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July-August 2009 Selected Content

Taking Charge - Larry and Susan Kaseman

Yes - Parental Rights No - Constitutional Amendment

As citizens, we need to be alert for threats to our rights and responsibilities, whether these threats come from the government or other organizations or both. Our rights and responsibilities as parents are no exception. Threats to parental rights are coming from two major sources.

One is the push for greater involvement of government and professionals in the lives, health, upbringing, and education of children from birth to age five. This push from both Republican and Democratic politicians and administrations, professionals in early childhood education and health, professional organizations, and business has been going on for decades. It sends strong messages: parents are not capable of raising and educating their own young children, screenings and professional intervention are necessary, and it's a good idea to remove young children from the love and security of their families and institutionalize them. We can counter this threat by taking responsibility for our own families, knowing what our rights are, and exercising them. Details are in the second part of this column.

Another threat to parental rights is the push for a parental rights amendment to the US Constitution, which is discussed first.

Problems with a Parental Rights Amendment

A parental rights amendment is unnecessary and would threaten our rights. Unfortunately, such an amendment is being pushed by a number of people associated with the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), a national homeschooling organization, including its chairman Michael Farris.

Here are some of the problems with this amendment.

Our parental rights exist prior to and independent of anything done by the government, so a parental rights amendment is unnecessary. Our rights are part of being a parent, a fact that is based on common sense and is commonly agreed on by parents and the general public and upheld by US court decisions. They are natural or God-given rights that will be weakened if parents ask the government to validate or protect them. When US courts have ruled in cases involving how a parent raises their child, which are primarily cases involving education and/or religion, courts have consistently ruled in parents' favor.

• Asking the government to validate and protect our parental rights through a constitutional amendment would imply that parental rights come from the government. This would give the government power that it does not now have to change, reduce, or deny parental rights.

If the government supposedly granted us parental rights through a constitutional amendment, it would have the power and authority to define and regulate these rights. When a term such as "parental rights" is introduced into the constitution or the statutes, the government then has to define what is meant by that term. This would give those in power a golden opportunity to insist that parents meet the requirements they set and comply with whatever rules and regulations they write. In addition, it is virtually impossible to write a law that protects parental rights in an area that is considered fundamental, such as education and health care, without first also requiring that parents comply with whatever the government sets in these areas. Because government regulation is a major threat to our parental rights, an amendment would further erode our rights.

Parents' relationships with and responsibilities to their children are too fundamental, broad, and basic to be effectively contained within a simple legal statement.

Parental rights are protected by already existing amendments to the Constitution, including the ninth amendment which states, "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people."

A parental rights amendment would backfire by giving parents a false sense of security. Some people might act less carefully, be less likely to act in ways such as those suggested below, be more willing to comply with requests from officials that exceeded their legal authority, worry less about setting precedents that would infringe on their rights and the rights of other parents, etc.

A parental rights amendment would not resolve complicated cases involving child abuse, parents' refusal of medical treatment based on their religious beliefs, etc. These would still be taken to court.

Since parents currently have fundamental rights without a constitutional amendment, and since such an amendment would threaten our parental rights, one may wonder why HSLDA and a few others are promoting such an amendment. One possibility is that they think such an amendment would protect parental rights if the US eventually ratifies the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. However, although the UN Convention raises concerns, for many reasons it is unlikely to do damage in and of itself. For an explanation of this statement, see our column on the UN Convention at http://www.homeedmag.com/HEM/261/takingcharge.html.

Effective Ways to Maintain Our Parental Rights

Another threat to our parental rights is the encroachment of government and professionals into our family life. Here are some of the things we can do to counter this.

As parents, we need to take responsibility and act in ways that maintain our rights and, when necessary, reclaim them. We cannot assume that public officials and professionals will respect our rights. In fact, it is often in their interest to disregard our rights; make decisions concerning our families; and turn us into clients who will increase their prestige, caseload, job security, and salary. We need to question what they tell us and not just accept it.

Educating ourselves is key to taking responsibility and being prepared to defend our rights. Important topics include parenting, child development, how children learn, basic health and nutrition, and specific health issues such as immunization. When we have educated ourselves, we are more likely to make decisions based on what our family needs and what will be best for our children and us. We are less likely to simply follow what public officials and so-called experts tell us to do, such as giving information to the government that is not legally required, taking our children to screenings, and other actions. In addition, the more confident we are, the better prepared we are to stand up to so-called experts who are promoting policies and practices that would undermine our rights as parents.

Here are some of the ways we can educate ourselves and increase our confidence:

--We can realize and remember that we know our children better than anyone else. Even if we could find the world's wisest authority on eight year olds, he or she still wouldn't know the history, personality, unique talents, and challenges of our particular child. The information we have from living with, observing, and loving our children is invaluable.

--We can read carefully selected websites, articles, and books.

--We can get together with other parents, discuss parenting, and learn more about children. Homeschooling support groups often provide good opportunities for this kind of learning.

--We can keep whatever records we enjoy putting together. Possibilities include digital slide shows, photo albums, brief notes we jot down once a month, daily or weekly journals, blogs, etc. Such records remind us how much our children have already learned and grown, what previous problems have been solved or outgrown, and how much progress we have already made, all of which boost our confidence.

We need to know what rights we have as parents.

Here are some rights that parents have in most, if not all, states.

--Although federal statutes require that school districts provide free preschool screening for all children, parents are not required to take their children to such screenings, even if they receive a letter or other communication from their school district telling them to appear for screening on a given date.

--Although most children attend kindergarten, in the vast majority of states it is not required. Parents who don't send their children to kindergarten maintain more of their authority instead of turning it over to the schools. Studies show that any advantage children who attended kindergarten may have in first grade is gone by third grade.

--Most states allow parents to opt out of required immunizations.

Dealing effectively with public officials is important.

Instead of following orders or responding to requests, we can develop the habit of questioning any request or order we receive from public officials, whether it's a request for personal information about one of our children or an order to report for preschool screening at a specific date and time or a notice that one of our children must be immunized.

Sometimes if we simply ignore the request, officials often do not follow up, and we're off the hook. However, while this solves the immediate problem, it is not a very effective way to strengthen our rights.

More effective is asking the official for a copy of the statute that demonstrates that the requested information or action is, in fact, legally required. It is important to read the statute carefully. Sometimes the statutes require that school districts offer services such as preschool screening but do NOT require parents to have their children screened. Because not many people question what officials say, they may be surprised with our response. But if even a few people raise questions, it's enough to better secure our rights and responsibilities and keep officials more honest or forthcoming about their real authority and what the law actually requires and does not require.

Even better, if we already know or find out through our questioning that the officials have exceeded their authority by making a request or demand of us, we can send them and their supervisors an email or a letter asking them to stop making such requests or demands. The letter will be stronger if we indicate in the email or letter that we are sending a copy to appropriate prominent people in our community or state.

Whenever possible, avoid preschool, mental health, and other screenings.

Taking a child to a screening often amounts to playing into the hands of public school officials, other government officials, professionals, and so-called experts who threaten our parental rights. Screenings often lead to inaccurate results and labels. Such results weaken family authority and confidence and may be used by the government to require parents to do things they don't want to do, such as enroll children educational programs, take them to therapy, etc. (Often the only way to get out of these programs is to enroll your child in a homeschool or other private school.) Here are some specifics:

--In virtually all cases, parents who regularly spend time with their children know more about them than a screening can reveal.

--Often children will not perform well at screenings. Some are appropriately shy around strangers while others simply refuse to perform for testers even when asked to do things they regularly do at home

--People who develop tests and interpret results are oriented toward finding problems, not identifying strengths and supporting and encouraging children.

--Tests undermine confidence of parents and children. Many children worry that they have performed poorly.

--Screenings are designed to measure qualities, abilities, and behaviors that are important to the testers and meet the needs and expectations of schools and other institutions, even though parents may disagree with them.

--People who develop tests and interpret results have a very narrow set of acceptable responses. Children whose background, experiences, and values differ from those of the test makers are likely to receive low scores.

--Testers, school staff, public schools, schools of education, social workers, testing companies, drug companies, family and juvenile court systems, psychologists and psychiatrists, police, and prison systems benefit when children are screened, labeled, and then treated for an alleged disability, often with drugs such as Ritalin.

If you decide your child must be screened for some reason, insist on being present and observing the screening.

For more information, see our columns on preschool screening (http://www.homeedmag.com/HEM/232/takingcharge.html and mental health screening (http://www.homeedmag.com/HEM/221/jftch.html).

Be very careful what information you give to officials or allow to be put into data bases. For example:

--Before you give birth, find out what information is absolutely required for your newborn and how soon it is required. It is much better to give this information once you have recovered from the birth rather than within the first few hours. If your birth attendant is required to collect it, ask during a prenatal visit if you can provide it during a postnatal visit rather than immediately after the baby is born.

--If your children attended a conventional school before you began homeschooling, get the originals of their public school records.

Share this information with other parents through casual conversations, homeschool support group meetings, letters to the editor, etc.

Conclusion

Our parental rights and responsibilities will be far stronger and more secure if we work to maintain them in ways that are independent of the state rather than turning to the state to protect them.

2009, Larry and Susan Kaseman

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