Savannah Leckie’s Death Implicates Missouri’s Lax Homeschool Oversight

For Immediate Release: The death of a Missouri teen raises questions about the lack of protections for homeschooled children in the state

Canton, Ma., 08/29/2017—Earlier this month, the ashes of sixteen-year-old Savannah Leckie’s body were found concealed on a farm in a rural area of Missouri. Authorities believe Rebecca Ruud, Leckie’s birth mother, dissolved her body in lye before burning it. “Savannah is at least the third sixteen-year-old girl to die of child abuse in a homeschool setting in the past twelve months,” said Rachel Coleman, executive director of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education (CRHE), a national nonprofit organization founded by homeschool graduates that advocates for homeschooled children. “It is long past time for state legislatures to protect vulnerable children like Savannah.”

CRHE runs a database that tracks deaths like Savannah’s. “Our goal is to identify themes that will help us prevent these tragedies before they happen,” said Coleman. “Many of the themes we have identified, including adoption, disabilities, and rehoming, were present in Savannah’s situation.” While many parents use homeschooling to provide children with an individualized education in a nurturing home environment, a growing number of severe and fatal child abuse cases in homeschool settings have led lawmakers in several states, including neighboring Iowa and Kentucky, to propose protections for at-risk children being homeschooled.

Savannah was adopted at birth by Sandra Montague (Leckie) and David Leckie of Minnesota, who are now divorced. In August, 2016, after conflict in the home, Savannah was sent to Missouri to live with her birth mother, Rebecca Ruud. “We see ‘rehoming’ in multiple cases in our database,” said Coleman. “When children are not enrolled in school, it is easier for them to be passed from home to home, often without the safeguards you would see in a formal adoption.” 27% of the cases in CRHE’s database involve adoption, suggesting a higher rate of child abuse among adoptive families who homeschool than among adoptive families overall.

Like Natalie Finn of West Des Moines, Iowa, and Sabrina Ray of Perry, Iowa, homeschooled teens who died of starvation and abuse in separate cases in October, 2016, and May, 2017, Savannah had special needs. Deaf and disabled children are particularly vulnerable to abuse, neglect, and homicide, and are victimized at much higher rates than able-bodied children. Disabled children need accommodations and accessible devices to ensure access to their community and education. These needs are not always met, and abusers may purposely deny accommodations to Deaf and disabled children to further isolate and victimize them.

Savannah died in Missouri, a state that does not require homeschooling parents to have contact with state or local homeschool organizations. There is no list of homeschooled students and no followup to ensure that children are being educated and have access to a support network. “Missouri has one of the laxest homeschooling laws in the country,” said Coleman. “It’s not surprising that Savannah fell through the cracks. The bigger question is, how many kids like Savannah are still out there?”

The Coalition for Responsible Home Education is a national organization founded by homeschool alumni and dedicated to raising awareness of the need for homeschooling reform, providing public policy guidance, and advocating for responsible home education practices.

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