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Op-Ed

The Turpin child abuse story fits a widespread and disturbing homeschooling pattern

After 13 children were found emaciated and imprisoned in their Perris home on Sunday, the gruesome Turpin family story made international headlines — no doubt in part because it seemed so extreme, so unusual. But it fits a pattern of abuse cases involving homeschooled children. As homeschool graduates, we know homeschooling can provide a child-centered, positive education. We also know that it can fail children completely, with gut-wrenching results.

Particularly severe abuse cases that involve school-age children also tend to involve homeschooling. In a 2014 study of child torture, Barbara Knox, a pediatrician at the University of Wisconsin, found that 47% of school-age victims had been withdrawn from school for homeschooling and an additional 29% had never been enrolled.

We keep a database of homeschool abuse cases and have found disturbing details repeated over and over. More than 40% of severe and fatal cases involve some form of imprisonment. The Turpin children were found chained to their beds. So was Calista Springer, a 13-year-old Michigan girl who died in a house fire in 2009 when she was unable to free herself. Christian Choate of Indiana was kept naked in a cage; he died in 2009, at age 13, but his death was not discovered until two years later. In Arizona, a 14-year-old girl was locked in a bedroom for more than a year and routinely raped by her father; she escaped by kicking down the door when the rest of the family was away and running two miles across town to the home of a friend from when she attended school.

In Ohio, a couple forced their 11 adopted special needs children to sleep in cages. As with the Turpins, those parents told investigators they believed they had done nothing wrong. Two sisters in Florida were locked in makeshift cages and whipped with leather straps. In nearby Georgia, Mitch Comer spent four years locked in a bedroom in his family’s home. When he turned 18, his parents put him on a bus to Los Angeles with pamphlets for homeless shelters.

How could such things happen?

Few states oblige homeschooled children to have contact with mandatory reporters — professionals legally required to document cases of suspected child abuse or neglect. California is one of 15 states that asks homeschool parents to register with the state. It’s a quick bureaucratic process that involves simple paperwork. Eleven states don’t require documentation at all. This laissez-faire attitude is a gift to abusive parents, who can isolate their children and keep their abuse — like their children — hidden away for years.

Comer, like the Turpin children, was malnourished. The police who picked him up in California assumed he was around 12 because his growth was so stunted. More than 45% of the cases in our database involve some form of food deprivation. In Illinois, 6-year-old Liam Roberts was systematically starved by his parents; he weighed 17 pounds when he died. Natalie Finn died of starvation-induced cardiac arrest in Iowa. Minnet Bowman died of starvation in Maryland.

Starvation deaths are almost nonexistent among children enrolled in school, where teachers or administrators may notice a student’s hunger and children have access to food. To fully control what their children eat, parents have to remove their children from school. Raijon Daniels’ mother, for instance, withdrew the 8-year-old from school after officials became suspicious of her request that they stop feeding him. Police found him unresponsive in his bedroom, where his mother had kept him locked up on a “special” diet.

States require children who attend school to have contact with medical professionals — for vaccines or hearing and vision checks. Homeschooled kids are exempt. And there is no PE teacher to notice when a child is faint, no nurse to notice that a child is underweight.

Seven of the 13 Turpin children were adults when they were discovered. Their story is reminiscent of Robert “Papa Pilgrim” Hale, who isolated his 15 children, ages 2 to 30, in the wilderness of Alaska. Hale’s abuse came to light when several of his older daughters made a run for it.

Adults who grow up in these situations are virtually helpless. They may not have driver’s licenses or any form of identification. They may not have any educational records, much less a high school diploma or transcript. They may not have a single friend outside the family to take them in.

The Turpin children were so socially isolated that when a neighbor spoke to them outside of their home two years ago, the children were startled and seemed scared. They were so malnourished that the oldest child, age 29, has the body of an underdeveloped 15-year-old. And all of this happened while the family was in compliance with California’s homeschool laws.

Homeschool parents do not need to submit academic assessments or show evidence that they are educating their children. There is no process to ensure that their children are involved in the community, nothing to ensure that they have contact with anyone at all.

The solution is relatively easy: Force contact with mandatory reporters. States could require annual assessments by a certified teacher and annual doctor’s visits, creating at least two opportunities for a trained professional to recognize abuse.

Abuse in homeschool settings is all too common, even if it doesn’t always make international headlines. For families like the Turpins, mandatory reporter contact could mean the difference between death and rescue.

Rachel Coleman is executive director of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education. Kathryn Brightbill is CRHE’s legislative policy analyst.

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