Thursday, April 3, 2008

Teach The Children Well

originally published in the Hartford Advocate May 31, 2007

Teach The Children Well

Homeschooling parents claim the Department of Children and Families is threatening to take custody of their kids

By Jennifer Abel

Connecticut students must spend a minimum number of days in their classrooms each year, or face penalties ranging from failing grades to truancy charges. For kids with medical problems, meeting these attendance requirements can be a challenge.

Some parents who have chosen to homeschool such children claim they’re being harassed for it, after their children’s former schools reported them to the Department of Children and Families for truancy and educational neglect.

"These are not isolated instances," says Deborah Stevenson, director of the National Home Education Legal Defense (and attorney for the cases mentioned here). "Apparently, these instances are becoming quite routine."

But Gary Kleeblatt, a spokesman for the DCF, says these instances never happen at all. "It’s just not done … no parent who schools a child at home should be concerned [about] educational neglect for that reason."

Three points need to be made. First: Parents investigated by DCF aren’t found "guilty" or "not guilty;" Kleeblatt says claims are either "substantiated" or "not substantiated."

Second: None of the DCF personnel in these cases were allowed to speak about them, due to confidentiality laws surrounding children. Even Kleeblatt can only speak about general policies, nothing specific.

And third: Kleeblatt says DCF policy is the opposite of what Stevenson claims is happening. The implication is that she and her clients are lying about everything in this story.

The DCF is currently investigating Rocky Hill resident Christine Canfield over her 9-year-old daughter Jessie. It all started because "[Jessie] has a lot of medical issues," Canfield said. "I wanted to keep those private so she wouldn’t be embarrassed."

Jessie missed a lot of school, but always had doctor’s notes explaining why. Then the school decided to stop accepting them.

"After [Jessie’s] last illness in January, [the school] wanted me to sign medical releases to talk to the doctors … and they said Jessie couldn’t come back to school until I did."

So Canfield decided to homeschool her, and filed a formal Notice of Intent with the school board on February 8. That afternoon the school called DCF, which visited Canfield the next day.

"The DCF investigator said there was an anonymous complaint of ‘educational neglect due to truancy.’ Initially I laughed. I knew where this came from."

She soon stopped laughing. The social workers "wanted to come in and basically invade my home … they said they were conducting an investigation and I was being uncooperative."

Kleeblatt says DCF never forces itself on families, but tries to persuade them to let social workers look around the house and talk to everyone there. Then "if the answer is no, despite our best efforts to convince them it’s in their best interest, we walk away. … We get a court order."

Which DCF is apparently trying to do with Canfield. The day after speaking to the Advocate, she and Stevenson were due in court. How did that go? Stevenson said: "A social worker from DCF is recommending a finding of educational neglect and a commitment of the child to the DCF … the next step is a status conference in early June."

When asked about this, Kleeblatt reiterated that DCF would never seek custody "unless a child is in imminent danger."

But Kleeblatt also said homeschoolers aren’t investigated for educational neglect in the first place. How did this Canfield business even start?

"Did they have permission to homeschool?" Kleeblatt asked.

No. Stevenson says it isn’t needed.

"You’re just assuming everything you’re being told is accurate," Kleeblatt replied. "I’m assuming someone who homeschools has to tell the state [and] show the state the curriculum."

Fine, let’s assume that. What curriculum must the parents show?

That’s for the Board of Education to say, Kleeblatt replied. "If you want to know the requirements, I’m not the one you should ask."

But if DCF doesn’t know the requirements, how do they know what to look for when they suspect parents aren’t meeting them?

Kleeblatt paused. "I’ll have to get back to you on that." And he soon did: "It’s less complicated than I thought." No permission is needed; filing a Notice of Intent as Canfield did is sufficient.

Then why the investigation? The answer must lie in the evidence DCF has against her. But confidentiality makes the file immune to Freedom of Information requests, so the Advocate can’t see it. Neither can Canfield or her attorney.

Stevenson says DCF will "rarely supply the person accused or their attorney with copies of the allegation. … Sometimes they’ll read the allegation slow enough that you can write it down." And no looking at the evidence. "You don’t know who said what or what you’re defending against."

Kleeblatt says that’s nonsense. "We always make the files available to the parents."

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.

This sounds pretty suspicious. Two parents insisting the schools have it in for their sick children, and the schools can’t tell their side.

Might there be more than the mothers admit? Perhaps the school suspects they’re abusing their children, or even suffering from "Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy," a mental disorder wherein parents, in order to garner sympathy, deliberately make their children ill.

But Stevenson is willing to state on the record that neither Canfield nor Hall-Gustafson are being investigated for physical abuse, only truancy and educational neglect. Kleeblatt implies (but would never say) that Stevenson’s being dishonest. If she is, it would take mere seconds for DCF to expose her as a liar.

Ridgefield resident Connie Kain believes her. Kain had similar DCF problems after she began homeschooling her two sick daughters. Her story sounds as fishy as the previous two — except DCF eventually found the claims of neglect unsubstantiated. Last December Kain notified the school she would withdraw her daughters. And one month later the school reported the family.

"School officials are … supposed to report any incident to DCF within a certain number of hours," Kain said. "What was the incident? Why did they wait so long?"

No way of knowing. But on February 23 she received word that DCF had finally deemed the charges unsubstantiated.

All throughout the investigation, Kain says, neither she nor Stevenson ever got to see the file against her. She finally got it three months after DCF unsubstantiated their claims. "We asked in writing for their accusation. Here’s [DCF’s] tactic: We put everything in writing or an e-mail; they would call and leave voice mails." Kain also says she was forbidden to tape-record meetings between herself and DCF.

Kleeblatt can’t comment on any specific cases, but continues to insist there’s no way any of this can be accurate, as it’s all in violation of DCF policy. Kain disagrees. "That’s how they operate. … They have a reputation [for doing this] and that reputation has to come from somewhere."