Iowa children Timothy Boss, 10, and Natalie Finn, 16, died, while Malayia Knapp, 18, is a survivor, in cases where foster children were adopted to get state financial assistance, but parents used home schooling as a ruse to avoid reports of abuse.
More than two million U.S. children are home schooled. Iowa had 10,732, last counted in 2012-13 before the Legislature eliminated virtually all oversight over their education, triggered by influential House Republicans who wouldn’t otherwise support Gov. Terry Branstad’s educational reform package.
Since 2000, according to the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, at least 320 home-schooled children in the U.S. have been severely neglected and abused, including 116 deaths. Eighty-eight were adopted.
While it’s a small fraction of the home-schooled children, large Iowa loopholes allow some parents to try to get away with murder and abuse.
Home schooling allows parents, guardians and custodians to educate their children, as well as independent private home-school instructors, who can teach up to four unrelated children. No license, high school diploma or known ability is required; neither is a criminal background check.
Nicole Proesch, Iowa Department of Education general counsel, told the Des Moines Register parents home schooling their children, but not through a school district, are automatically in compliance with compulsory attendance laws. “If someone calls you out if your kid isn’t enrolled this year, if the parent said, ‘I’m doing (independent private instruction) this year,’ you could not file truancy on that child.”
Yet Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds’ 2016 Future Ready Iowa Summit determined Iowa faces a major challenge with 8.3 percent of public school students chronically absent in 2015-16. “In an increasingly knowledge-based economy, missing a lot of school puts students at a disadvantage that is difficult to overcome,” Branstad said.
The lack of oversight contributed, in part, to tragedies involving these home-schooled children adopted from foster care:
Timothy Boss, a special-needs child, was adopted by Lisa and Donald Boss Jr. of Remsen. School officials sought to do a year-end educational assessment in 1999-200, but were told he was living in Michigan with relatives.
The relatives never saw him. He was beaten to death and buried in the basement. The father got a life sentence for murder; the mother 50 years for attempted murder.
Natalie Finn of West Des Moines, adopted by Nicole and Joseph Finn, died from cardiac arrest in October as a result of severe malnutrition. She was enrolled in an alternative public school in 2014-15, but removed.
“Natalie was on a self-study course with her parents, and she did not need to report to school,” school officials, who suspected abuse, told state Sen. Matt McCoy, D-West Des Moines, the Register reported.
The Finns face multiple felony charges.
Malayia Knapp of Urbandale, the oldest of six home-schooled half-siblings adopted by Mindy and Arthur Knapp, escaped to call police. Among other forms of abuse, video cameras in the house showed Mindy Knapp handing the older children a belt to discipline a sibling and locking them up for hours. She was charged with two counts of assault causing bodily injury or mental illness. After pleading guilty to one count of simple assault, Polk County Judge Terry L. Wilson gave her a year’s probation and deferred judgment.
Home schooling works well for most children, Dr. Barbara Knox, medical director of the University of Wisconsin Child Protection Program, which serves eastern Iowa, told the Register.
The program studied 28 cases of extreme abuse in five states to find “any red flags to get children protected before they wound up victims of homicide.” Nearly 90 percent were isolated beyond the immediate family, three-quarters put in solitary confinement (one in a clothes dryer) and most had food and water restricted.
In almost half the cases, children enrolled in school were removed. “But that was a guise,” Knox said. “There was no home schooling or little home schooling taking place. The move typically happened after a child-abuse investigation.”
Home-schooling loopholes aren’t the only culprits.
Child welfare workers were called to investigate concerns the Finn children were abused and begging for food five months before Natalie died of starvation, according to West Des Moines police. But DHS didn’t act.
The DHS found the Knapps responsible for multiple allegations of abuse, but Judge Colin Witt returned the other children. They continue to receive DHS special-needs subsidies for adopting the half-siblings. The amount is confidential, but DHS pays $5,800 to more than $12,000 a year for each special-needs sibling removed from foster care.
While many parents involved in home schooling are wary of any government intrusion, the Legislature shouldn’t turn a blind eye to these ruses and abuses, possibly enacting a form of independent oversight as a compromise. No matter how rare, these tragedies still must be avoided — with an assist from a responsive DHS and a responsible judiciary.