Over the years, pediatricians and others in North Carolina have worried about children supposedly being educated at home who end up missing, dead or abused.
The latest case: An 11-year-old Union County boy found handcuffed to his front porch with a dead chicken tied to his neck. Wanda Sue Larson, who had custody of the boy and four adopted children living in the home, had filed last year to home-school the children. Larson has been charged with child abuse, and investigators say they found signs the boy was frequently handcuffed inside.
Home schooling is booming in North Carolina. The number of registered home schools has doubled in the past decade to 53,347. Mecklenburg County alone has more than 4,000 registered schools serving an estimated 6,573 children.
In North Carolina, like most states, those children can disappear from outside scrutiny. Home schools are never inspected; federal courts have ruled that sending government workers into homes violates the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure.
Keeping records of attendance, immunization and testing is required by N.C. law but voluntary in practice. Once a year, home educators are invited to a meeting in their region where they can show those records to state officials, who make no copies. About three-quarters of the parents, including Larson, choose not to participate, state officials say.
“Most children who are home-schooled are safe, with very good parents,” says Dr. Preeti Matkins, a pediatrician with Levine Children’s Hospital and Charlotte’s Teen Health Connection. She’s a member of the N.C. Pediatric Society’s Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect, which has delved into concerns about home schooling.
The Charlotte area alone has at least a dozen home-school groups, where parents meet to support each other and provide proms, sports, field trips and community service projects for their children.
The fear is focused on the people who use the cloak of privacy afforded by home schooling to hide mistreatment. In a recent report, the Pediatric Society dubbed the victims “invisible children.”
Robert McCarter, managing attorney for the Council for Children’s Rights in Charlotte, says there’s no reason to think that home schooling encourages abuse, but notes that abusers can use it as a cover: “The people who are going to be abusive to children don’t want to do it in public. If they are sending a child out to school every day, and he has a black eye or a chain mark on his wrist, people are going to notice.”
When 10-year-old Zahra Baker’s parents reported her missing from their Hickory home in 2010, they told investigators they’d been home schooling her for fifth grade. The state has no record that they ever registered a home school, and Zahra’s remains were later found scattered around Caldwell County. Her stepmother eventually pleaded guilty to her killing, but authorities still don’t know when and how she died.
The adoptive mother of Erica Parsons, who is missing and suspected to be dead, registered a home school in Salisbury in 2005, when Erica was 7 years old. The mother never produced any follow-up records, the state says, and Erica’s educational path after that is unclear. She attended North Rowan Elementary half of her second-grade year, withdrawing in January 2006, and attended third grade at Mount Pleasant Elementary School in Cabarrus County in 2007-08, school records show. Her older brother reported her missing in July 2013, but no one has been able to verify where she has been since 2011, when she was 13.
“As you get a broader movement, you end up with the fringe people – the people who take advantage,” says Paul English, director of the Charlotte Home Educators Association.
“It’s a very troubling situation,” says Spencer Mason of Charlotte, a North Carolinians for Home Education board member who worked with the pediatricians to study concerns about home-school abuse.
Mason and other leaders have been working for the last couple of years to educate home-school parents about signs of abuse and encourage them to report any suspicions, even if it means turning in another home-school family. While some abusers may avoid interaction with other families, Mason said there’s also a risk when well-meaning parents adopt tactics that include corporal punishment and extreme behavioral modification.
“There have been instances of parents who were sold a bill of goods and used a terrible technique that really was abuse,” said Mason, who has warned other parents about books that promote abusive methods.
Home-school advocates in North Carolina and across the country say government intervention is not the way to protect kids. Not only are mandatory home inspections unconstitutional, advocates say, but they are unlikely to be effective in detecting problems.
In North Carolina, inspections would also be impractical without beefing up staff. The state currently has four full-time employees and one part-timer in charge of overseeing not only home schools, but almost 700 private schools teaching some 96,000 students.
Public-school employees face background checks, and the pediatric society’s report notes that “the public school system has long offered a safety net for children, a place where children may notice bruises, where peers may offer support, and where counselors can provide a safe haven for revealing trauma that might be occurring at home.”
Home-education advocates note that parental abuse can escape notice even when children go to school, that teachers in public and private schools have been caught abusing children, and that the majority of child deaths caused by parents happen before children reach school age.
“I think the challenge is if you’re going to do (background checks or home inspections) for home-schoolers, you should probably do that for every parent,” said Mason, whose four grown children were home-schooled.
Who’s in charge?
North Carolina legalized home-schooling in 1985, after a father who was prosecuted for violating compulsory attendance laws went to court and won a state Supreme Court ruling.
Early proposals for home-school regulation spelled out academic requirements and called for home schools to be approved by local public school systems, which would review the family’s instructional program twice a year. The first bills also would have required parents to have a college degree to be approved as home instructors, according to a history written by Rod Helder, the recently retired director of the state’s Division of Non-Public Education.
As legislative wrangling ensued, “the concept of unannounced visits was proposed,” Helder writes. By summer of 1988, when a bill was finally approved, the growing number of home educators had organized. Helder quotes one of the leaders as saying “we were told that the legislators had never gotten so many calls, letters and visits on any one issue.”
The regulations that passed required only a high school diploma or GED for parent educators, took local school districts out of the equation and contained no requirement for home visits. While parents are required to administer a standardized exam of their choosing once a year, they’re not required to show that their children have met any academic standards.
North Carolina’s level of regulation is average, with 25 states requiring little or no reporting or record-keeping, according to the Home School Legal Defense Association. A handful of high-regulation states such as Massachusetts require home schools to get approval from local school districts.
Home educators generally have strong beliefs about the best way to teach their children and are wary of government interference, say several leaders of North Carolina associations. About 75 percent of the state’s home-schools are created for religious reasons, according to Helder’s report.
“We believe that parents are fundamentally responsible for their children’s education. It’s not up to the state to decide what, when and how the kids get educated,” said English, who lives in Concord. He and his wife have nine home-schooled children, including four who have graduated.
Home educators are responsible for producing their children’s transcripts and diplomas. There are no legal mandates for what students must master, but English notes that college-bound students need to take courses that will satisfy admission requirements. Those often include online learning and community college classes, he said.
For home-schooled students who don’t plan to go to college, he said parents have the freedom to help them prepare for a career.
Reporting and privacy
In the early years – when there were fewer than 1,000 home schools – state staffers made appointments to visit homes and look at attendance, immunization and testing records, said Christopher Mears, spokesman for the N.C. Department of Administration. That ended as the number of schools swelled and staffing shrunk.
Under the current system, staffers hold meetings in churches, libraries and other gathering spots around the state and invite home educators to bring in their records. Each region gets a visit once a year. The state doesn’t keep copies of any records, but it does log when a parent attends. There’s no penalty for declining to participate, and Mears said only 20 to 25 percent of home educators show up.
Kevin McClain of Kernersville, president of North Carolinians for Home Education, said his group encourages members to produce records. But he added that there’s strong resistance when officials talk about coming to homes.
Earlier this year, when David Mills was hired to replace Helder as head of Department of Non-Public Education, he talked about reviving some voluntary visits. Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, whose own children are home-schooled, responded with a press release calling the practice “intrusive and unnecessary.” Mills made it clear he wouldn’t pursue home visits. (Mills, through Mears, declined to talk for this article.)
McClain says he has no problem with the voluntary home visits, but he realizes others disagree. “Many home-schoolers in the state are very apprehensive about state officials visiting their homes,” he said.
English, of the Charlotte Home Education Association, agrees.
“Nobody really wants the police, social workers – any kind of government workers – walking into your house to inspect anything,” he said.
In its report titled “Invisible Children,” the N.C. Pediatric Society’s child abuse committee posed a question: “Should home visits be required for all home schools?”
The report never gave a direct answer, but it did urge increased staffing for the Department of Non-Public Education and called for a discussion of better ways to “ensure appropriate monitoring and oversight.”
The doctors also called for revising the registration system, which lists only the name of the parent, to include the names and dates of birth for home-schooled children. “It’s possible for a child to be abused or missing without anyone being aware of it,” said Matkins, the Charlotte pediatrician who serves on the pediatric society’s abuse committee.
The pediatricians also called for creating a system for people to anonymously report concerns about home-school situations, even if it’s not clear that the situation involves child abuse.
McClain, president of the state home-school association, said each report of abuse in a home-school is “devastating to us.”
“We are really struggling with how we can partner with other groups to draw a clear distinction: Who’s really educating in the home and who’s using that label as a cover,” he said. “There has to be some way to make this important distinction.”
Staff writer Michael Gordon contributed.
Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter: @anndosshelms