Child ‘torture’ case spotlights home schooling oversight

The case comes four months after the 13 children of David Allen Turpin and Louise Ann Turpin were found bound, shackled and malnourished at their Perris, California, home in January after one of the children managed to escape and tell authorities that her 12 siblings were being held by their parents.

And it follows the deadly crash in March in which a car believed to be carrying the eight members of the Hart family plunged off a California cliff. Police said Jennifer Hart, who had faced child abuse allegations in three states, was drunk when she pulled off the coastal highway and intentionally drove the GMC Yukon with her wife and six children off the cliff.

The children in all three cases had been taught at home by their parents.

Child ‘torture’ case spotlights home schooling oversight
Child ‘torture’ case spotlights home schooling oversight

About 1.7 million children ages 5 to 17 were estimated to be home-schooled in the U.S. in 2016, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, and for the vast majority, nothing goes wrong. But child safety advocates say the absence of regulations around home schooling enables a small but alarming number of parents to abuse their children and avoid detection. Children who are taught at home have less contact with mandatory child abuse reporters like teachers and school nurses, advocates note.

“This isn’t new — this is the unfortunate consequence of lack of oversight for home schooling,” said Rachel Coleman, executive director of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, which advocates safe learning environments for home-schooled children.

Home schooling laws vary by state. In California, parents who want to home-school their children can either register with the state as a private school, or they can join an “umbrella school” or charter school, which does not require them to submit their information to the state’s database, Coleman said. Some of these umbrella schools have a physical address and offer group activities, while others exist only on paper. Either way, they give parents the ability to educate their children at home without notifying the state.

“They don’t want their address or their names on any lists, so by enrolling in an umbrella school you just enroll, sometimes online, pay the annual fee and that’s it,” said Coleman, who was home-schooled from kindergarten through high school in Indiana.

Efforts to add more oversight in California have faltered after meeting fierce opposition from parents who home school and say such regulations would interfere with their ability to educate their children as they see fit.

Fourteen states have regulations similar to California’s, while others require no notification at all for parents to home-school their children. And only about half of states require home-schooled students to take assessment tests to ensure they’re learning, according to the Coalition for Responsible Home Education.

Coleman said that while the recent California cases have received a lot of attention, her organization has charted dozens of similar incidents in the state in the past five years.

The California State Department of Education told NBC News that Rogers and Allen had not registered their home as a private school. It remains unclear if they were home-schooling their children within the state’s regulations.

The children were never enrolled in the Fairfield-Suisun Unified School District, said Tim Goree, the district’s executive director of administrative services and community engagement.

“Until this case broke and we heard about it from the police, we have never had any contact with any of the children,” he said.

Goree said it was possible the family had legally home-schooled their children “without ever checking in with a local school district” if they were enrolled in an umbrella school.

“We wish we could have known and done something, but we had no idea,” he said.

The state Department of Education said in a statement that it does not oversee how families choose to home-school their children.

“We are sickened by this tragedy and encourage everyone to report incidents of suspected child abuse,” the department said. “However, under current California law, private and home schools must register with the state, but the California Department of Education does not approve, monitor, inspect, or oversee them. We will gladly work with legislators to consider ways to change the law.”

Rogers said child protection officials visited their home several years ago and interviewed the children, but nothing came of it. The agencies that would be responsible for those types of visits, California’s Child Welfare Policy and Program Development Bureau and Child Welfare Services in Solano County, where Fairfield is, did not immediately return requests for comment.

Image: Jonathan Allen and his wife, Ina Rogers.
Jonathan Allen and his wife, Ina Rogers.Solano County Sheriff’s Office via AP

Rogers told reporters this week that she chose to home-school her children after initially enrolling one of her sons and a daughter in a school and being concerned they weren’t getting enough attention. She also said that her daughter had been bullied. She did not name the school or comment on how she and Allen home-schooled their children.

In the Turpin case, the family registered with the state to home-school their children, which should have prompted a mandatory inspection by the local fire department. But that never took place. A spokesman for the city said the state failed to notify it that the Turpins were operating a school out of their home.

Image: David Turpin and Louise Turpin appear in court for their arraignment in Riverside
David Turpin, second right, and Louise Turpin, second left, appear in court for their arraignment in Riverside, California on Jan. 18.Frederic J. Brown / Pool via Reuters

Christopher Lubienski, a professor of education policy at Indiana University who has written about home schooling, said that while these cases were “obviously unusual and pretty sensational,” the lack of oversight nationally means that no one knows “how many kids are being not just physically neglected but also educationally underserved.”

A report from Connecticut’s Office of the Child Advocate in April found that 36 percent of home-schooled children lived in families that had been subject to at least one prior report of suspected abuse or neglect from the state’s Department of Children and Families. The report covered children withdrawn from six school districts from 2013 to 2016.

That report, which was prompted by the death of a home-schooled teenager who had been abused, also found that none of the six districts had protocols to follow up with such families.

“There is no real mechanism to check in on a child simply because they are removed from school to be home-schooled after a troubled past,” Coleman said.

In the case of the Harts, whose six children were adopted, authorities in Oregon, Washington and Minnesota all received reports of child welfare concerns before the deadly crash, according to NBC affiliate KGW.

Jennifer and Sarah Hart pose with their six adopted children in 2016. All six of the children and their parents were believed to be in a vehicle that plunged off a coastal cliff.
Jennifer and Sarah Hart pose with their six adopted children in 2016. All six of the children and their parents were believed to be in a vehicle that plunged off a coastal cliff.Tristan Fortsch / KATU News via AP

While living in Minnesota in 2011, Sarah Hart pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor domestic assault charge in connection to one of her daughters, court records show. After that case was resolved, the Harts removed all six children from public schools, according to The Oregonian. The family reportedly did not register their children to be home-schooled in Oregon.

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