Keep kids in school when abuse found

Michaela Watkins’ death from abuse in 2007 prompted a Clark County school official to call for stronger laws on home schooling.
Michaela Watkins’ death from abuse in 2007 prompted a Clark County school official to call for stronger laws on home schooling.

Responsible home schoolers don’t want to serve as a cover for child abuse. Nonetheless, Kentucky children have suffered and died after abusive parents withdrew them from school saying they would educate them at home.

▪ A teenager in Inez was beaten and imprisoned for 18 months, often chained in a bathroom, by his stepfather, starting in 1994, under the guise of home-schooling after the boy was pulled from the Martin County schools when he was 14.

▪ In 2007, Clark County’s director of pupil personnel told the Herald-Leader that Michaela Watkins’ death at the hands of her abusive father and stepmother should serve as a wake-up call to strengthen Kentucky’s home-schooling laws. The parents withdrew the child from public schools in December 2006, saying they planned to home school; by March, she was dead at age 10.

▪ In 2013, a tip from school personnel in Madison County resulted in a substantiated case of child abuse. As the Herald-Leader’s John Cheves reported last month, the father responded to the investigation by withdrawing the child from her elementary school, saying he planned to home school her. By October 2014, just shy of her ninth birthday, she was near death, having been beaten, starved and tortured. She spent two weeks in pediatric intensive care before going to a foster home. Like the above cases, the guilty adults were prosecuted and sentenced to prison.

While being in school is no guarantee of safety, Dr. Christina Howard, chief of pediatric forensic medicine at UK HealthCare, told Cheves that she worries about how easily abusive parents can pull their children from school. “It takes away eyes that were on the kid and it puts them at risk. School teachers are a great resource for us because they see things.”

In response, Sen. Ray Jones, D-Pikeville, filed Senate Bill 181, which would stop parents or guardians who have a substantiated instance of child abuse or neglect on their records from removing their children from public school without court approval. The bill is co-sponsored by Sen. Tom Buford, R-Nicholasville.

SB 181 won’t solve child abuse and neglect in Kentucky, where a quarter of children live in poverty and 8,000 are in foster care.

But it could make a big difference in some children’s lives. Certainly, its potential for saving children outweighs any negatives for responsible home schoolers, who, as we said, don’t want to serve as a cover for child abuse.

In 2013, a group of home-school alumni launched a nonprofit called the Coalition for Responsible Home Education in part out of concern that home schooling is “sometimes used to isolate children and hide child abuse.” The organization sponsors a database of children who were abused and neglected while their parents said they were being home schooled.

But Senate Republicans are wary of riling home schoolers, so Democrat Jones’ bill is not even getting a committee hearing.

Senate President Robert Stivers lashed out at the Herald-Leader on Wednesday for reporting that the bill is being blocked in this session. Stivers was correct that “there’s a lot more to that story than the school system.” He was referring to the Madison County case. We share his concern that one case worker in particular and the child-welfare agency in general failed the child terribly; these failures were well documented in Cheves’ reporting.

Gov. Matt Bevin has said he plans to appoint a “czar” to oversee reform of the child-protection system, an underfunded, understaffed bureaucracy that has remained impervious to change — no matter who is governor.

Until then, it makes sense to take this step to protect youngsters. If Stivers and Republicans want to prove their compassion for children does not end at birth, they should move this bipartisan bill.