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For some, home schooling is not about learning. It’s about hiding child abuse.

Colorado's lax oversight for home-schooled children removes one common method of spotting abusive behavior

Amanda Jolliff, Sarah Berry, Jon Phillips, Vanessa Hall, David Hall. (Provided by law enforcement)
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When an ambulance carried a blind, autistic boy from the Longmont home where his parents held him a virtual prisoner and nearly starved him for years, neighbors told reporters they couldn’t imagine how such abuse could have gone undetected for so long.

Years earlier in Lakewood, as a little-boy face grinned from television screens and newspaper pages, it seemed incomprehensible that the 7-year-old could have been starved to death over many weeks in a locked linen closet, and no one knew it was happening.

The same questions arose in January, in California. This time, 13 children ages 2 to 29 had been held captive, sometimes in chains, and rarely fed.

As details trickled out of the horrors that had unfolded inside the Turpin home, the nation asked: “How could this have gone on so long?”

The settings, the facts and circumstances are different. But the cases have one common denominator: the parents or caregivers accused of unthinkable abuse had removed the children from school, claiming they planned to home school them.

The vast majority of parents home schooling nearly 2  million children in the United States do it with good intentions and good results.

But for a small minority, home schooling is not about learning, but rather an easy — and unchallenged — means to hide abuse.

Jeremy Costley

“There are families who use home schooling as a guise to essentially get them off the grid,” said Dr. Barbara L. Knox, a pediatrician and professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine who specializes in child abuse.

Staying off the grid was a lifestyle for Jeremy Costley, a leader in the so-called sovereign movement, which rejects the authority of the U.S. government.

Costley lived in a ramshackle shack in remote Costilla County, where the family, including several children, were largely isolated. In May, Costley was arrested on multiple charges of repeated child sexual abuse. His trial is set for December.

In Colorado, as most states, home-schooling families can expect little, if any, oversight. Colorado requires that parents notify a school district — any district, not necessarily the one they live in — of their intent to home school. Home-schooling parents must provide 172 days of instruction annually, and specific subjects must be taught.

Parents also must periodically administer an approved standardized test and submit the results.

 What Colorado law doesn’t do is provide any uniform means for enforcing those rules — or for ensuring the safety of children who are home schooled.

  “If there were going to be any oversight, it would fall to the individual districts,” said Bill Kottenstette, executive director or Schools of Choice for the Colorado Department of Education.

If a school district has concerns about a child’s education, it can request a review of the parent’s records, he said.

Asked what the next step would be if records showed those concerns are well-founded, Kottenstette said: “That’s a good question.”

At Denver Public Schools, which as of Aug. 1 was responsible for 359 registered home-schooled students, officials said they could find no record that the district has ever initiated a follow-up of a child removed from school to assure that instruction was occurring, or to verify a child’s safety.

District officials also said they were not aware of any instance when steps were taken to force a family to re-enroll a child as a result of concerns about the level of instruction or safety in the home.

For most kids who are abused the maltreatment starts early in life, said Dr. Desmond Runyan, who retired last month  as executive director of the Kempe Center, a nationally recognized leader — based at the University of Colorado — in the study and treatment of child abuse.

“But as kids get older, preschool teachers and teachers do a lot of the reporting” of suspected abuse, he said. “Home schooling is one way of keeping kids out of the public eye.”

In a 2014 study published in the Journal of Child & Adolescent Trauma, Knox seemed to confirm that. Examining cases of severe and fatal child abuse, Knox found that 47 percent of the young victims had been removed from school to be home schooled.

“This ‘home schooling’ appears to have been designed to further isolate the child and typically occurred after closure of a previously opened [Child Protective Services] case. Review of these cases found no true educational efforts were provided . . . ” Knox wrote.

To protect children, Knox said, “If there is an open child protective services case and that child is disenrolled, it should be mandated that somebody has to get into that house and see that kid.”

  Becky Miller Updike, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Children’s Law Center, said schools and county human services should “have a duty to follow up” when a child who has been the subject of an abuse or neglect investigation is then removed from school.

Both Knox and Runyan said states should require background checks on adults providing in-home education — 48 states including Colorado do not.

“We don’t let people convicted of domestic violence get a gun, why would we let abusers home school children?” Runyan said.

Nationwide, Colorado lies somewhere in the middle in terms of state regulation of home schooling, said Micah Ann Wixom, policy analyst with the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. “But generally I think Colorado tends to be on the hands-off side.”

Wixom said she was not aware of other states that don’t require parents to notify their district of residence of their intent to home school. Colorado used to require local notification; in 2000 lawmakers changed the law to allow notification to any district in the state.

  Across the country, attempts to increase oversight of families who home school have met with vigorous, well-organized — and usually successful — opposition.

  Last spring, California lawmakers reacted to the Turpin case with proposals to, among other things, require health and safety inspections of homes where home schooling occurs.

But proposals outraged home-schooling advocates and families. Hundreds of them, many alerted by national advocacy groups, descended on California’s capital to protest the bills.

Ultimately no legislation passed.  Similar efforts in Michigan and Wisconsin, triggered by cases of children killed by parents claiming to be home schooling them, met with similar fates.

  Child advocates say they aren’t aware of any efforts to strengthen Colorado’s legal oversight of home schooling. Neither the chairman of the state Senate education committee, Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, or his House counterpart, Rep. Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood, responded to several requests for comment.

  James Mason, attorney for the Home School Legal Defense Association, likened imposing additional scrutiny on families who home school because of isolated cases of abuse to treating all people from the Middle East with suspicion because a few commit acts of terrorism.

“To create suspicion of an entire class of people because of the action of a very few is horrible,” said Mason, whose organization represents some 80,000 member families nationwide, including 2,100 in Colorado. “Horrific cases create horrible law.”

Mason said the California provision requiring a home-schooled child to have contact with an adult, such as a teacher, physician or other professional who is required by law to report child abuse, could be damaging. “It would open more kids to harm; subject hundreds of thousands of additional people to harm,” by subjecting parents and children to outsiders’ scrutiny.

Runyan disagreed. “I can’t imagine how that could be damaging.”

It apparently created no suspicion in 2008 when Amanda Jolliff removed her developmentally delayed son from his Erie school, claiming she intended to home school him.

On a chilly October night three years later, the 14-year-old boy was found shivering, scared and emaciated under the crawl space of a neighbor’s home. He said he had escaped the dark, fetid room where his mother often confined him behind a padlocked door, forcing him to urinate in bottles, rarely feeding him, and never educating him.

Amanda Jolliff

Jolliff eventually was sentenced to three years in prison. Former Weld County Assistant District Attorney Hollie Wilkinson, who prosecuted the case, confirmed that there was no evidence Jolliff provided any education to her son.

At the time, St. Vrain Valley School District officials said privacy laws prevented them from commenting. They also said students often leave school, and those departures rarely trigger a follow up.

Asked about current home schooling procedures, St. Vrain officials referred to online documents outlining rules for home schooling.

Among the provisions are steps for reviewing a child’s test scores and to potentially “require the parent to enroll the student in public or private school” if there isn’t sufficient progress. Those officials did not respond when asked if the district had ever taken such steps.

Vanessa and David Hall

 In 2017, David and Vanessa Hall, the parents of the 16-year-old Longmont boy — whose doctors said was suffering kidney failure and resembled a concentration camp inmate when he arrived at the hospital — were sentenced to 10 years in prison.

When 7-year-old Chandler Grafner starved to death in 2007, Denver and Jefferson county human services departments, which had both investigated allegations of abuse, reviewed their policies.

Neither those cases, nor several others in Colorado, have resulted in changes to the state’s oversight of home schooling. To Updike, of the children’s law center, that makes little sense.

“Home schooling should be a viable option when done well,” she said. “But we have a duty to make sure kids are safe whether they are in public school or in a home.”

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