Thursday, May 31, 2007

Public Schools Reporting Homeschoolers to DCF in Connecticut

For months in Connecticut we homeschoolers have heard buzz about some horror stories about public schools making immediate reports to DCF for "educational neglect" the minute that a parent informs the school that the child is being dis-enrolled in order to start homeschooling. There have been private emails circulating and face to face discussions between homeschooling families.

I had not blogged about this previously as I felt I was treading on dangerous water to be the one to break this news on the Internet and blogosphere. I “didn’t want to go there”.

I am happy to see that today Judy Aron has bravely published a blog post outlining this problem on her blog Consent of the Governed. Included in her post is a link to a newspaper article written by Jennifer Abel, which was published today in the Hartford Advocate: Teach The Children Well: Homeschooling Parents Claim The Department Of Children And Families Is Threatening To Take Custody Of Their Kids on this very topic.

So now that the news is out there in newspaper article form and on Judy’s blog I will chime in on this topic.

If you are a Connecticut homeschooler I beg you to read Judy’s blog post and the newspaper article, here is the link once again.

I have met some homeschooling families whose children were formerly in public school but who were withdrawn after having various problems at school. Without disclosing a lot of details I will share that in both cases the children’s safety was at stake and was violated by other students. I have spoken to these mothers face to face and these are real stories, real people and real children. My stomach actually got sick hearing some of the stories, of how children were suffering with mental angst from bad things happening at school and how once the leap to homeschool was decided upon (which was not an easy decision to make as they were formerly happy with the notion of having their children educated in a school)--then they then faced the battle to defend themselves to DCF. Can you imagine both adjusting to a new homeschooling lifestyle as well as having to defend yourself about false allegations to state officials? Talk about a stressful situation.

It makes no logical sense to report a family to DCF for "educational neglect" the second that the family tells the school that they will homeschool them instead. The homeschooling has not even begun so how can a family be accused of educational neglect? Especially since homeschooling is clearly legal in Connecticut, how can a school say instantly that just because a family says they are going to START homeschooling that the child is being educationally neglected?

It seems to me that the automatic referral to DCF upon withdrawal to homeschool is nothing less than an act of bullying.

Isn’t making a false report of neglect a form of harassment?

From what I understand making false claims of abuse or neglect to DCF is an illegal activity. How school staff can make "automatic" claims of neglect based simply on the submission of written intention to stop attending school and to start homeschooling is beyond me. If you ask me that is a false claim and it is therefore illegal.

How can these schools get away with making false claims? Why is there no repercussion for making a false allegation?

Furthermore from what I understand DCF is mandated to investigate every accusation they get.

Once educational neglect has been deemed “not substantiated”, I wish some of those families would sue the schools, maybe then the schools would stop their false allegations. Do people have to sue to get something to stop happening? (I am not a sue-happy person so it surprises me that I am even suggesting a lawsuit.)

Additionally one family told me that their understanding of the current policy and process is that once a family is INVESTIGATED there is a permanent notation on their file, regardless if the claim was found to be ‘substantiated’ or ‘not substantiated’. This can then be detected during background checks such as are routinely done for things like when the parent is VOLUNTEERING to be a Brownie or Girl Scout or Cub Scout or Boy Scout Leader. Can you imagine a parent who already was a helpful volunteer being denied leadership the following year because of a mark on their background check, even if that accusation was found to be ‘not substantiated’.

From what I hear from the parents who have been through this, the situation in Connecticut has gotten so nasty that many of us (even experienced homeschoolers) are more scared than we have ever been in the past. When I began homeschooling I read the laws and guidelines and I felt I was standing on solid ground to homeschool my children in this state. I daresay I was a bit fluffed up about my right to homeschool and may even have been a bit arrogant about it when we first began. “Just let them challenge me and try to say that homeschooling is not legal, I’ll show them!” was my attitude at one time. I have calmed way down at this point. However years later, here we are, and after so many false allegations I am nervous. In addition to continuing my membership to NHELD I recently (gasp) joined HSLDA. I used to think I had enough smarts to represent myself in juvenile court. I have since found out that when a family goes to juvenile court on the subject of educational neglect the lawyer must do the talking on behalf of the child and that the parents are not even allowed in the courtroom to listen to the proceedings! This makes no sense to me. (This was explained to me by a parent who went to juvenile court after a false DCF report for “educational neglect”.)

What is working in our favor is that we are flying under the radar a bit as my children's names don't appear in public school records. In this area if a child attends private preschool, the preschools release their students data including date of birth and home address to the public schools. (How that is legal is another mystery but it is reality.) Then the schools follow-up with the families to invite them to Kindergarten orientation and an enrollment session in the winter before the Kindergarten year would begin.

Because my children did not attend preschool of any kind the schools don't have their names. Because my children never went to any public school for elementary school, the schools don't have their names. So we are not in their records.

We are not isolated, though. We are involved in Scouts and were in community sports. Our Scout meetings used to be in the public school so my children and I would, oddly, walk into the school before school was even let out, and we'd have to walk right by the administrative offices (with their large windows) so all could see that my children were not in the school during the school day. We attend children's activities at the town library. My children and I visit town hall, the library, and the town’s post office in our town during school hours, if we have business to do in those places. Lastly we vote at the school and to avoid crowds I usually vote in the middle of the school day, with children in tow. Some of the people we know from participation in these activities are on the Board of Education or are officers in the PTA. Our next door neighbor also worked as a secretary in the school and she knew we homeschooled. So our family is known to citizens and to school workers albeit we are not on the school’s records anywhere.

Last year our family was on the front page of the town newspaper and in that it stated we homeschool. I nearly flipped when that was mentioned in the article as homeschooling was not the subject of the article. I wondered back then if anyone higher up in the school administration would take note. Maybe the fact that it was published in the summer was a saving grace?

Many times I have been tempted to write letters to the editor for the local paper about issues with the public school system or the education budget, but my husband has asked that we not draw that much attention to ourselves. He doesn’t want us to be publicly critical of our town's school system and the issues that go on in our town's schools. My husband fears retaliation by the school officials with something such as a report to DCF that we are educationally neglecting our children. As it is my friends whose children are in the schools are afraid to speak out to other town citizens or to the PTA or to write letters to the editor due to fear of being blackballed. I am told that the complainer’s children get assigned to the worst teachers or are treated not nicely by school staff or get a bad name within the community.

Here on my blog for these confidentiality reasons and for some other self-protection purposes, I don't share exactly who we are. I have not published my last name, the town I live in or my street address. I changed my email address for this blog so that my last name no longer is a part of it. I don't talk specifically about problems in my town's educational system as they could easily be traced by someone with a little research savvy or if you know of the issues in this town and could link it without further research. I don't share photos of my husband or photos of the faces of my children either. I don't use my boys first names.

To gear up just in case we ever do get investigated by DCF, I have gotten a bit more strict on how we homeschool. I am not as lax as I used to be. I stepped up to add in more coursework that the public schools are teaching even though it used to be against my personal educational philosophy to teach certain things to children of this age (grammar/parts of speech to a first grader is one thing). I have become more diligent again with record-keeping and keeping track of what we have studied. If I ever have to show someone what we've done I want it to be honest and to also blow them away. I also seriously considered starting voluntary standardized testing but ended up deciding against it in the end.

I also have been paying more attention to my housecleaning lately, specifically, to make the foyer look nice in case someone comes to the door and peeks in and can see the state of affairs.

Home Visits
One particularly scary thing to contemplate is DCF knocking on my door and asking to do a home inspection. I am not quite sure what they are looking for but I would not be willing to let them in! Would a dirty sock on the living room floor be considered a dirty environment? What about the latest meal’s dirty dishes stacked up waiting to be washed after we are done with our homeschooling lessons? What about the pile of dirty laundry on the laundry room floor that is in the process of being washed? I would fear that those things may be flagged as a problematic situation.

I have reviewed with my children that if the doorbell rings they are not to open the door nor are they to even go to the door to peek at who is outside. They are to remain where they are and to let me decide if I will answer the door or not.

I have read the recommendations of both NHELD and HSLDA about what to do if DCF comes knocking on my door. I have discussed these with my husband so we are on the same page. Together we have talked with our children about the doorbell policy.

And lastly, I hate to admit this, but I have even restricted my children’s ability to go outside and play in our yard during school hours. We don’t not go into public but I don’t let them play unsupervised outside nor do I let them go in the front yard during school hours.

You must read the newspaper article and what they said about DCF home inspections, specifically what homeschooling mother Christine Canfield has to say.

One horror story

This family’s story is a direct quote is from the Hartford Advocate article published today.


Windsor Locks resident Isabelle Hall-Gustafson begs to differ. She says she
hasn’t seen the file DCF keeps on her and her 12-year-old son David, whose
medical problems caused multiple absences.

He also had doctor’s notes,
but according to Hall-Gustafson, “The principal said there were too many
diagnoses; he wouldn’t believe them anymore. … He [said David’s] always got one
excuse or another, never the same diagnosis.’”

DCF social workers
visited Hall-Gustafson on April 9. She allowed them to enter her home and
interview the family.

“One week later, my son said, ‘I don’t feel so
good but I have to go to school so I don’t get arrested for truancy.’” That day,
“He went to the school nurse four times, said, ‘I’m in pain,’ but she sent him
back to class each time. … [At home] he went to the bathroom and … the toilet
bowl was filled with blood.”

Off to the emergency room. David missed
school because he was in the hospital, but his mother says the school reported
him truant. That led to her homeschooling David at the end of April, and now
she’s awaiting a court hearing like the one that has Christine Canfield worried
about losing custody of Jessie.


Flashback: Homeschoolers Rally to the Capitol in 2002
At the end of Judy Aron's blog post she calls homeschoolers to contact their legislators and says we may end up in Hartford doing a big rally or something. I actually hope that does happen. I will be happy to take part in it!

Back in 2002 I was one of the over 1000 people who showed up to speak at a public hearing about homeschooling when there was an attempt to make stricter rules and to increase monitoring of homeschooling by school officials. There were so many people there we were in a line hundreds of feet long to sign up to speak. We filled the room where the public hearing was an overflow rooms were opened up which showed the meeting on a television screen. All the normal overflow rooms were filled up and some other room was put into use with a portable TV. The rooms didn't have enough chairs so people sat on the floors and stood up (for hours). The halls were lined with adults and well-behaved homeschooled children. As I sat and listened to the meeting over a TV screen there were quiet children all around me. Some were playing card games quietly, some were playing board games. Some children were doing their homeschooling work without complaint and diligently, despite the distractions of that environment.

Hearing the adults speak about their own experiences and why homeschooling was fine without more government oversight was very inspirational. Hearing the questions asked by some legislators was laughable. Some homeschooled students spoke; I think the youngest was five years old. All the students were brave and eloquent. One teen of about 13 was asked by a legislator if he ever gets out of the house to go on field trips. The boy didn't flinch when he replied that after studying the region, his family took a field trip and hiked the Andes Mountains. He also spoke of his passion for flying and his desire to become a pilot and to serve in the military. He was already in training for his pilot's license and spent time with some organization related to flying (I had never even heard of that opportunity but he was doing it).

During the public hearing two or three superintendents spoke of their opinion of the need for more oversight. One said that teenaged girls were being pulled out of school to act as free babysitters for their younger siblings. The day was then followed by many testimonies by the homeschoolers. When the day ended they shut off the speakers and would not let the rest of us speak. That one day was dedicated to the hearing (and some other matters on the calendar for that day). The bill was killed in the end.

I was personally boosted up and energized by hearing all that was said that day. I have wished to have a video recording of that testimony as it was priceless.

Final Words
I do hope that Connecticut homeschoolers have another chance to appear in Hartford to defend ourselves and to hopefully stop these false allegations of "educational neglect" by school officials who are just angry that they are losing more of their students to homeschooling.

I should stop writing now, thinking about the potential home visits is motivating me to go mop the kitchen floor!

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4 comments:

Jennifer said...

My name is Jennifer Abel, and I'm the one who wrote the story in the Hartford Advocate. I have been given permission from my editor to do more stories about DCF harassment of homeschoolers. Any Connecticut homeschooling parent willing to share such a story with the media, please e-mail me at jabel@hartfordadvocate.com

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Hi, Christine,

I read Judy's blog first and then yours--which was next on my blog favorites.

It made me sick to read the story and to read about your fear.
Unfortunately, freedom must be fought for in every generation.

I live in New Mexico, a western state with a history of suspicion of government interference into personal affairs. This is probably because the Spanish speaking population here has a long memory and good reason not to trust the US government. Ditto with the Native Americans. I keep thinking, we are safe here. Homeschooling is out in the open and it is legal and unregulated.

But...you thought the same thing.

Is there anything we in other states might do to help?

Judy Aron said...

Thank you for posting this Christine.. I find this ironic that we have this situation on our hands when as we speak a homeschooler is representing CT at the Scripps Spelling Bee in Washington DC today and he is in the finals!

Will keep you posted.

ChristineMM said...

Today I received a blog comment on this post from a man alleging to be the brother of Isabelle Hall-Gustafson who slandered her. I deleted the post so as to not spread allegations on the Internet. If he is truly her brother he should take his issues up with her parenting choices directly with her.