for the first time. The Sosobees, represented by a lawyer from the Home School Legal Defense Association, a right-wing group that opposes oversight for homeschooling, argued that the policy altered state law by adding to it. In December, Franklin County Circuit Judge Stacey Moreau denied the couple’s injunction and found that the school board’s requirement was reasonable and in compliance with state law.
“Allowing school districts to verify students’ basic information is in children’s best interests,” said Coleman. Coleman’s organization maintains a database of cases where parents have taken advantage of lax homeschool laws to conceal abuse and neglect, and, in some cases, to traffic children, such as through disrupted adoption. “Requiring parents to submit a copy of their child’s birth certificate has the potential to help child abuse victims like Esther Combs, who was enslaved by individuals who were not her parents or guardians,” Coleman added.
Coleman also pointed to the case of Alicia Pennington, a homeschooled Texas girl who reached adulthood without a birth certificate and struggled to prove her citizenship to government officials. “We have spoken with a number of homeschool graduates who were born at home and whose parents intentionally did not secure birth certificates for them,” she said. “Requiring parents to submit a copy of their children’s birth certificates when they begin homeschooling could ensure that children like Alicia receive a birth certificate while they are still children.”
Homeschool statutes in Arizona, Louisiana, North Dakota, Nebraska, and South Dakota already require all homeschooling parents to submit a copy of their children’s birth certificates. “The Franklin County School Board’s policy is reasonable, unobtrusive, and sensitive to the needs of the child,” said Coleman. “Lawmakers should reject HB 2654.”
The Coalition for Responsible Home Education is a national organization founded by homeschool alumni and dedicated to raising awareness of the need for homeschooling reform, providing public policy guidance, and advocating for responsible home education practices.
We received the following text from a homeschooling mother who is active in her homeschool community. In her article, which she asked us to share anonymously, she speaks from her personal experience about the importance of homeschooling parents being able to recognize disabilities and find help for their children. We similarly discussed homeschooling parents’ responsibility for recognizing disabilities in our article on getting started homeschooling.
Homeschooling can be a great experience for many families, and I have enjoyed the homeschooling journey my children and I have been on for the past decade. However, there is an elephant in the room that needs to be addressed. It’s the issue of children with undiagnosed and/or untreated disabilities in the homeschooling community. It’s an issue of medical neglect, and, in my experience, it’s widespread.
Issues that I see going undiagnosed are ADHD, anxiety, depression, dyslexia, dyscalculia, autism spectrum disorder, eyesight problems, hearing problems, processing disorders, and speech issues. I spent most of my career working in classrooms, and some of these issues are glaring.
Why are parents reticent about getting their child evaluated? There are a variety of reasons, but usually they genuinely don’t see the issue, even though other adult around them do. Sometimes there seems to be willful ignorance, and I wonder if it’s related to an internal disconnect between their belief that if they didn’t vaccinate, practiced extended breastfeeding, and only fed their child organic foods, their child’s brain would be “perfect.” It doesn’t work that way.
Another issue is that the homeschooling community can be very insular, and the issues are so widespread that they’re normalized. When the children are very young, neurodiversity is seen as a benefit of homeschooling. However, as the children age up, and schoolwork becomes more rigorous, parents of neurotypical children tend to start drifting away from the open-to-the-public co ops and classes and meetups. Children working at grade level quietly get invited to their own co ops and classes, so the kids who are left in the public groups are disproportionately affected by behavior and learning issues. Thus, these issues become normalized, and parents can’t see anything different about their own child.
When my oldest was in early elementary school, I bragged about the neurodiversity of our co op, and how this was the future of education. By the time he was in about 4th grade, however, we couldn’t afford to spend money or time on classes that had to be taught at a level many years younger than what a neurotypical child could handle, while serious behavior issues from several students made the classroom unsafe. My children were bitten, hit, kicked, had furniture thrown at them by other children who clearly had disabilities. The breaking point for our family attending any public co ops or classes came when a child who was very obviously on the spectrum, but completely undiagnosed, developed a crush on my 5th grade daughter, and would follow her around, and then get angry when she tried to play with someone else. His rage included throwing things and screaming obscenities at her. I needed to protect my daughter, and I could no longer teach her that she needed to make behavioral allowances for other children with disabilities when I felt that her safety was at risk. Adults looked on, and whispered that there was something obviously “going on” with the boy, but hints to the mother went ignored.
And that is another issue. Homeschooling friendships can feel tenuous. Communities are tight, and often our entire community, and nobody wants to be left out. So people are extremely wary of speaking to another parent about their child’s behavior and learning needs. People will lie because they don’t want to deliver bad news. “Do you think there’s something wrong?” is met with a shifty eyed “No! I’m sure he’s fine. Kids learn differently. He’s just a free spirit.” Nobody wants to be an asshole about somebody else’s child, even though telling a parent that they might want to seek an evaluation is, objectively, not being an asshole. It can seem that way in a conversation, though. Schools have trained guidance counselors who know how to have this difficult conversation with parents. It’s easier to smooth things over and tell the concerned parent only happy things, than to rock the boat and risk ostracism.
There is also a strong thread of “crunchy” parenting in the homeschooling community, and the root of crunchy parenting is that a parent’s decisions can make or break the child. And by “parents,” we all know that I really mean mothers. If you don’t breastfeed, your child will get sick more often and lose IQ points. If you feed your child any number of things, ranging from red dye to gluten to non-organic food, they will have a whole range of behavioral disorders. If you vaccinate your child, they will have behavior problems and possibly even autism. The list goes on. So what happens if you do everything “right,” and there’s still obviously something “wrong” with your child? Well, obviously the problem is that you DIDN’T do everything right. Anything the matter with the child is the fault of the mother, and probably because she did something disdainfully termed “mainstream.” The only way to solve the issue is to try a completely inconvenient and improbable diet, and spend a few hundred dollars on some sort of treatment that big Pharma doesn’t want you to know about. I’m being sarcastic, but these are truthfully the solutions I hear given for kids who have violent tantrums, flap their arms, and genuinely can’t read other people’s emotions.
The basic truth that kids learn at their own speed is distorted to the extreme sometimes, which is a purposeful and dangerous normalization of clear signs that there is a real issue. Yes, it’s true that there is a range for most skills. But it’s also true that the earlier an issue is identified, the better the chances that it can be remediated. I see parents of 9 or 10 year olds worried about their child’s reading being told not to worry about it, because all children learn differently, and because the concept that there’s a timeline that kids need to learn on is a public school construct. This is just not true.
Some parents know that there’s an issue, but are afraid to seek out a diagnosis. Homeschooling breeds fear of authority figures. Yes, there are school officials who overstep, and people who disapprove of homeschooling, but in general homeschooling has gone mainstream. However, there is absolutely a fear amongst homeschooling families that if they bring their child to someone who might be able to identify a special need, it will open a can of worms that leads directly to social services showing up at their door. I see parents who know that their child is struggling decide to wait until the child catches up on reading, or writing, or behavior, before seeking out help. The result is that the child falls further and further behind, and the parent is even more reticent to bring their child to get help. Practicing medical neglect can not be the answer to being afraid of charges of educational neglect. For what it’s worth, I have never heard of any family in my area being accused of educational neglect, or of anyone ever having a social worker show up at their door. Yet the fear is there among so many families.
I think that the problem is getting worse. When I started homeschooling, I didn’t see this segregation between neurotypical and neurodiverse students, and I didn’t see the behavior problems that I see now. Friends who run co ops and classes say the same thing. I recently contacted a museum about a homeschool class they offered for many years, and was told that the behavior problems were getting so bad, and there were so many kids who needed a 1:1 aid, that they had to stop offering the classes because the teachers didn’t feel safe. I think that this is because schools have fewer resources yet more mandates to help students with disabilities, so they don’t evaluate or remediate students with mild disabilities, leaving those students to flounder in school, until their parents pull them out.
This is the number one issue I see in homeschooling today, and it’s something that needs to be fixed. We’re actively harming children by not getting them services that they need, and services that they’re entitled to. We’re blaming parents (mostly mothers) for poor parenting or poor teaching because of neurological differences that a child was born with. Homeschooling parents who are afraid that medical authority figures will accuse them of neglect for homeschooling are actually and literally practicing medical neglect by not seeking the diagnosis and treatment that their children need.
So what can be done?
First of all, homeschoolers need to accept the idea that there is nothing “wrong” with children who aren’t neurotypical. I know I’ve used that word throughout this essay, because it’s what I hear. There is so much fear around parenting decisions leading to undesirable outcomes that it makes these outcomes seem like the end of the world. Whether you breastfeed or introduced solids at 4 months has NOTHING to do with your child’s ADHD. We need to stop fear mongering parenting to new parents, particularly in the crunchy community, where a completely illogical and disproportionate amount of weight is put on decisions that really aren’t important in the long run. We need to stop making learning and behavioral disabilities seem like the end of the world, and like something that could have been prevented if you’d just been a better mother.
Secondly, we need to start being willing to have open discussions about neurological differences, and the idea that our own children aren’t immune to them. This is the hardest part, because it involves difficult conversations. We need to be open to the idea that sometimes someone outside our family, with different experiences than us, can see truths about our child that we might not be able to. This is hard in a movement that’s literally built around parents’ rights, but if we don’t face the truth that parents don’t know everything about their child, and sometimes don’t make the best decisions for their child, then it’s the children who are suffering. I don’t know if it’s fair to expect people to be more willing to have an honest discussion with another parent about their child’s needs. That’s a hard discussion to have. But we at least need to do our best to set up an environment where parents can feel safe to talk about this topic.
We need to stop the paranoia about doctors, neurologists, social workers, and other specialists. They can tell the difference between imperfect homeschooling, parenting, and actual neurological differences. There might be some out there who “blame homeschooling,” but I would bet that the vast majority do not. I think it should also be on school districts and private practices to reach out to homeschoolers to let them know the services that are available, and to assure them that testing, diagnosis, and therapies do not need to interfere with homeschooling. I know parents who won’t get their child tested, because they think that means their child will need to attend public school: this is not true.
I see kids hurting, parents floundering, and a whole community that’s suffering. And it’s something that we need to deal with as a community, because I truly believe that the issue is cultural.
For more resources for homeschooling parents, click here.
“I want families who choose this route to have a tremendous homeschool experience. After hearing about the Turpin case, like many others with homeschool experience, I believe changes needed to be made in the laws.”
My name is Linda. I have raised seven children and am currently an artist and community volunteer. My decision to homeschool was not a thoughtful one. Over time, homeschooling proved detrimental to myself and my family. Here is a bit of our story.
When we had our first child in 1988 we became interested in the homeschool wave that was gaining momentum. As our family grew, our friends were also homeschoolers. We participated in a homeschool church for several years with other like-minded families. We had created a hedge of homeschoolers around us to protect our children from the ‘outside’ world. We might not have admitted it, but that is what we were doing. Most of our friends seemed like they were scheduled, and kept up academically, excelling in areas of their children’s’ interests. Our efforts to provide our children with a balanced upbringing proved exhausting.
As a homeschool mom, I had very little time for outside interests and friends. My parents and siblings would often ask about my hobbies, wanting me to not be too immersed in my family life. It is clear, looking back, that I sacrificed much of my own interests and personal development and ignored issues within myself that needed attention. I enjoyed the time with my children. But as our family kept growing, my time spent just playing with the younger children was limited and, as is the case with many larger families, the older siblings took on parenting responsibilities out of necessity.
Within a few years, I began to wonder about the potential downfalls of educating at home. Between laundry, cleaning, dishes, and putting meals on the table, I was spread very thin. Of course, the kids helped and I always reminded them that we couldn’t homeschool without their help. I believed that my husband would take on a share of the homeschooling load. But this did not prove to be the case. While he did much to educate our kids informally, through life experiences, formal education fell to me. In addition, we did not make it a priority to become involved in most of the homeschool activities that were offered in the area. As adults, my oldest three have problems even now feeling comfortable around and relating to their peers. I believe they were hurt by not being socialized and dealing with problems that arise as kids go to school together.
I began thinking more and more about sending the kids to school. There was a local charter school that was touted as being a rigorous, “values-based” public school that offered classes two days a week for homeschooled children. One of the older kids had a lot of trouble adjusting to school. After several attempts to get accommodations for him, we pulled him out and homeschooled him until high school. I was very lax and did not require very much of him. Another child went to five different schools in five years. We were floundering in our transition out of home education.
I wish I could paint a happy ending to this story. I tried really hard and kept at it for a long time. But the truth is that our family was not equipped to homeschool effectively.
On the topic of oversight, neither us nor any of our homeschooling friends received any oversight from state or local institutions. Requirements for testing and filing homeschool intent were ignored by most of our circle. No one, to my knowledge, was ever contacted in these matters.
I want families who choose this route to have a tremendous homeschool experience. After hearing about the Turpin case, like many others with homeschool experience, I believe changes needed to be made in the laws. We can’t let homeschooling be a cover-up for neglect. I agree with the recommendations for change that CRHE has outlined. I also feel there should be no hesitation for current homeschoolers to embrace these changes, as it only helps them to be more accountable without being unjustly controlled. I believe that the CRHE recommendations will help protect children from those parents who use this option to hide and continue their neglect.
Thank you for the opportunity to share my story and express my viewpoint.
Linda P. homeschooled her children in Colorado from 1994 to 2006. For additional thoughts and experiences from other homeschool alumni, see our Testimonials page.
It is a scenario readers of this blog are familiar with: intersections of homeschool, adoption, ideology, and homicide.
On March 27th, married couple Jennifer and Sarah Hart, both age 38, allegedly accelerated their SUV, with their six adopted children inside, off of a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Northern California. Three of the children have been confirmed dead along with Sarah and Jennifer, and the other three children are missing and presumed dead. In the three days leading up to the crash, the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services attempted to make contact with the Hart family to investigate claims of abuse and neglect. It appears possible that the family knew authorities were trying to investigate, and fled the area with the children, driving from Washington to California.
Authorities are treating the case as a homicide/suicide investigation. It appears that the SUV accelerated to 90 mph and drove off the cliff, and there are no skid marks or any evidence that the vehicle was trying to avoid crashing. Heavy.com reports:
“19-year-old Markis Hart, 14-year-old Jeremiah Hart and 14-year-old Abigail Hart were recovered along with Jen and Sarah Hart. But 12-year-old Sierra Hart, 16-year-old Hannah Hart and 15-year-old Devonte Hart remain missing, police said.”
The family lived in Woodland, Washington, which is not far from Portland, Oregon. A neighbor had called authorities recently because the children appeared to be dangerously thin, and had come to their door claiming to be starving and abused. One of the children, Devonte, age 15, had come to the neighbors asking for food, and told them that he and his siblings were often not fed as a form of punishment. Neighbors reported that the children were small for their age and appeared malnourished. Neighbors also said that the children were homeschooled, and did not go outside much.
In 2011, Sarah Hart was charged with a misdemeanor domestic assault after teachers at a Minnesota public school, where the family then lived, noticed bruises on the back of one of the girls, Abigail, age 6 at the time. From Heavy.com:
“Later reports revealed more about what happened in 2010. During an interview with police, Abigail told a detective that Jennifer was the one who hit her (although Sarah was the one who ultimately pled guilty), Oregon Live reported. Abigail said that Jennifer was angry because a penny fell out of her pocket. She said Jennifer dragged her to the bathroom and submerged her head under cold water in the tub, then spanking her repeatedly with a closed fist. Abigail said she was grounded, and sometimes her punishment would include missing lunch.”
Submerging a child’s head under cold water, beating them hard enough to get a domestic assault charge, along with starving the child, all indicate to me that this was a severally abusive family, and these behaviors are often found among the worst child abuse cases. I would also not be surprised if the children were pulled from public school to hide the abuse and continue the isolation.
As readers may know from my previous blogs, child victims of torture are often not biological children. In the paper Child Torture as a Form of Child Abuse, which is based on a study of 28 child abuse and torture cases:
“We observed that 79 % of the primary abusers were not the child’s first degree relative; they included such caregivers as boyfriends, girlfriends, aunts, uncles, grandparents, adoptive parents, and stepparents.”
Readers may recall that homeschool homicide victims Erica Parsons and Hana Alemu were also adopted. Erica, Hana, and her adopted brother Immanuel were all starved and malnourished, as were the 13 Turpin children, another recent homeschool torture case that has been all over the news. The above cited paper also states that the tortured children in the study experienced having food withheld from them:
“Eighty-nine percent experienced food deprivation and 79 % were fluid restricted.”
Withholding food is common in severe abuse cases.
Isolation and deprivation are crucial to maintaining an environment where children are subjected to this specific type of torture. Keeping children in a public school could potentially expose the abuse and subject the parents to scrutiny and possible arrest by law enforcement. This is likely why the Hart family pulled the children out of school, and they most likely did so after Sarah Hart was arrested for domestic assault. This is also a reason that neighbors did not see the children very much. From the Knox child torture journal article cited above:
‘This social isolation typically involved preventing the child from attending school or daycare. Twenty-nine percent of school-age children were not allowed to attend school; two children, though previous enrolled, were dis-enrolled by their caregiver and received no further schooling. An additional 47 % who had been enrolled in school were removed under the auspice of “homeschooling.” This “homeschooling” appears to have been designed to further isolate the child and typically occurred after closure of a previously opened CPS case.’
I am not sure about the other children, but sources indicate that Devonte was disabled. Marginalized identities all have things in common, and one of those things is being objectified and pitied by the hegemony. Hana Alemu’s case highlighted the propensity for people to adopt children that they feel sorry for in order to appear like saviors and martyrs to their communities, in particular, white families adopting black children. It is hard not to look at the Hart case and perceive that this is a part of it. While the Hart family were not a part of the Christian Patriarchy, as Hana’s adoptive family was, they were a part of a community in the North West and went to festivals and attended rallies for Bernie Sanders. So they were part of a larger community of people with a certain ideology. An ideology can be liberal or conservative and still play a role in the reasons people abuse children. The Harts were using the children to gain respect and traction in the largely white liberal scene of the Pacific Northwest. Devonte, in particular, was known for his “Free Hugs” sign.
The Harts very likely gained accolades and attention from this community due to having adopted six children of color and “saving” them.
As a Deaf person who works in a disability rights field, I am constantly being approached by able-bodied and hearing people who are looking for “a disabled person” to include in a project they are doing to make them look more “inclusive”. Every marginalized identity has experienced being used in this way; to make a person from the dominant class seem more “down”, or like a better person for “including” marginalized people in their lives somehow.
It is not a stretch for me to see how someone with this mindset would could be objectifying and abusive behind closed doors, because false, biased notions of marginalized identity are based in a historical materialism of abuse and pain. These notions are predicated on a fantasy of what role marginalization plays within the enclave of white, able-bodied life, and how that role will benefit the dominant person. Objectifying an oppressed person and using them for your benefit aligns closely with reasons why victimizers abuse and torture other people, so it is not difficult to see how the two could overlap and even fuel each other.
In the public environment, the abuser is using the victim(s) to further their reputation and gain respect amongst a community of people; in the private environment of the home, the abuser is using the victim to satisfy their own sadistic or emotional urges. In the case of the Harts, Sarah and Jen were using the children, Devonte in particular, to gain traction and attention in a community with shared ideology and politics. In the context of the home, they were sadistically abusing and starving the children, which is another form of using them to feel whatever emotions the abuse would foster within the offenders. Overall, using the marginalized identities and backgrounds of the children to exploit and objectify them on a few different levels, all for their own gain, up until the final act of control was deployed: the murder of the entire family at the hands of the parents.
It is important to understand that abuse, torture and homicide of marginalized identities can happen for a different set of reasons than is always understood or discussed. Understanding the reasons behind identity-specific abuse, objectification, and homicide can help us to identify such cases in the future and have better insight into the minds of abusive people.
This May, another homeschool torture case came to the attention of authorities, and has been covered by news outlets all over the country. This time, the alleged abuse took place in Fairfield, California, and occurred at the hands of parents Jonathan Allen, 29, and Ina Rogers, 31, who lived on the 2200 block of Fieldstone Court with their ten children, who range in age from six months to twelve years old.
Police came to the home after responding to a call from Ina Rogers about the twelve-year-old, who had run away. When police arrived at the home on Fieldstone Court, they saw squalid conditions throughout the house, and witnessed the other nine children huddled together in fear in the living room. Police were able to locate the missing child, (he was sleeping under a neighbor’s bushes), but were alarmed at the filthy environment the children were living in, and the way the children were acting. Human and animal feces littered the house, an image of which appears in the above photo, along with garbage and disarray. Police indicated that the children were scared, and spoke with speech impediments, a sign of neglect.
As a result of the horrific environment discovered in the house, Solano County Child Welfare Services took the ten children into custody, and the parents were arrested. During the investigation, the children revealed to law enforcement that they had been subject to years of torture. The children were also homeschooled, but it does not seem as if they really were ever educated.
Prosecutors involved in the case allege that the children were shot with a BB gun, and waterboarded, among other things. From Time magazine:
“On a continuous basis the children were getting punched, strangled, bitten, shot with weapons such as crossbows and bb guns, hit with weapons such as sticks and bats, subjected to ‘waterboarding’ and having scalding water poured on them,” Solano County Deputy District Attorney Veronica Juarez wrote in the bail request.
Ina Rogers was charged with nine counts of felony child abuse and one count of child neglect pertaining to all ten children. Jonathan Allen was charged with nine counts of felony child abuse and seven counts of felony torture, which was later amended to twenty felony counts including four felonies for a lewd and lascivious act on a child under 14. It is not unusual to see child sexual abuse in such severe cases. Both Ina and Jonathan deny the charges and insist that they are good parents. Their friends even started a GoFundMe internet fundraising page to raise money for a lawyer to defend the couple, stating that they were unfairly targeted (the page has since been taken down). The children’s grandmother, however, has spoken out against the parents, saying that Jonathan was unrelentingly abusive and a Satanist. In the past, she reported the parents to child welfare services, although nothing came of it. Photographs of Jonathan’s “meditation room” reveal what appears to possibly be a Satanic altar. Police said that the children were abused for “sadistic reasons”, but did not elaborate. As we often see in these cases, ideology and religion can be a component of the abuse.
The children were removed from the house on May 31st, 2018. Jonathan faces 5.2 million dollars bail, and Ina $495,000.
Ina told reporters that she homeschooled her children, but the home in Fairfield had never been registered with the state as a homeschool. Previous California residences where the family lived were also not registered as homeschools. Even if they had registered the school, it would not have been subject to oversight by the state of California, which has extremely lax homeschool regulations, and there would be no state assessments which could have lead to the abuse being discovered.
The Turpin Family
These lax regulations are evident with another recent California homeschool-torture case, one which I have touched briefly upon in previous blogs- the thirteen Turpin children, who were found shackled to furniture in their Perris, California home on January 14th, 2018, by authorities, after a seventeen-year-old member of the family escaped and alerted police. The father of the family, David Turpin, had registered the family’s various homes a few different times as homeschools with the state of California. However, no one had ever checked in on the children to make sure that they were actually being educated, because California, like many U.S. states, does not require it.
The Turpin children endured years of torture and starvation, which caused them to have stunted growth due to malnourishment. Authorities reported that the younger children were unaware of what police were, and had never heard of medication. The children were not taken to doctors or dentists, and did not have much experience outside of the home, having been subject to severe isolation. Neighbors said the children were pale, skittish, and rarely seen outdoors. They were so malnourished that police initially thought the seventeen-year-old child was ten, and other adult children also appeared to be much younger than they were. The children of David and Louise Turpin ranged in age from two to twenty-nine, with seven of them being over the age of eighteen. Police did not realize this at first, due to the stunted growth of the adult children, which made them appear to be minors. This type of undernourishment can lead to many different health problems and disabilities.
The Turpin family were religious Pentecostals and Quiverfull, adhering to the large-family, no birth control, strict gender binary, traditional gender role lifestyle and ideology which I have written about in this blog before. A part of this ideology involves homeschooling, and often it means eschewing modern medicine. Not everyone involved in this movement is abusive.
David and Louise Turpin were charged with twelve counts of torture, twelve counts of false imprisonment, seven counts of abuse on a dependent adult, and nine counts of child abuse. Independently of each other, David was charged with committing a lewd act on a child under 14 years old, and Louise was charged with felony assault. A judge approved a restraining order, prohibiting the parents from making contact with their children, in person or electronically. In May of this year, David was charged with perjury for lying to the California Department of Education about the children being homeschooled, as they clearly had not been educated.
Although David told the state that the children were in a full-time homeschool, incredibly lax regulations and zero oversight allowed he and Louise to severally torture and deprive their children for many years. The state does not require that homeschooled children see medical professionals to be checked for things like hearing loss and general health, nor does the state require that children ever be checked on by a mandatory reporter. There are no processes in place in California to assess educational progress made by homeschooled children, there are no tests children are required to pass.
Unlike Jonathan Allen and Ina Rogers, David and Louise Turpin told the state that they were educating their children, but in each situation, no one checked on the children, registered or not. It did not make any difference that the Turpins were registered and the Allen-Rogers home was unregistered; the same things occurred in each home: isolation, starvation, severe neglect and physical abuse, filthy environments, sexual abuse, and oppressive religious ideology.
In previous blogs, readers learned about abuse of children who already had disabilities. In this post, we have read how abuse that is covered up in a homeschool can also cause disabilities. This is another example of how regulations around homeschool is a disability issue. As the children in these cases developed these disabilities from the mistreatment and environment, the disabilities were not addressed with education or accommodations, either, leading to a further level of suffering and vulnerability.
If children do not learn to communicate and have delayed speech and language, and are not taught any alternative forms of communication such as through technology or using sign language, it leaves those children limited in their ability to communicate the abuse that is happening to anyone outside the home. It causes them to be even more dependent and reliant on the abuser. It is the same thing with being in a situation that causes developmental or intellectual delays from neglect and abuse, or psychiatric and emotional disabilities. The parents are using the disabilities to further isolate, deprive, and victimize the children.
“The solution is relatively easy: Force contact with mandatory reporters. States could require annual assessments by a certified teacher and annual doctor’s visits, creating at least two opportunities for a trained professional to recognize abuse.
Abuse in homeschool settings is all too common, even if it doesn’t always make international headlines. For families like the Turpins, mandatory reporter contact could mean the difference between death and rescue.”
A component of requiring children see a doctor would be the discovery and accommodation of disabilities. Law and policy need to go even further to ensure that American Disability Rights law covers children in homeschools. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is meant to cover anyone in the country who has a disability. This means that if someone is disabled, they have a right to disability accommodations and access, and they have civil rights around discrimination and mistreatment. Being in a homeschool does not, and should not, mean that a person is exempt from these rights. However, the Homeschool Legal Defense Association and their supporters have routinely blocked legislation that would regulate homeschools and protect disabled children, including the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).
The CRPD has been ratified in over 180 countries, meaning that this international convention has become part of that country’s domestic law. It is the most comprehensive and inclusive disability law ever written. The U.S., due to the conservative homeschool lobby, has routinely blocked this legislation, although Presidents George H.W. Bush and Barack Obama were in favor of it.
Clearly, a lack of homeschool regulations in the U.S. is causing serious problems, and many states have almost no regulations at all. Unchecked homeschools can be a cover for the most serious and heinous of crimes against children, and also cause disabled children to not have disability access, accommodations or therapies, which is another form of neglect and abuse. Often these two issues are concurrent-: torture and neglect intersect with disability in myriad ways.
It is interesting to note this juxtaposition between human rights, civil rights, and homeschool. We need to extend human rights and civil rights into homeschools and enforce mandatory reporting to try and eliminate child torture cases altogether, and to ensure that every child has disability rights protection.
Child torture cases have distinct characteristics such as starvation, isolation, and homeschool used to cover the abuse. Another pattern of homeschool child torture cases has been revealed this year by the Connecticut Office of the Child Advocate. Based on a study of six school districts, 36% of parents who pulled their child from public school in order to homeschool them did so after a Department of Child and Family Services (DCF) investigation revealed that they were abusing the child(ren). Instead of stopping or slowing down the abuse, the parent(s) instead figured out a way to continue the abuse, and to even escalate the abuse to torture or homicide without being found out: homeschool. When parents with a prior abuse history pull their children out of school to “homeschool” them, this needs to be understood as an escalation and cover up of their criminal activity.
Matthew Tirado was an autistic, intellectually disabled 17-year old-teenager who was withdrawn from school by his mother, Katiria Tirado, so that her abuse and neglect of him would be hidden. Katiria started a homeschool for Matthew and his sister, whom she also withdrew from school to abuse. Katiria’s abuse of Matthew escalated to torture, and lead to his death on February 14th, 2017. Connecticut, like many U.S. states, has no regulations around homeschool, which made it very easy for Katiria to legally start one.
Under the guise of being “homeschooled”, Matthew was starved, denied water, and physically tortured up to his death. The 5’8 teenager was emaciated and weighed only 84 pounds when law enforcement discovered him after his mother called 911 to report that he was vomiting and unwell. Matthew died at the hospital shortly after being transported there by emergency services.
From the Child Fatality Investigative Report:
The Office of the Chief State’s Medical Examiner found that Matthew had “numerous injuries in various stages of healing,” including multiple “broken ribs, a laceration to the head, several bruises and contusions on his upper body, a pattern type injury to the upper back and bed sore type injuries to the buttocks.” The Medical Examiner’s office reported that the injuries “appeared to be the result of long term abuse and neglect.” Pictures obtained from Ms. Tirado’s cell phone confirmed that she had locked and shuttered her refrigerator and kitchen cabinets, restricting Matthew’s access to food. Text messages obtained by police investigators allegedly reflected Ms. Tirado’s knowledge that her son was starving and the criminal warrant alleged that Ms. Tirado “intentionally prevented [Matthew’s] access to food,” with Ms. Tirado reporting to a relative that Matthew was forced to seek food “from the garbage and [he] would drink cooking oil, ketchup, and syrup if these items were accessible.”
As we have seen in previous cases mentioned in this blog, child torture victims commonly experience food and water deprivation, are more likely to be abused by their mothers, are disabled, and suffer prolonged physical abuse.
Katiria Tirado was charged with Manslaughter in the First Degree and Intentional Cruelty to Persons. She plead guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to 17 years in prison, to be suspended after serving 11 years, and 5 years probation. She was also charged with educational neglect.
Like homicide victim Erica Parsons, family, friends and community members rarely, if ever, saw Matthew. He was kept hidden away because Katiria knew that it was obvious Matthew was starving and abused. The Department of Child and Family Services (DCF), had been in contact with Katiria regarding Matthew and his sister multiple times leading up to his death, starting back in 2005. DCF closed the case a month before Matthew’s death, a serious error on their part.
It turns out that many families studied by the Office of the Child Advocate had been in similar situations:
Based on the data requested from the six school districts, OCA learned that over a span of three academic years, 2013 through 2016, there were 380 students withdrawn from the six (6) districts to be homeschooled, and that 138 of these children (36 percent) lived in families that were the subject of at least one prior accepted report to DCF for suspected abuse or neglect. The majority of these families had a history of multiple prior reports to DCF of suspected child abuse or neglect. OCA also learned that none of the six districts had protocols to conduct follow up with the withdrawn student or his/her family, such as an assessment of academic progress or a portfolio review of work, as suggested by the State Department of Education in previously-issued agency guidance.
Like many states, Connecticut does not regulate homeschools. Since there are no regulations, there is no plan for the Department of Child and Family Services to follow when a family with an open case or prior cases starts a homeschool. The fact that so many families who pull their children from school have prior cases with a child abuse investigating agency indicates that regulations around homeschool are necessary. From the report:
Data Regarding Family Child Welfare Involvement for Children Withdrawn from School to Be Homeschooled in the Six School Districts Reviewed By OCA. N= 139.
– 17 children lived in families with 1 prior accepted report to DCF and where there was no substantiation for abuse/neglect. -90 children lived in families that were the subject of multiple prior accepted reports to DCF. -Range of accepted reports to DCF was 2 – 30. -43 children lived in families that were the subject of 4 or more prior accepted reports to DCF. -Most families (more than 75%) in the cohort OCA examined were the subject of accepted reports dated 2013 to the present.
When a child who has been involved in a CPS, DCF, or other child welfare reporting system has been pulled from school in order to be “homeschooled”, this needs to raise alarm bells. A victimizer of children is not going to stop the behavior because they were the subject of a report by DCF. A victimizer wants to continue the abuse and torture in peace, without being disturbed or found out.
Reports indicate that reasons parents give for homeschooling include disability. From the U.S. Department of Education Statistics About Non-Public Education in the United States: ‘ [In 2011],17% of parents said that the child having special needs was the reason, and 15% said the child having a “physical or mental health problem” caused them to homeschool.’ I have shown in this blog repeatedly that higher numbers of disabled children are homeschooled now, and that disabled children are at higher risk for abuse.
Once in a homeschool, there is no requirement for a child like Matthew Tirado to recieve disability accommodations, therapies, special education, or support in any way for their disabilities. The chances that someone will find out about the abuse drop significantly, as the child is further isolated from every aspect of society. The Connecticut DCF, which obviously messed this case up very badly, prompting the OCA report in the first place, has no protocol to follow around homeschool. No one does, because there is no regulation of homeschool in Connecticut, just as there is little to no regulation around homeschool in many U.S. states.
When a family with prior DCF reports pulls a child from school in order to homeschool them, there needs to be a policy and a regulated course of action for the child welfare agency, and other entities, to take. Stricter regulations around starting a homeschool in the first place would act as a deterrent. Criminals who victimize children will find the loopholes that exist and exploit them. We need to work on closing those loopholes, holding people accountable, and understanding that criminals use homeschool to cover the most heinous of child abuse crimes.
“Even when taken to the doctor, I was not allowed to see them without a parent present. I think this was because my mother was afraid what we might say. I believe I was pulled out of public school for a similar reason when a few teachers began noticing her controlling behaviors.”
I was homeschooled in the mid 90s and again in the early 2000s for some of grade school and most of junior high and high school in a state that only requires notification. While I was not educationally neglected like some of my peers, I was unprepared for the real world due to our use of fundamentalist curriculum. Despite being college educated, my mother had no ability to teach high school math, having never taken a teaching course, and science and history were purely religious focused. I watched Abeka DVDs and then was yelled at until I finished tests that were never sent in for grading, and if I didn’t know enough of the answers, my mother would finally get tired of yelling at me and just give me the answers. I learned very little math, or anything else that was difficult for me, because of this environment.
In college, this created a lot of stress trying to catch up. I had adequate writing and reading skills, but, given my choice to pursue a STEM field, most of my science classes expected me to know things that would’ve been taught in high school and that I never learned, either because Abeka found it unbiblical or because I was never really forced to learn it with my mother not wanting to enforce test taking. The stress of trying to perform well enough for future professional school admission, along with the unresolved trauma of abuses that worsened due to the isolation of homeschooling, ultimately led to a mental health crisis in my late teens that resulted in me being unable to function for several years. I later finished the degree after years of mental health issues, way behind schedule. And the intentional isolation and abuse that escalated with homeschooling caused a lot of trauma I am still working through 15 years later.
An already dysfunctional environment was exacerbated with homeschooling. I saw this with the few family friends we had around us as well. Homeschooling gave my mother an easy way to deny me any right to socialize, especially when they began “home churching”, and accelerated her already controlling behaviors. A friend in this home church had it even worse. I saw her experience even more extreme abuse than myself, and despite the fact she was technically in the foster care system, was never once checked on. We lived in extreme fear and had no access to mandated reporters while alone. Even when taken to the doctor, I was not allowed to see them without a parent present. I think this was because my mother was afraid what we might say. I believe I was pulled out of public school for a similar reason when a few teachers began noticing her controlling behaviors. We were completely cut off from the outside world except as much as my mother allowed, only occasionally visiting homeschool groups, until it was decided to send me to a church. Even then, I was verbally abused for having friends at church, and at this church I witnessed multiples types of abuses with the few homeschooling families there. I also witnessed educational neglect, with one family friend’s child being unable to read at 10 years old simply because she wasn’t taught to. Mental health issues were as treated as demonic, and anyone (including myself) with mental health issues had no access to counselors or any other sort of help.
These experiences have made me a firm supporter of homeschool oversight that holds parents accountable as any other teacher would be. While homeschooling can be done in a way that benefits children, it’s far too often used as a cover for abuse, neglect, and religious motivated isolation and indoctrination. I think children should have a right to an education equivalent to their public school peers, access to mandated reporters, access to school counselors for any mental health concerns, and a say in whether or not they are homeschooled. All of this would’ve made a big difference for myself and other homeschooled children I knew. Even if it wouldn’t have always solved dysfunctional home environments, any sort of intervention, especially had it ended in us being returned to a public school, would’ve improved the isolation and lack of access to any of the services available to our public school peers.
Homeschooling is a powerful tool that can be used for both good as well as abuse. It is a tool far more powerful than most school systems, because only one or two people (the parents) are completely in control of a child’s education. I support accountability measures to ensure this power is used for the benefit of the child. As some of our most vulnerable members of society, children deserve to have checks and balances in place to keep them safe from abusive homeschooling, just as checks and balances exist for public schools.
Jane N. was homeschooled in Arizona from 1995-1996 and 2000-2004. For additional thoughts and experiences from other homeschool alumni, see our Testimonials page.
In October 2016’s blog post I wrote about homicide victim Erica Parsons, and how adopted, disabled, and homeschooled children can be abused and denied a proper education when parents exploit loopholes in the law for their own gain. These parents do not provide disability accommodations to the child in need, even when they have received government funds to do so.
We also saw with that case how a lack of disability accommodations in a homeschool can be a tool of abuse and homicide, and also how abusive parents take out frustrations on and exploit disabled, adopted children. Erica’s story is not the only one like it. Sadly, there are many cases involving the murder of children like Erica.
Adopting disabled children from countries outside of the U.S. and bringing them to American homes gained popularity in the last decade, reaching heights in 2005-2007. Many children from the global South have been adopted into christian homeschools, as intercountry adoption was particularly emphasized within that group. Intercountry adoptions to the U.S. resulted in so many cases of abuse and homicide that certain countries have imposed moratoriums children being adopted to the U.S.
Disabled children are positioned by the adoption movement as being particularly in need of being adopted. And in many cases, they likely are. However, what happens when these children come to the U.S. and are expected to blend into a large, homeschooling, Christian Fundamentalist family? And is intercountry adoption the best way to address global disability?
The intersection of adoption, disability, homeschool and religion has resulted in many cases of abuse, neglect and homicide of children.
Christian Fundamentalist Patriarchy
Christian Patriarchy is a name given to an ideology found in evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity. The main tenets are large families, traditional gender roles, modest dress and debt-free living. I have written about it before, here. I firmly believe in religious freedom and it is not my intent to disparage this movement, nor do I think all such families are abusive. This post is about those who do not follow the law.
Part of the Christian Patriarchy movement in the United States has been a call from community leaders and ministers to adopt children from the global South; developing-world countries which are often perceived by the West as troubled. Above Rubies, a magazine and now website with a Facebook and Twitter presence, has long been a popular and respected publication among primarily women readers seeking to observe principles of Biblical Womanhood.Above Rubies was one of the first to sound the alarm regarding the perceived need for Christian families to adopt African orphans, using the daughter of editor Nancy Campbell as an example. Nancy’s daughter and her husband adopted six children from Liberia. Nancy Campbell was instrumental in pushing the adoption movement, telling readers that it was akin to welcoming “Jesus himself” into their homes, and a form of ministry.
Countries in Africa were presented by ministers, Christian leaders like Nancy, and Christian adoption agencies as having millions of orphaned children in need of homes immediately. As a result of this and other factors, Ethiopia became one of the world’s top ‘sending’ countries of children to the West, second only to China for numbers of children adopted out. There are complex factors surrounding adoption from Ethiopia and other African countries, one of which is the trafficking of children to orphanages where they are declared “abandoned”, in order for human traffickers to make money when people from the West adopt them. Journalist Kathryn Joyce has written about this issue extensively in articles and her book, The Child Catchers. According to the National Institutes of Health, orphaned children in Sub-Saharan Africa numbered in the millions in 2007. There is a definite need to address this population, but it must be done correctly.
In a community which already stressed the importance of a large family, adherents to the Christian Patriarchy ideology were now being encouraged to adopt more children. Adopting older, disabled children was exalted as being particularly Godly, due to the perception that such children are unwanted and more in need of homes, and also, harder to raise. Christian Adoption websites often feature older, disabled kids in a special area titled “Waiting Children”.
In the United States, there is no central authority which oversees adoptions. However, state and federal funding can be received by families who have adopted disabled children.
Hana and Immanuel Williams
Hana and Immanuel Williams were adopted from Ethiopia in 2008 by Larry and Carri Williams of Sedro-Woolley,Washington state; a rural area close to the Canadian border. The Williams were a homeschool, Christian Fundamentalist family with seven biological children. A friend of Carri’s testified in court that Carri was inspired to adopt children from Africa by an Above Rubies women’s retreat the two went on. Carri wanted more children, but could no longer conceive naturally.
Initially, the Williams planned only to adopt Immanuel, a deaf little boy who was matched to them by an adoption agency called Adoption Advocates International (AAI). Carri had studied American Sign Language prior to getting married at age 19, and the agency thought it was a good match. After viewing a 60-second video of ten year old Hana, who resided at the same orphanage- Kidane Mehret Children’s Home in Addis Ababa, which is affiliated with AAI, the Williams decided to adopt her, too. Hana had family in Ethiopia, but they were too poor to care for her. Her father had died, her mother disappeared, so she had for a time lived with extended family until they gave her up for adoption due to poverty. At some point during her time in Ethiopia, Hana developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It is not unusual for orphaned or abandoned children to develop PTSD and other psychological and emotional disabilities. Also, once children are orphaned, which is traumatic enough, a following traumatic event can often occur since they are no longer protected by their parents.
Hana Alemu with her extended family in Ethiopia. [image of a family gathered around a table with a pink and white striped cloth on it, with a large baked bread and candles. To the far left is a grandmotherly woman dressed in white, wearing a white head scarf. Next to her is Hana, indicated by a box over her image. She is about 5 and looks wide-eyed and shy. She has a light blue sweater on and a bun. She is surrounded to her left by family members, on is a young boy, the others look teenaged, and there is an older person at the end of the table.]
From left: Hana Alemu (renamed Hana Grace Rose), and Larry and Carri Williams. [image is made of up three individual photographs. The first is of Hana when she is living in America, she is smiling, her hair is braided, and she is wearing a black T-Shirt with some hot pink lettering on it. Next to her is an image of brown-haired Larry, looking long-faced and pensive in the courtroom, wearing a red plaid button up shirt and a brown courdorouy blazer. Next to him is an image also from the courtroom, of a blond haired woman also looking pensive, this is Carri.]
Larry and Carri never went to Ethiopia, but had Hana and Immanuel flown to Washington state with an escort, a practice that the Ethiopian government has since outlawed as part of its ongoing attempts to curtail abuse of adopted children. One of the problems with this is that parents and children do not spend any time getting to know each other prior to adoption, and American parents do not visit the culture the children are from, which could be key to understanding and connecting with them. However, the idea here is not to understand another culture with these types of adoptions. It is to “minister in your own home”, as Above Rubies put it, and to save and rescue children from what is perceived as a negative place.
Once part of the Williams household, isolated in a gated community, Hana and Immanuel were both subject to abuse. Like Erica Parsons, they were singled out from the other children and harshly punished. Hana had a hepatitis B along with the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and was older than Carri thought she would be, starting her period soon after arriving in Washington, which disgusted Carri. Carri abused Hana severally, locking her in a four-by-two-foot closet, making her sleep in the barn and use a port-a-potty outside, and shower in the front yard with a garden hose. Reasons behind some of this abuse was due to Hana having hepatitis, which Carri thought would contaminate the rest of the family, so she therefore decided to quarantine and humiliate her.
Hana did not play with her adopted siblings, and was mostly kept in the closet, away from the rest of the family. Her hair was shaved as a punishment, and she and Emmanuel did not share meals with everyone else, and were made to eat outside, even in harsh weather. Hana was also excluded from being homeschooled, according to law enforcement.
Immanuel was also abused, being hit by Larry Williams hard enough to draw blood. He was punished if he did not hear people, kept away from a Deaf church member who attempted to communicate with him, and often made to stay outside the house and in the yard, like Hana. The other children were forbidden by their parents to sign with him when he was being punished, and both Hana and Immanuel were punished frequently. It is a common misconception that sign language is easy to learn and that it is universal. Immanuel would not immediately pick up American Sign Language, but would have to learn it. It is unclear what type of language he used in Ethiopia. Even if Carri knew ASL before she was married, it is no guarantee that she understood d/Deaf culture, or was still fluent in ASL after not using it for a long time. Simply having some experience with ASL does not necessarily mean someone is a good match for a d/Deaf child. There are many things that factor into being a good match for raising a d/Deaf child, particularly one from a country which speaks a different language.
Larry and Carri Williams prescribed to the now infamous book that I have written about in previous posts, To Train Up a Child by Michael Pearl of No Greater Joy Ministries. Law enforcement found a copy of the book in the Williams’ household, and evidence that the children were switched with the type of plastic plumbing tube recommended by Michael Pearl. To Train Up a Child is a book well known in Christian Fundamentalist circles, and advocates corporal punishment of children and infants based on seventeenth-century Puritan childrearing. This was the method taken in order to blend Hana and Immanuel into the family and to deal with the challenges and disabilities they came with.
The abuse Hana suffered eventually resulted in her death on the evening of May 11th, 2011. She died from malnutrition, hypothermia and gastritis. She was 13. Her body was covered in scars from being beaten with the plastic plumbing pipe, and her head was shaved. Hana was once again forced to remain outside in the yard in the cold weather on this night. Carri called an ambulance when she found Hana laying face down in the mud. During the EMT’s attempts to revive Hana, Carri repeatedly told them that Hana was “passive aggressive” and “rebellious”. Kathryn Joyce wrote a detailed report of the homicide and trial for Slate.
Larry and Carri Williams were both arrested in connection with Hana’s death, and their surviving eight children were taken into state custody. Once he was able to see a social worker and doctors, twelve-year-old Immanuel was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and his language development was noted as delayed, which is not surprising considering he was not properly accommodated for his hearing loss in the Williams home and likely not in the orphanage, either.He testified in court during the trial that he was unsure where Hana had gone, or what had happened to her, but he thought she was maybe dead. It is possible he was confused about what happened due to not being communicated with and not being able to tell what was going on due to his hearing loss.
Deaf children need specific one-on-one instruction and education around learning to sign, speak, read and write. They need speech pathologists, ASL interpreters, and instruction in sign language, and to be seen by an audiologist. It is impossible for one person to provide all of these services in a homeschool. The isolated nature of this type of homeschool also prevents a child like Immanuel from meeting and communicating with other Deaf children and adults. It is highly cruel and abusive to prevent a Deaf child from being able to communicate, and to use communication as a form of punishment, as the Williams did with Immanuel.
On September 9th, 2013, Larry and Carri Williams, who had tried to escape harsh sentencing by lying that Hana was older than 13, leading to her body being exhumed during the trial, were sentenced to prison. Each were convicted of manslaughter in Hana’s death, and Carri received an additional conviction of homicide by abuse. They were both found guilty of first-degree assault on Immanuel. Carri was sentenced to just under 37 years in prison, and Larry 28 years. The trial was attended by many from the local Ethiopian community, who sadly were all too familiar with this type of case. Immanuel and the other children were placed with family or in foster care.
As a result of this story, Washington State put emphasis on addressing issues with adopted children being abused, neglected, and murdered. From Kathryn Joyce’s Slate article:
Although the research was started before Hana’s death, her story became the focal point, and illuminated common forms of abuse that other children suffered: being locked in rooms or forced to stay outside, having food or access to toilets withheld, and social isolation, often including being withdrawn from school, that obscured the abuse. At least nine of the 26 school-age children were reportedly homeschooled, several because their mother “did not want the teachers feeling sorry for them because they are ‘all sad’ and looked like they are starved at home.” Abuse tended to spiral, as parents exaggerated children’s misbehavior, punishments increased in frequency and severity, and isolated children lost the possibility of reaching outside help.
The Role of Disability
Disability is an area that specifically needs to be studied with regards to cases of homeschooling in general, but also adopted homeschool children. Disabled children, and in particular d/Deaf children, are particularly prone to abuse. Disabled and d/Deaf children suffer from abuse at higher rates than able bodied children. There are many reasons for it. When a child is adopted, that can also add another layer of complexity in abuse cases. Parents can feel differently about adopted children than their biological children, and single them out for mistreatment. The presence of disability can serve to exacerbate an abusive situation due to the frustration it can cause parents.
Religion is another area where ableist biases can come to the forefront and facilitate movements where able-bodied adults seek to save and rescue children, thinking that any situation is preferable to the one the children were initially in. This is not accurate, and cases like Hana and Immanuel’s illustrate that disabled children need accommodations and services, and to be treated with respect and love. Disabled children do not exist to make adults more seem more “godly” to their religious communities. Disabled children are not commodities to exploit for government money. And they are not going to be “saved” simply by being adopted.
According to the World Bank, one billion people experience some form of disability, and levels of disability are higher in developing nations. Disability is not a bad thing, but a natural part of human biodiversity. However, much of the world is not built in order to universally accommodate all people. Disabled children like Hana and Immanuel are often put into orphanages and institutions globally, because there are limited services, infrastructure and education in their countries to support disability. Some disabled children grow up in institutions and never leave them. If there were services in their countries to support their integration into the community, that would be much better, as every person deserves to live in their community and in a home.
Just as institutionalization and keeping children in orphanages is a serious issue in disability rights, mass adoptions of disabled children from developing nations to the West is another side of the coin; and neither are optimal. The U.S. adopts more foreign born children than any other nation, so ensuring that disabled, adopted children receive their rights once on US soil is important, particularly if there are large movements, like the one written about above, to specifically adopt disabled children. In many cases, disabled children are adopted into families that are equipped to accommodate their disabilities and provide them with a safe and loving home, and this can be a wonderful option for a child in need. However, there are enough cases where the opposite occurs instead, and it is a cause for alarm. The fact that so many are in homeschools is also a cause for concern because as we saw with Erica Parsons, many states do not have disability rights law that cover homeschool, and homeschool can be used as a cover for abuse.
“Disability Overview.” Disability Overview. The World Bank, 21 Sept. 2016.
Hodson, Jeff. “Did Hana’s Parents ‘train’ Her to Death?” The Seattle Times. The Seattle Times, 28 Nov. 2011.
Jordan, Miriam. “Inside Ethiopia’s Adoption Boom.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, 28 Apr. 2012.
Joyce, Kathryn. The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption. New York: PublicAffairs, 2013. N. pag. Print.
Kathryn, Whetten et al. “More than the Loss of a Parent: Potentially Traumatic Events among Orphaned and Abandoned Children.” Journal of traumatic stress 24.2 (2011): 174–182. PMC.
Marczynski, Evan . “Court Affirms Convictions of Williamses in Adopted Daughter’s Death.” Goskagit.com. Skagit Valley Herald, 23 Dec. 2015.
“Washington Couple Gets Nearly 30 Years in Prison for Death of Hana Williams.” NY Daily News. New York Daily News, 30 Oct. 2013.
Wtffundiefamilies. “Orphan Fever: The Evangelical Movement’s Adoption Obsession.”Religious Fundamentalism in Pop Culture & Politics. Tumblr, 16 Apr. 2013.
The story of Erica Parsons, the little North Carolina girl who was homeschooled, tortured and then missing for years, may seem like it has come to a close today as charges were finally brought against her adoptive parents for her 2011 murder. However, there is much to learn from the case, and Erica’s memory must continue to live on, especially as we near Disability Day of Mourning on March 1st, a day to remember disabled people who were killed by parents and caretakers.
Erica Parsons’ body has now been laid to rest in China Grove, North Carolina. Her remains were found by law enforcement in 2016. They were led to the site of her shallow grave by her adoptive father, Sandy Parsons, who, along with his wife Casey, disposed of the child’s body on his mother’s farm after the two of them murdered her when she was around 11 or 12 years old.
Sandy and Casey, prior to these latest charges, had already been serving prison time for fraud, which they were both charged with for stealing disability and state money meant for Erica, even after she was deceased. Law enforcement and the judge in their fraud case have long suspected that they were responsible for Erica’s murder, although both Sandy and Casey Parsons went on TV many times to claim their innocence, even appearing on Dr. Phil.
More details about Erica’s story can be read here.
Autopsy reports indicate that after years of abuse, the little girl died from homicidal violence, and her body was dismembered and then buried in a shallow grave on Sandy’s mother’s rural property. Erica Parson’s life shows all the signs of child torture, and a medical examiner stated that was indeed what she had gone through.
Torture is prolonged, severe abuse, and often includes starvation, isolation, and deprivation, among other abusive behaviors. Erica was starved and malnourished, had stunted growth, and her body showed many signs of severe abuse which had occurred over the years. The abuse was so bad that it was difficult for the coroner to say what finally killed her. It could have been strangulation, suffocation, or blunt force trauma. The final report indicated that homicidal violence of some kind is what ended her life. With a case like this, the abuse is so severe and ongoing that it is not difficult to understand how any number of abusive acts could have been the one that led to her death. The fact that Erica’s body was undiscovered for almost six years after her passing also made the autopsy difficult.
Many aspects of Erica’s case are common among child torture cases. Torture and severe abuse often is carried out by the mother . From Time Magazine:
Elizabeth Skowron, a professor of counseling psychology and a research scientist at the University of Oregon’s Prevention Science Institute, says that in her group’s work, mothers are very often both the perpetrators and initiators of abuse. The NCANDS [National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System] data backs that up, with 70% of victims mistreated by the mother, the large majority of those times without the participation of the father.
In Erica’s case, both parents participated in the abuse, but it was masterminded and especially cruel at the hands of her adoptive mother. Mothers, stepmothers and adoptive mothers make up large numbers of those found to have been torturing children. According to the journal article Child Torture as a Form of Child Abuse :
-Typically both adult caregivers are involved in the torture to some
-Women figure much more prominently as perpetrators of torture than in other forms of physical abuse
-Siblings are aware of and may be coerced to participate in the abuse, and also may be abused to a lesser degree
In Erica’s case, both adults tortured her, with the mother figure being dominant. Casey Parsons also encouraged the other children in the home to gang up on and abuse Erica, even making her adoptive brother Jamie break her arm, as he testified to during the fraud trial.
Another characteristic of child torture cases is that the victim has been placed in the home of extended family members in an “informal arrangement”. According to a study of child torture cases performed by the researchers in the above mentioned article Child Torture As a Form of Child Abuse:
Several children came into the torturing households through informal family arrangements. We observed that 79 % of the primary abusers were not the child’s first degree relative; they included such caregivers as boyfriends, girlfriends, aunts, uncles, grandparents, adoptive parents, and stepparents.
Erica was placed in the Parsons home through an adoption which occurred between her biological mother, Carolyn, with Sandy and Casey, as Carolyn was unable to care for Erica, and Erica’s father was a severe addict who was always in trouble with the law. Sandy Parsons was Carolyn’s former brother in law. Casey Parsons reportedly was not enthused about adopting Erica and took out her anger at Carolyn on the little girl.
Another aspect of Erica’s situation which needs further research in these specific types of cases is the fact that she was disabled. Readers of this blog know that disabled children are at greater risk of being abused. More research needs to be done on numbers of disabled children who are tortured, because there are differences in the psychology and manifestations behind torture than there are with other child abuse cases.
Erica had intellectual disability, and people with intellectual disability are at high risk of being victimized. Erica also had hearing loss, and deaf and hard of hearing people are also at a much higher risk of being victimized. Whether that victimization specifically turns into these types of torture cases needs to be better understood. However, according to the Coalition for Responsible Home Education (CRHE)’s database of homeschool child torture cases, Homeschooling’s Invisible Children, many victims were disabled.
Homeschool plays a vital part in child torture, since it allows the abuse to be covered and continue to escalate to extreme levels when the child is not around other adults who may figure out what is happening in their home, such as a teacher, principal or counselor. In one of California’s worst child abuse cases, outlined in the book A Child Called It, the autobiography of David Pelzer, David’s abuse at the hands of his mother was discovered only because he was in public school. That was in the early 1970s. Since that time, teachers and the public in general has become more intuned to child abuse and there has been better education about it. Although David was not disabled, he became so after the abuse.
Rising numbers of disabled children are being homeschooled, according to preliminary data, and numbers of homeschooled children in the U.S. continue to grow.
Erica’s story is extremely tragic, especially since no educational authorities ever checked up on her due to lax homeschool regulations. If they had, her story may have turned out more like David Pelzer’s, who was placed in a caring foster home and protected by authorities after his teachers, school nurse, and princepal figured out that something was seriously wrong. Like Erica, young David was starved, beaten and subjected to cruel torture at the hands of his mother for several years. He knew it would only be a matter of time before she killed him. The end results of torture cases is often homicide.
A perpetrator in a case like David’s or Erica’s will do whatever they can to continue the abuse, since they are gratified in some way by it. They do not have an intention of stopping, and will go to extremes to cover the abuse. In a torture case, that often means keeping the child out of school, and that is where homeschool comes in. Homeschool can provide a long-term cover for pepetrators involved in the most serious of child abuse crimes. Abusers know this, and are not above defrauding the state and everyone else to continue the torture.
This Disability Day of Mourning, let’s take time to remember Erica and every other disabled abuse victim who was murdered by a parent or caretaker and take concrete, evidence-based steps to end it, including more research in some much needed areas that sit in the intersections of disability and homicide.
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