Exploitation of Marginalized Identities, Abuse and Torture: The Hart Children

It is a scenario readers of this blog are familiar with: intersections of homeschool, adoption, ideology, and homicide. 

Case Background

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.

hart1
The upside-down SUV crashed on the rocky banks of the Pacific

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.

devonte2
The Hart Family, everyone smiling broadly. But is it genuine?

Themes

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.’

Intersections

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.

OR: Bernie Sanders Rally in Portland
Devonte Hart holds a sign during a Bernie Sanders campaign rally at the Moda Center in Portland, Ore., on March 25, 2016, the day before the Washington caucuses. (Photo by Alex Milan Tracy)

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.

No Homeschool Oversight in California: Another Child Torture Case Is Discovered

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.

Ina-Rogers-Jonathan-Allen
Ina Rogers and Jonathan Allen, who has face and neck tattoos, and the squalid conditions of their home. On the left is the bathroom, with feces all over the floor. On the right is a bedroom full of disarray and junk.

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.

jonathan allen altar
Jonathan Allen’s meditation room altar with book “Awakening Lucifer”, Egyptian statue, purple velvet cloth, and knife.

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.

turpin1
Image of David and Louise Turpin renewing their vows in Vegas with their children, who are dressed in matching outfits, faces blurred out. Bottom of image: at left David Turpin mugshot, right Louise Turpin mugshot.

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.

The Role of Disability Rights 

Both of these examples highlight how disabilities can develop when children are severally neglected and not educated. It is unclear if any of the younger children or the adult children in either case were disabled prior to the abuse, but disabilities have either already occurred, or will likely occur, in each family as a result of the abuse. Neglect and abuse can lead to learning disabilities, intellectual disabilities, speech and language delay, post-traumatic stress disorder, and many other disabilities. Neglect and abuse in childhood can cause emotional problems, physical problems, substance abuse, eating disorders, psychiatric disabilities, and leave a person vulnerable to future victimization.  

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.

As Rachel Coleman and Katheryn Brightbill wrote in this recent L.A. Times article, The Turpin child abuse story fits a widespread and disturbing homeschooling pattern:

“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.”

Coleman is the director of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education.   Brightbill is the Coalition’s legislative policy analyst. The CRHE also runs the site Homeschooling’s Invisible Children. 

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.

Report Indicates a Third of Children Removed From School to Be Homeschooled were Involved in Prior DCF Abuse/Neglect Cases

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.

In April 2018, the Connecticut Office of the Child Advocate (OCA) released a report titled Examining Connecticut’s Safety Net for Children Withdrawn from School for the Purpose of Homeschooling—Supplemental Investigation To OCA’s December 12 2017 Report Regarding the Death of Matthew Tirado.

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. 

Katiria-Tirado-and-Matthew-Tirado
At left, Katiria Tirado, mugshot. At Right, image of Matthew Tirado.

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.

katiria in court
Katiria Tirado in court.

Jane N.: “We were completely cut off from the outside world”

“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.

Disability, Homeschool, Intercountry Adoption and Homicide: The Case of Hana and Immanuel Williams

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.

duggar-family

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.

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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.

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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.]
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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.

Conclusions

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.

Further sources:

“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.

Erica Parsons: The Hallmarks of a Homeschool Child Torture Case

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.

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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.

Patterns

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
extent
-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.

Homeschool, Disability and Homicide: The Story of Erica Parsons

UPDATE: Sandy and Casey Parsons indicted for killing and dismembering Erica: http://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/local/article201056599.html

The autopsy results for Erica have been made public and indicate she died from homicidal violence:  http://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/local/crime/article193791169.html

Erica Parsons, for those who have not been following the story, was a little girl from North Carolina who has been missing since 2011. In September 2016, her body was finally found when her adoptive father, Sandy Parsons, led investigators to the site of her shallow grave on his family’s South Carolina farm.

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Erica’s Story

Erica Lynn Parsons was born on February 24, 1998 in Moorseville, North Carolina, to Carolyn Parsons and Billy Dean Goodman. Carolyn did not feel she could adequately care for Erica, along with her three other children, and Billy Dean Goodman had serious problems with substance abuse and was regularly in trouble with the law up to his recent death in January 2016 from natural causes.Wary of putting Erica in foster care, Carolyn instead agreed to have her ex-husband Steve Parsons’ brother Sandy, and his wife Casey, adopt Erika in 2000.  Erica was born with disabilities, including hearing loss, which was discovered when she briefly attended public school. Based on her features and reports of intellectual disability, it is likely that Erica also had Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. According to the Charlotte Observer, Sandy and Casey Parsons received federal money to assist with Erica’s disabilities. They also received money from the state to care for her due to her status as adopted.  For unknown reasons, Casey, Erica’s adoptive mother, pulled the child from public school when she was little and registered her home as a “Christian Homeschool”. Due to the limited laws in North Carolina that govern homeschool regulations, it was not difficult for Casey to establish a homeschool at her rural home outside of Salisbury.

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Carolyn Parsons, Erica’s biological mother. 
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Sandy, left, and Casey, right, Erica’s adoptive parents, lying through their teeth on the Dr. Phil show. 

Erica was likely not educated at this homeschool, and certainly was not accommodated for her disabilities. Instead, she was routinely abused, starved and neglected up to her disappearance, often kept in a closet and fed dog food. Federal testimony from family members and those who knew the Parsons indicate that Erica was left out of family activities, and that her adoptive mother hated her and said she wanted to kill her. Casey Parsons’ sister, Robin Ashley, testified in court that Casey “couldn’t stand the sight” of Erica’s face, refused to let Erica call her “Mom”, and admitted to assaulting her. According to Robin, Erica reminded Casey of Carolyn Parsons, whom she did not like, and told Robin she was afraid she might lose control and kill her.

It is not uncommon in child abuse cases for one child in a family to be singled out for abuse, and often the reason is due to the child reminding the abusive parent of someone or something they do not like. Disability is a reason, as well, and can intersect with other reasons for abuse, neglect and homicide, or in some cases, be the sole reason for the abuse. In abusive families, the parents on occasion encourage everyone else to abuse the singled out child, which is what happened to Erica. Erica’s adoptive older brother Jamie testified that he had participated in abusing Erica from the time he was five years old to when he was sixteen and “could no longer stand it”. At one point, he said, he even broke her arm.

The abuse inflicted on Erica by her parents escalated to homicide, as we now know, but for years, no one outside the family was aware that Erica was missing, including her biological mother. After she was finally reported missing by her brother Jamie in 2013, law enforcement looked into her disappearance. Jamie reported to police that he had not seen Erica since 2011. Casey and Sandy maintained that Erica’s biological Grandmother Irene “Nan” Goodman had taken Erica to live with her in Asheville, and all was well. The FBI were not able to find evidence that Nan existed. There was no Irene in the Goodman family, as relatives from that side reported.

Since Erica was homeschooled, that was one way in which her disappearance was kept hidden. North Carolina homeschool law does not require the state to make sure that children in homeschools are necessarily being educated, treated well, or accommodated for their disability.

Homeschool and Disability

According to the North Carolina state government’s website, where one can begin the process of registering a homeschool, what is needed is proof that the parent, called the educational administrator, has a high school diploma or equivalent, an email address, intent to start the school, and a decision about whether it is religious or not. Attendance sheet templates are provided on the website, as are links to standardized testing which children are required to take every year. However, there is no minimum grade required to pass it. As far as receiving disability accommodations and therapies, that is up to the parent.

This is not to disparage homeschool, which, in optimal situations, can be very good, and in some states, there are options for parents to receive disability accommodations from their local public school. Homeschool law varies from state to state, but the type of lax homeschool regulations seen in North Carolina are not uncommon.

If Erica had continued in a North Carolina public school, state and federal disability laws would have covered her there, and the school would have to provide her with Special Education classes, speech pathology and other related disability accommodations. Instead, since she was homeschooled, the laws in North Carolina are not the same. It is entirely up to a parent whether or not they will provide disability related education, therapy and accommodations to a child. For Casey and Sandy Parsons, this was not a priority, in fact, it would have enabled Erica to potentially report the abuse and communicate with other adults about her life at home. Keeping Erica unaccommodated for her disabilities was a crucial factor to facilitating the ongoing abuse, as it often is in cases of abuse of disabled children.

I have a hearing loss like Erica’s, and I received speech pathology in school. I also received free audiology appointments and hearing aids, which were covered by the state, and my teachers were aware of my hearing loss and involved in making sure I received a good education, which is also important for someone with intellectual disability, as Erica had. Erica’s parents did not use the state money given to them to take Erica to an audiologist or a speech pathologist, and there was no one around to make sure it happened. They were eventually convicted of fraud for this, but by then it was too late. Erica was already dead.

According to the US Department of Education, there are over one million homeschooled children in the United States, a number which has been increasing since 1999. Disability has been  cited as a reason for parents to homeschool their children. In 2011, 17% of homeschooling parents said that their child having special needs was the reason for homeschooling, and 15% said the child having a “physical or mental health problem” caused them to homeschool. Incidences of parents citing disability as their reason for homeschooling have increased in the last decade.

Homeschool and Homicide

Along with rising numbers of homeschooled children have been reports of high numbers of homicides occurring within United States homeschools. Further research needs to be done on this area, but according to Homeschooling’s Invisible Children:

Our preliminary research suggests that homeschooled children are at a greater risk of dying from child abuse than are traditionally schooled children. This preliminary finding is based on an analysis of the cases in our Homeschooling’s Invisible Children (HIC) database and on national government reports on child maltreatment.

If disability is one of the major reasons cited for homeschooling children, this is an issue, since disabled children are susceptible to abuse at higher numbers than able-bodied children. Deaf and hard of hearing children experience abuse at higher rates than hearing children, and intellectually disabled children are also victims of crime in high numbers. The combination of a vulnerable population (disabled children) with an area not subject to enforcement of their rights and protection (homeschool) is cause for serious alarm, and may be a reason behind the high numbers of homeschooled children being killed.Having a disabled child can cause parents to become stressed, overwhelmed, and to resort to violence, according to the CDC.

If we are going to try and reduce the number of homicides of disabled children, we have to look at homeschools. Erica was not just murdered, she was subjected to years of torture. She was starved, beaten, isolated, kept in a closet and neglected. Not accommodating a disability is also abuse. Erica was not taught sign language, she was not given hearing aids, she did not see a speech therapist, and she was not accommodated for her intellectual disability. This adds another level to her suffering and isolation.

Currently, an autopsy is being performed on Erica’s body, and Sandy and Casey Parsons, who are both in prison on fraud charges, are awaiting further sentencing for their roles in the homicide.

Victimization of Autistic Children: The Savannah Leckie Case

Autistic people are more likely to be victims of violent crime. The Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN) states in its online literature that  “…the safety of autistic people is a critical concern for autistic self-advocates, federal and state government agencies, parents, and other stakeholders.” When researching autism and crime, often what comes up in a search for information are articles, much of them biased, on whether autistic people are “more violent” than the general population. The reality is, autistic people are more likely to be victims of hate crimes and other crimes than the able-bodied population. Stereotypes about disability and crime have persisted for centuries, and the topic was a favored one in the eugenics era, when disabled people were said to be morally depraved and genetically defective. Disability and criminal, violent, and otherwise degenerate behavior were said to be comorbid during the eugenics era, and these biased notions about disability are still extremely pervasive today, even though eugenics was discredited as a junk science which fueled the Holocaust. It is important when thinking about disability to remember that all disabled people are victimized at higher rates than able-bodied people, regardless of what their specific disability is. The question should not be: are disabled people or autistic people violent, the question should be why are these groups victimized at such extremely high rates, and what can we do about it?

Disabled people are also more likely to be victimized by a family member, and teenagers age 12-15 are most likely to be victimized. Disabled homeschool victims Hana Alemu and Erica Parsons were both around 13 when they were murdered. From ASAN:

‘People with disabilities were more than three times as likely to be victims of a serious crime (such as rape, robbery, aggravated assault) than people without disabilities. Among people with disabilities, people with cognitive disabilities had the highest rates of serious crime victimization. Because the BJS [Bureau of Justice Statistics] defines “cognitive disability” as “serious difficulty in concentrating, remembering, or making decisions because of a physical, mental, or emotional condition,” this category includes many autistic people. Autistic people may also be represented in the categories of people with a “self-care limitation” or “independent living limitation,” as defined by the BJS. Because BJS disaggregated its data in ways that may have put autistic people in multiple categories, it is difficult to determine the rate of victimization of autistic people as a whole.’

Savannah Leckie

In August 2016, when Savannah Leckie was 15, she moved from Minnesota to Missouri to live with her biological mother. Some reports indicate that when Savannah’s adoptive mother, Tamile Leckie-Montague, got a new boyfriend, that caused her to send Savannah away. However, Leckie-Montague disputes this, and says that the family was having so much trouble caring for Savannah that they needed help. Savannah was autistic and had depression and ADHD. It is not uncommon in cases like this that a disabled child is passed from one relative to another. Savannah was sent to live with her biological mother, Rebecca Ruud, who had a farm in rural Missouri, and lived there with her boyfriend, Robert Eugene Peat, Jr., a firefighter.

Rebecca  attempted to put Savannah to work on her farm, but became frustrated when she felt that Savannah had difficulties acclimating and carrying out tasks. Rebecca also homeschooled Savannah. There are no reports that Rebecca was working to accommodate Savannah’s disabilities or provide disability focused education and supports.

savannah leckie 3

The rural farm in Missouri. [image of dirt road, gate and fields with trees.]

Rebecca was severally abusive to Savannah. From the Daily Mail:

‘In the lead up to Savannah’s death, authorities say Ruud had allegedly taken to extreme forms of punishment to discipline her daughter. The criminal complaint reveals Ruud forced the teen to roll around in a hog pen on at least one occasion and wade into a muddy pond and dunk under. She also allegedly used a water hose on her daughter. Ruud also told police that Savannah had once deliberately cut her own arm ‘in a suicidal gesture’, according to the complaint. To punish her, Ruud poured alcohol and salt on the wound twice a day and rubbed it in until the scabs came off. She had also smashed Savannah’s cell phone and banned her from using Facebook as a form of punishment, according to the complaint. Ruud also admitted to making her teen daughter remove her pants so she could spank her bare bottom.’

Rebecca also made Savannah live in a 30-foot cramped trailer on the property that was run down and had no electricity or air-conditioning. She repeatedly contacted Tamile Leckie-Montague to tell her that Savannah was a “drain” and costing her too much money.

At some point, the abuse accelerated to homicide, although authorities are unsure of what exactly happened, but it appears that the child died on or around July 18th, 2017. On July 20th, 2017, Rebecca Ruud called police to notify them that Savannah was missing, stating that she thought the girl might have run away. Police were suspicious that Savannah had not run away due to all of her belongings, including her toothbrush, piggy bank and messenger bag, still being at the Ruud farm. Rebecca Ruud started a campaign to “help find Savannah”, both online and in her community.

savannah leckie 2

[Image of “Missing” poster with photos of Savannah and identifying details.]

Two days prior to reporting Savannah missing, Ruud had called local firefighters to help her extinguish what she said was a large brush fire on the farm. When firefighters asked about Savannah, whom Ruud said had been injured in the fire, Ruud was evasive, and said the teen was “taking a shower” and did not want to be disturbed. Firefighters observed that Ruud was also injured with a burn mark and treated her for it. Rebecca said it was a result of battling the brush fire, but would tell people different versions of how she got the injury.

Shortly after the report that Savannah was missing, a large search of the 80-acre farm commenced. Authorities noticed that Rebecca was acting strangely the entire time, which heightened their suspicion that Savannah had not run away.

The search revealed the charred remains of a body in a burn pit, a fire which was deliberately set and fueled with an accelerant. The canine unit discovered the pit, which was concealed by brush. Forensics revealed that the body was Savannah Leckie.

savannah leckie 1

[image of Rebecca Ruud mugshot, close-up of Savannah Leckie’s face, Savannah and Rebecca posing together.]

Forensics also revealed that large quantities of lye, likely from Ruud’s home-made soap business, had been poured on the body, and that the body had been burned several times. Rebecca responded to the situation by hurriedly marrying her live-in boyfriend, Robert Eugene Peat, since they believed a married couple could not testify against each other. Rebecca was later arrested, attempting to flee the area on a Greyhound bus, carrying large luggage bags.

An informant, according to court documents, told authorities that Rebecca had admitted to her how Savannah died. She drugged the girl and put her body in a fire. When Savannah started to wake up, Ruud hit her with a rake. However, it is unconfirmed whether this story is true. A search warrant revealed several long-handed garden tools on the property, including rakes. Reports also indicate that Rebecca Ruud had prescription hydrocodone on the property.

Rebecca was charged with first degree murder, second degree murder, abuse or neglect of a child resulting in death, tampering with physical evidence in a case, and abandoning a corpse without notifying authorities. She awaits sentencing. Robert Peat was also arrested, but later released.

Patterns

Rebecca Ruud tried to force Savannah into a particular way of behaving, and did not accommodate or respect her neurodiversity. When Savannah did not act the way Rebecca wanted or expected, Rebecca became violent. Savannah responded to being effectively abandoned by her adopted family and abused by her mother by attempting suicide. Instead of being caring and understanding towards this understandable response to her circumstances, Rebecca added to and exacerbated Savannah’s emotional and physical wounds.

Able-bodied people far too often erroneously view non-neurotypical people as being defective, burdensome and irritating. They try to force them to be “normal” or to behave in specific ways. Instead of forcing a disabled person into an environment and set of expectations, one should instead work with them to celebrate who they are and accommodate their disabilities. The answer to having a disabled child is not to send them off by themselves to be homeschooled on a farm in the middle of nowhere with someone they do not know very well. As we frequently see in child torture, abuse, and homicide cases, the child victim was placed in an “informal family arrangement” (Knox, 2014). This is often because the disability is too overwhelming.

Autistic children are murdered by their parents and caretakers at astonishingly high rates. The disability community remembers these victims every year with Disability Day of Mourning, which specifically focuses on disabled people who were murdered by a parent or caretaker. I attend a vigil for Disability Day of Mourning every year, and the list of names of victims that we are given is very, very long. Many of these victims were autistic.

Another aspect of this case is the fact that anyone thought it was a good idea for a child who evidently needed support doing daily tasks, as Savannah needed, to be homeschooled by someone like Rebecca, who has no qualifications in the field of special education, disability studies, or anything else. Autistic children can thrive and excel if they are in situations where their abilities are supported, and they are not pigeon-holed into behaving the way an adult would like or prefer. The issue is that it can be difficult to find these kinds of supports, and public schools frequently pass the buck when it comes to disability. However this does not excuse how Savannah was treated by any of the adults in her life. Far too often parents who murder disabled children are sympathized with and looked at forgivingly by the public since the child was such a “burden”. Many times, these murderers are given light sentences. I have a feeling that this will not be the case in the Leckie situation and hope that justice is appropriately served.

The Leckie case has the hallmarks of many homeschool homicide cases: isolation, deprivation, adoption, informal family arrangements, disability, and abuse by the mother. This is a tragic and extreme case, but there are patterns and recognizable, recurring issues when looking at it through the lens of disability studies. It is by using this lens that we can better understand the high rates of murder and abuse suffered by autistic and otherwise disabled people.

 

Rai Storm: “There was no gratefulness. There was no escape. It just went on and on.”

“When I was in regular school, I had several adults telling me that I was smart, that I was kind, that I was capable of producing good things and of being a good person. When I was homeschooled, the main voice I had in my life was telling me that I was nothing, that I was ‘too stupid to do anything right,’ and that I was bad just because I happened to be alive.”

My parents have always been prone to rage and impulses. My family has had large and violent arguments that began because “someone” (me or my brother) failed to replace the roll of paper towels in the kitchen before one of the almighty parents found that they had need of one. We consistently had different utilities disconnected for lack of payment. We had a truck and trailer repossessed, and my mom picked my brother and me up early from elementary school on days when she was tired or the weather was bad because she “didn’t want to have to go out again.” There was dysfunction.

Education was never important to my parents. In fact, they bad-mouthed and openly mocked teachers, school, and people who pursued higher education non-stop when I was growing up. They both had high school diplomas and believed that pursuing anything more than that was ridiculous and a waste of time.

Then they discovered homeschooling.

I was in fourth grade, and my best friend Alice invited me over to her house all the time. We spent a huge amount of time together, and my parents and her parents became friendly. Alice had been homeschooled previously, and was still required by her parents to do math out of a homeschool math book in addition to the math we were taught in our public school class. Alice and I were both GATE (gifted and talented education) students, and we completely enjoyed each other’s company.

Slowly, my parents came to be enamored of the idea of homeschooling through their relationship with Alice’s parents. During this period, they were becoming more and more fundamentalist Christian in their thoughts and actions, and more and more legalistic in their ideas about what was acceptable behavior for our family. Due to their own experiences of abuse as children, I think the idea of being disliked, ignored, passed over, and maltreated because they were Christians gave them something to cling to; their abuse wasn’t because of who they were, but who they worshipped.

Things slowly got even crazier in our house. It seemed like we watched a new Christian documentary about how the Occult was trying to steal and sacrifice Christian children every weekend. My parents became obsessed with the end times, and we watched all the Thief in the Night videos multiple times. In an effort to protect us from all of this evil descending upon us and to keep us close as the end times were near, they started homeschooling us when I started sixth grade.

*****

This period wasn’t so bad, although I suffered my first major depressive episode from the isolation. We homeschooled under an umbrella school and my mom, my brother, and I attended monthly meetings that taught the adults how to do the school’s paperwork and the kids how to deal with social workers who wanted to take you away from your family and never let you see them again.

I learned during this period, but the books I learned from were suspect. I specifically remember the only mention of Joan of Arc in my eighth grade world history book said that she was simply a crazy person who wanted to be famous. No mention of her importance in French history, her military significance, or that the fact that a young woman even achieved fame during this time in history was amazing. She was just a crazy person who shouldn’t be remembered.

This really bothered me and I brought it to my mother’s attention. Joan of Arc was one of my favorite historical people at this time, and I was very angry that she’d been treated this way. My mother laughed it off and told me it didn’t matter.

During our time under the umbrella school, my mother wrote LIFE SKILLS in block letters across every Friday in her lesson plans. The “skills” we were learning were how to clean the house top to bottom for no apparent reason. Not only was this accepted by the school, they actually suggested that she do this. Unfortunately, it was a portent of things to come.

My mother had gotten into a car accident when I was 9 years old. As a result of the accident, she was becoming more and more physically disabled. She would eventually be unable to walk more than a few steps at a time and became wheelchair bound.

What I believe happened to her during this time, at least from my perspective looking back as an adult, is depression due to her medical condition and anxiety about loss of control. She was already unstable, abusive, and prone to rages before this happened. Now things were starting to get really dark and scary.

*****

Ninth grade happened. Ninth grade remains one of my favorite and most wonderful experiences of my life. I went to a charter school that had independent study for some classes, so it was still homeschool, but I had friends and teachers and a fantastic opportunity for learning. It was amazing, and part of why I am not anti-homeschooling as an adult. This was a good school: they checked up on kids who hadn’t been seen in awhile, required weekly meetings with parents, and made sure we were learning. I would send my own kids there.

Then we got kicked out. Not because of me or my brother, who were doing extremely well, but because my mother refused to do the lesson plans or attend the meetings required of her. We weren’t “technically” kicked out, but the school sent her a letter “suggesting” that she put us in a more “traditional” school environment, as she was unwilling to comply with the mandatory parent participation rules.

That’s when my life took a drastic turn for the worse. I almost didn’t survive this period, and it still affects me in ways I don’t always realize. Thankfully, I had made some friends during my one year of good schooling that stuck with me through this time. Without them and their understanding, I know I wouldn’t have made it, despite how little I saw and communicated with them.

My mother’s medical condition had worsened when I was in 9th grade, to the point that she needed nursing care. My parents, rather than looking into what their excellent insurance would cover or reaching out to the community for help, figured that they already had a solution sitting right there in the house—someone who they wouldn’t have to pay, who could be on call 24/7 with no time off and be not only a nurse, but a maid, a cook, and someone for mom to scream at because she felt like it. Me.

I fell into one of the darkest pits of my life. I spent my days answering my mother’s beck and call, being screamed at and called names continuously, scrubbing floors with toothbrushes, washing underwear by hand, and making gourmet dinners far beyond my skill level. There was no gratefulness. There was no escape. It just went on and on.

*****

A typical day during this time looked something like this:

5:00 A.M. Be awakened by mom and dad flipping the overhead light on in my room and screaming at me to go in the kitchen and wash the dishes I left in the sink after my dad ate his dinner last night. Be screamed at continuously and told how lazy I am over and over. Since I’m up, I can make Dad’s oatmeal for breakfast. I had better not burn it, or World War III will commence.

5:30A.M. Dad leaves for work, Mom goes back to bed. I retreat to my room and try to sleep. If I’m not successful at sleeping, I’ll read some Wuthering Heights again, for the 18th time.

8:00 A.M. Mom wakes up. If I’m not awake, she runs her electric wheelchair into the door of my room, popping it open. She may then proceed to scream at me for being lazy and not being up yet, or may simply yell at me to make her bed and get her breakfast.

8:30 A.M. Breakfast gotten, her bed is made. She tells me I can do school now. I lay across my bed, a school book next to me. I am so tired, I can barely keep my eyes open. I try to focus, try to understand what I am reading. Then I hear, “Rai!” shouted down the hallway. I pull myself off the bed, exhausted and a little dizzy. My heart is pounding, but it does that a lot. I ignore it and hurry down the hall to my mom’s room. She says, “Hand me the remote control.” I fume inside as I look down and see that the remote is 3 inches from her hand. I hand it to her and go back to my room, filled with anger. I try again to concentrate on my book, but end up falling asleep.

10:00 A.M. I wake up, spluttering. My mother has told my brother to pour water on me because I fell asleep. She then tells me if I’m not going to do my schoolwork, I need to start cleaning instead. Today’s chore will be dusting her bedroom. Every item in her bedroom must be thoroughly dusted, which will involve removing every stupid tchotchke from every single surface and running a dust rag over the items and the surfaces, and then replacing every single item in its original place. This would be horrible enough, but she is going to sit on her bed and criticize me constantly for the entire time I am working on this project that I do every single week.

11:30 A.M. It’s time to make Mom’s lunch, so I will have to go back to the dusting later. She has decided she wants a grilled cheese sandwich and a cup of tea. I make them and bring them to her. She yells at me because there are a few blackened spots on the sandwich. She makes me make it again. I have to make the tea again too because I put in too much soy milk the first time. I make it again.

12:30 P.M. Mom has laid down for a nap. I will finish dusting after she wakes up, but for now I have to do laundry. I have already washed the laundry, but I have to hang it out to dry on the clothesline. It’s towels, and it is going to take forever to hang them up. It’s so cold outside, I can see my breath. I’m not wearing shoes because I’m not allowed to wear them “just” to hang up clothes. I am freezing, my hands hurt. I’m trying to hurry as fast as I can to get back to the warm house. My hands are so cold, I struggle to pry open the clothespins. I have to open them up so they can fit over the thick towels, otherwise they’ll fall off and I’ll get screamed at. Dad refuses to buy a new dryer because, “Why do we need a new dryer when we have you?”

1:00 P.M. I lay on the couch in the living room, enjoying the quiet as I start to warm up, my hands and feet burning as they get warm again. As the burning fades, I drift off to sleep.

2:00 P.M. I wake to Mom yelling at me to get up, why am I sleeping in the middle of the day? “Get in the kitchen and start dinner! I want to eat at 4:00!”

I trudge into the kitchen. Terrified, I realize I forgot to take meat for dinner out of the freezer this morning. Mom didn’t tell me to, so I didn’t do it. I don’t know how to decide to do things myself because I am never allowed to do that. I have to do what I am told, always, no matter what.

Scared, I sheepishly creep into my mother’s bedroom. “Mom, I didn’t take anything out for dinner.”

“How can you be that stupid? You knew you were going to have to make dinner, why didn’t you take anything out?”

“You didn’t tell me to.”

“I shouldn’t have to tell you, you should know that you have to take meat out for dinner. For a smart person, you are so incompetent sometimes!”

I ask what she wants me to do. She tells me to just finish the dusting and then make spaghetti. I go to get a new dustrag, and try to take as much time as I can because I am trying with all my might not to cry. She is really mad, and I have to now spend another hour right under her nose, getting constantly criticized. I come back in the room, and I’m tearing up despite my best efforts not to. The worst possible outcome happens: she notices.

“You are such a drama queen. It’s your fault the dusting isn’t done yet, you’re taking all day on it because you’re too incompetent to even pull out meat for dinner. You see this?” she holds up her right hand, face full of contempt. She rubs her forefinger against her thumb and says, “This is the world’s smallest violin, playing for you. Stop crying and do what you’re told!”

I get angry. I tell her that I dust this room every week, and it’s so stupid to take every knickknack down every single week. I tell her that she never told me to take meat out, that it’s not my fault. We argue for a while, maybe 15 or 20 minutes. Finally, she says, “Get out of my sight, I don’t want to deal with your attitude anymore. Go get the towels off the line and fold them and then make dinner. Do what you’re told and don’t give me any stupid excuses.”

I go and check the towels. I decide that she can yell at me for not folding them later, because they’re still wet. Something like that is inconceivable to her. After checking the wet towels, I go into the kitchen to start dinnertime. I hate dinnertime. It’s the beginning of this agonizingly long process that can sometimes last until 2 AM. I have to wash the lunch dishes and clean the kitchen first. Then I make the dinner. Then I serve the dinner. Then I wash up from dinner all alone.

This wouldn’t be so bad if it was a normal way of doing these things. After dinner, I have to not only do the dishes and clean the surfaces, which is normal, I also have to take all the burner covers off the stove and clean them. I have to scrub the kitchen floor with a toothbrush tonight because I talked back to my mom. Then I have to make my dad’s lunch for tomorrow, which means I will be here for awhile because my dad is having a chopped salad. I am 15 years old. I don’t have very good knife skills in the kitchen yet, and a chopped salad takes forever. I also have to heat up my dad’s dinner and serve him when he gets home, and then do the dishes after. If I am very lucky, I will still have some energy left to read a little bit before I go to sleep. I ache for the moors of England, so far from this hell I am living in.

11:00 P.M. Finally everything is done, and everyone’s in bed. I read for a little while, and then fall asleep, exhausted.

3:30 A.M. I wake with a start. I heard banging on the wall. It’s my mom’s cane that she sometimes uses in the middle of the night when she’s trying to be quiet and not wake up my dad. “Rai, get up.” she whispers, “Make me some cinnamon toast and tea. I’m nauseous.”

I drag myself out of bed and do as I’m told. I’m so tired, I can’t bear to be yelled at again today. Sleep isn’t that important anyway, right?

*****

I lived like this for 3 years. I learned absolutely nothing. My mother had found a crappy charter school willing to take us that had no parent requirements. They sent a teacher once a month to our house to collect my work. The night before each of these visits, I stayed up all night long copying out of the teacher’s answer keys to produce about 5 pages of work per subject. I fell asleep and fell out of my chair on three separate teacher’s visits during these three years. I graduated from the “school” in 2003 with honors.

There is much more I could say about how long it has taken me to recover to the point that I am not completely debilitated not only by my lack of common book and logistical knowledge, but also PTSD and severe social and generalized anxiety. I am finally in college and pursuing the education that will lead to me living up to my potential, but I am 33 years old. That is 15 years I could have been already pursuing my education and career that have been stolen from me, not to mention the 3 years of schooling that were lost to my parents’ abuse and educational neglect. I think that homeschooling can be wonderful, but my experience proves that it can be absolute hell when unstable, irresponsible people aren’t held accountable for the work they say they are doing for their child’s education.

Having experienced three different types of homeschooling as well as having attended public school for the first six years of my education, I find that I am in the unique position of knowing what it’s like to be abused by one’s parents regardless of where you’re being schooled. I was bullied terribly in third grade through the entire year, and that was a nightmare in and of itself. I have no intention of downplaying bullying when I say this, as it’s a terrible, terrible thing for anyone, especially a child, to endure, but I ask you this: what if your bully was always at your elbow? What if they sat across from you at the dinner table? What if they were in complete and total control of your entire life? What if you had no one to protect you from their rages? Not just that no one will stand against them, but that there is literally no one to stand up for you in the first place? What if that bully intended you to be their slave for life and had everything at arm’s length that they needed to try and make that a reality with very little possibility that anyone would notice or help? That’s what it’s like when you’re homeschooled by one of them.

They bully, of course, when you’re in regular school too. But there are limits to what they can do without it being noticed. Also, when I was in regular school, there were 6 hours of my life 5 days a week when I could be a child. When I could laugh without fear of punishment. When I could ask questions and read without being put down for trying to be “smarter” than my mother. I was allowed and encouraged to learn by my teachers when I was in regular school. When I was homeschooled, my mother was there every moment of every day criticizing everything about me and telling me how stupid it was that I wanted to learn anything because it was all just “worthless.”

When I was in regular school, I had several adults telling me that I was smart, that I was kind, that I was capable of producing good things and of being a good person. When I was homeschooled, the main voice I had in my life was telling me that I was nothing, that I was “too stupid to do anything right,” and that I was bad just because I happened to be alive.

I don’t know that I’d take my bullying experience of third grade instead of what happened to me through homeschooling, but I will say that neither is what should be happening to any child, ever. It is my opinion that a child should be schooled in the way that’s best for their education and emotional well-being. If a kid is being tortured in school, their parents can choose to homeschool them, and I think that is wonderful. But here is the thought I leave you with: what about the kids being tortured at home? What are their options?


Rai Storm was homeschooled in California from 1996 to 2003. For additional thoughts and experiences from other homeschool alumni, see our Testimonials page.

Brittany Randolph: “As time went on, our schedule became looser and looser”

“My sister and I were fine with this at first. No school! We could spend time on the things we actually wanted to do. One thing, though, is that none of these things involved friends, at least not ones we had ever met in person.”

I was in public school up until the early 8th grade, when my dad demanded my mother take my sister and me out. It was over something I won’t go into complete detail over, but to simplify I’ll call it spiritual beliefs. I was initially very excited. When you’re that age, who wants to go to school? It is a toxic environment, with teachers that don’t respect you, an overwhelming workload, and your peers finding any little thing to make fun of you for. And at that age, I had an image of homeschooling that was pretty much all play and no work. I knew that was too good to be true, but it was fun to imagine.

Turns out, that wasn’t so far from the truth. And it wasn’t good, either.

When my mother first started homeschooling us, it wasn’t so bad. We would start at 9:00 and sit at the dining room table, and we would refer to the schedule she had written out on a whiteboard. She’d give us little lessons, then she would have us do lessons online. Some of them were below our grade level, especially for me, the older of the two. It was understandable, as she was suddenly thrown into this; you couldn’t expect it to be perfect right off the bat. But I was under the impression that this was just temporary, just something to use until she could find something for my grade level. Also, it was free, and she seemed to have no intention of spending more than the bare minimum on our education.

She didn’t seem to be in any rush to find something better suited to me, though, and she would get defensive if I mentioned it. I ended up using it for the rest of the year, and if I remember correctly, most or all of the next year, too. It should be mentioned that I was considered “gifted” in school, and was part of a special education class to keep those students stimulated and working at their level. My sister was pretty smart, too, and generally got good grades, but had areas that she did struggle in and needed special focus on.

As time went on, our schedule became looser and looser. My sister and I would ask to not do school. You can hardly blame us, we were kids who wanted to have fun. Some days our mother would still make us, but some days she would give in. As you would expect from a couple of middle school girls, we were not enthusiastic or excited about school. This made my mother lose motivation, and we started stopping school early, then going weekdays without doing school altogether. Eventually, we got to the point where we could go for two weeks with just one or two small lessons she would sit us down for.

My sister and I were fine with this at first. No school! We could spend time on the things we actually wanted to do. One thing, though, is that none of these things involved friends, at least not ones we had ever met in person.

As I moved through middle school, I started to become bitter and antisocial. All of my friends had some glaring flaw that I just could not stand. So when I was taken out of school, I made no effort to talk to any of them. To be fair, most of them made no effort to talk to me either, but the few that did didn’t get much back. I just didn’t care to talk to them; they were too annoying, or too boy-crazy, or too bitter. They were just too flawed for me. I was above them.

My sister, on the other hand, was shy, but very social. She tried to keep in touch with her friends, but her friends had just entered middle school and were trying to paint new images for themselves. They were putting a lot of effort into being cool, and were changing in ways that may not have been great, but would probably only be temporary. My mother was very unhappy with these changes, however, and would confront her friends about the new negative changes they had taken on, whether or not my sister asked her to. She eventually scared off a good deal of my sister’s closest friends, and my sister became certain that about everyone from her grade hated her. She became bitter; she did believe these kids were in the wrong, that they just cared about pointless things and that she was better than them. There were a few kids who still wanted to hang out with her, but eventually, she stopped putting in the effort. She was better than the rest of the kids her age.

I remember being pretty clearly discouraged from having friends by my mother, and when the concept of finding a homeschool co-op was brought up, she would acknowledge the thought but made little to no effort to find one. My sister did find friends online, but besides that, we were both pretty alone and cut off from the world. I had one friend who called once in a while, but that was it for a while. She did eventually start to call more often, but couldn’t have friends over, so my sister and I just sat in the house, wallowing in bitterness, hardly having anything to stimulate us.

Now, I will only make a brief mention of this, and won’t go into a lot of detail, as it is very hard for me to think about, but I went through about a year of intense mental illness, which I believe probably could have been avoided if I had something stimulating my mind. What I went through caused a lot of stress for my family, and I was not treated well. My dad was usually patient with me, but my mom guilted and screamed at me. If I remember correctly, my dad did have his moments as well, at least when it started a second time about two years later.

Because we had hardly any connections, especially with adults, abuse could go unnoticed by anyone who might have been able to stop it. I received abuse from both of my parents throughout my life, but it was most frequently from my mother. It was almost entirely emotional, so I’m not sure much would have done about it anyway. But it would have been nice to at least have people to talk to, to see if this is normal or right. My parents themselves are shy/ antisocial, so they don’t really keep any friends, meaning there wasn’t really anyone to catch or criticize their choices and behavior.

I eventually started to figure out how wrong their treatment of us was, and I started to speak up. It was not accepted well, but I knew I had to at least try to make a change. I hope to gain back the bravery I had during those days. I was treated poorly, and a lot of the time met with defensiveness. It took some time, but I was eventually able to at least get my sister to listen to me, and she started to realize how wrong so much of our childhood was. At first, she just stayed quiet and took their blows, but slowly started speaking up. These days she’s much bolder than I am.

Things did start to get a little bit better after about a year of nearly nothing education-wise. My sister and I eventually met a family who attended a local homeschool co-op and invited us to join, and our parents let us attend. Though I had a very hard time interacting with the others, it was still beneficial to have some kind of socialization. School became slightly more organized by the time I graduated but was still extremely lackluster. As of right now, my sister insists on directing her own education, where she can escape my mother’s blaming and mocking for the things she struggles with. She has more resources than we ever had in previous years, and she’s using things closer to her grade level, desperately hoping to catch up.

As for me, I started working my first and current job a few months after graduating, and have been putting off starting college, as my parents talked frequently how they believed college was usually a waste of time and money. I believed this for most of my life and didn’t think I’d go, and by the time I decided I needed to go in order to pursue the things I wanted to do, I was almost graduated and was clueless about how to prep for it, with no one I felt comfortable having an open conversation about it. I am also trying to work on finding myself after being made to repress my personality and interests for so long. I’m trying to figure out how life and society functions, and I’m trying to build connections and make friends. I have a very difficult time opening up and making close friendships, but I’ve made a lot of progress. I’ve also moved out of my parents’ house which has been very healing.

I was homeschooled in West Virginia, which definitely has better oversight than some other states, but I still believe it needs to be improved. My mother submitted portfolios with our elementary/ middle school-level work, and we always passed just fine. There needs to be a way to verify that the child is working at their ability level, and it must be seen that there is progress being made. There also needs to be a way to check on students to make sure that they are not being abused and have everything they need, physically, mentally, emotionally, educationally, and spiritually.


Brittany Randolph was homeschooled in West Virginia from 2012 to 2017. For additional thoughts and experiences from other homeschool alumni, see our Testimonials page.