In the wake of the tragic murders of two Michigan children whose mother tortured them before stuffing them into the family’s freezer, lawmakers are calling for more stringent regulation of homeschooling in the state.
The proposed legislation from state Rep. Stephanie Chang, a Detroit Democrat, would require homeschooled children to be inspected twice per year by a licensed social worker or law enforcement officer. The bill would also require homeschooling parents to register their children — like dogs or sex offenders — with the superintendent of the school district in which they reside. Michigan is one of eleven states that do not require homeschooling parents to report to state or local authorities.
Chang cited the case of Stoni Ann Blair and Stephen Gage Berry as a reason for planning the legislation. Investigators believe Stephen was 9 when he died in August 2012 and that Stoni was 13 when she died the following May. Their mother, who is accused of torturing and killing them and then stuffing their bodies in the freezer, had said she homeschooled them.
“We all failed Stoni and Stephen because Michigan does not maintain a list of homeschooled children and so we have no way to identify and then protect any child who could be at risk for abuse,” Chang said. “Most homeschool parents have their child’s best interest in mind, and many do a fine job homeschooling, but with Stephen and Stoni, that wasn’t the case.”
Every few years legislation like this pops up as a knee-jerk reaction to some terrible tragedy that was inflicted upon children who were allegedly homeschooled. The most recent was in Ohio in 2013, when Democratic state Senator Capri Cafaro introduced Teddy’s Law in reaction to the very tragic death of Teddy Foltz-Tedesco in January 2013. The law (which was quickly withdrawn after an outpouring of state and national opposition) would have required homeschoolers to pass background checks and have their children inspected by authorities before being allowed to educate them at home. Teddy was killed by his mother’s boyfriend after he was withdrawn from school because officials there suspected abuse. Relatives and neighbors say they reported the abuse to the children services board on repeated occasions but were rebuffed.
That’s a common thread in most of these tragic stories. In nearly every case — almost without exception — the family had a history of contact with child welfare officials because of allegations of abuse. And in almost every case — almost without exception — the authorities dropped the ball. In the case of the children in Detroit, the state had investigated allegations of abuse in 2002 and 2005 and the mother was referred for counseling. In the Ohio case, family members called authorities multiple times but nothing was done. They said they were accused of lying.
It’s absurd to think that a mother who tortured her children with scalding hot water and a searing hot curling iron before murdering them and stuffing them into the freezer — all while committing welfare fraud — is going to file a pile of paperwork that would trigger an inspection of her children — the children she has stored in the freezer. People who commit diabolical crimes against children will just go further underground if such a law is enacted — they’ll move to a different school district and pretend they don’t have any children, they’ll ignore the regulations, or worse, they’ll go off the grid completely, compounding the danger to the children.
It’s not the sick, twisted individuals like Stoni and Stephen’s mother who will be caught up in the state’s dragnet. Instead, it’s law-abiding parents who are exercising their constitutional right to home educate their children — and doing an admirable job of it — who will be harmed by these intrusive regulations. In addition to the creepy registry, they’ll be forced to live under a presumption of guilt and will be required to “prove” twice per year to some (allegedly qualified) government official that they are not abusing their children.
I wrote this in response to the proposed Ohio law in 2013:
The logic — if you can call it that — behind this law seems to be that parents cannot be trusted with their own children. Unless they are under the watchful eye of state officials, children face great peril and so there must be new laws enacted in order to mitigate the risk. This ignores the fact, of course, that children from birth to age six are the most likely to die from child abuse — they account for 76% of fatalities. Will the next step be to subject all parents to interrogations by social workers from birth until the time they enroll their children in the safe bubble of the public school? And why stop there? After all, many children are abused at home and become experts at hiding and excusing the bumps and bruises. Shouldn’t we hire armies of government agents to keep an eye on what’s going on in the home after school? Not only that, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, violent victimization rates at school were 34 per 1,000 students ages 12–14 and 14 per 1,000 students ages 15–18. Shouldn’t the government just require semi-annual interrogations of all students to solve the school violence problem? You can see the absurdity of this logic.
Not only that, but if the proposed legislation in Michigan becomes law, an estimated 50,000 children will be added to the caseloads of already overburdened social workers, law enforcement officers, and truant officers who will be tasked with tracking these newly “registered” children in much the same way they monitor parolees and sex offenders, requiring them to periodically report their whereabouts and show up for meetings and inspections. Instead of spending scarce resources on known cases of child abuse and neglect, they’ll be forced to cast a wide net over thousands of law-abiding families without probable cause — or any cause — to suspect there’s abuse in those homes.
The courts have ruled that parents have the right to direct the upbringing and education of their children. In any system where citizens are allowed to exercise their liberties and their rights are protected there will always be those who abuse those freedoms, occasionally with tragic consequences. We don’t solve the murder problem by putting body cameras on all gun owners — just to keep some from murdering. We don’t solve the problem of thievery by frisking everyone who exits a store — just in case someone has pocketed an eyeliner or a package of batteries. In the same way, we don’t surveil all homeschooling families — treating them like de facto criminals and subjecting their children to intrusive “registries” and inspections — just so we can net a handful of bad actors.