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Homeschool uproar: Child-abuse concerns involved

By: Roger Phelps The Telegraph
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The practice of corporal punishment and the unknown extent of child abuse are behind some of the recent furor over a homeschooling court ruling. The Feb. 28 court ruling found no right is conferred by the U.S. Constitution for a non-credentialed parent to educate a child. Several local public educators said recently that absence of regulation on homeschooling isn't a good idea. The ruling came in the case of a homeschooling household that was perceived as reclusive and had a history of alleged child abuse. A string of legislators including State Sen. Dave Cox support a resolution requesting the state Supreme Court overturn the decision. Randy Thomasson, executive director of the Campaign for Children and Families non-profit, said a big point of contention between homeschool advocates and child-welfare officials is spanking. Many parents who are homeschoolers also claim the right to discipline children by physical punishment, known perhaps figuratively these days as "the rod." "Child-protective services officials say homeschooling isn't right," Thomasson said. "They are mostly concerned with spanking." However, a line must be drawn when a child is observed to have been bruised, and authorities suspect a parent, Thomasson said. "If you see bruises, that's it," he said. Court documents in the ruling suggest that the homeschooling Long family of Los Angeles County is reclusive, and allegedly is abusive. The Long case arose when Phillip Long was reported to have physically and emotionally abused one of his children. A court filing also notes that Long is said to have "recently opined that educating children outside the home exposes them to 'snitches.'" Joseph Piazza, child-welfare officer for the Folsom-Cordova Unified School District, said he handles "a handful of calls in the course of a school year" about households within the district where a non-enrolled child lives, and that a significant portion of those concern "families that are not committed to homeschooling." "There are so many people underground," Piazza said. "Their concern is to have a shield from scrutiny. You tell by the condition of the yard, whether the blinds are drawn. It looks more shut-in. Then, lack of schooling becomes secondary. Is your wanting to use a shield worth the maybe 10 percent who are being victimized? Even 3 percent comes out to a big number statewide." Piazza sees a loophole that exists in laws around private education as a card that can be played by reclusive householders. "I call at a house and say, 'Bobby is not in school,' and the first word out of their mouths is, 'Homeschool,'" Piazza said. "It's like an ally-ally-oxen-free. But if citizens want that through their legislative representatives, OK." Many homeschoolers declare their home a private school. A credential isn't required of a private-school instructor. Previous to the court ruling, Campaign for Children and Families already had been touting inexpensive legal-representation insurance for homeschool households, provided by the Home School Legal Defense Foundation. Now, the Feb. 28 court ruling makes the legal representation more valuable, according to a CCF Web site posting. "For only $115 per year, expert legal representation -- including all attorney fees, expert witnesses, transcript cost, travel expenses and all other permissible court costs -- is available for parents should they ever be harassed by a government official," the offer reads. The posting explains that "government official" refers in large part to county child-protective services agents, as well as to school-district truant officers. The inexpensive legal assistance offered has been an annoyance to public educators for years. Thomasson said, "A social worker can pound on your door, but we advise 'Never open the door to a bureaucrat.'" Piazza said current legislation is incomplete on "consequences" for disobedience. "The Legislature didn't finish the law," he said. "In order not to embarrass families, they didn't put in consequences for people who have a lifestyle of avoiding responsibility, or ducking people who want to help them." In 1992, Roger Wolfertz, an education department attorney, wrote to a school administrator's association, "Inquiries by school attendance personnel into the legitimacy of a schooling arrangement can result in a letter from a home-schooling legal defense attorney. Such a letter will inform your district that the parent is conducting a legitimate private school which meets state compulsory-education requirements. The defense association attorneys advise their clients to ignore requests to attend School Attendance Review Board meetings. Many homeschoolers contend that the law in California on homeschooling is confused and vague. Therein is the issue." The Telegraph's Roger Phelps can be reached at rogerp@goldcountrymedia.com, or post a comment at folsomtelegraph.com