In Maryland, a judge sentenced homeschooling parents Samuel and Donna Merryman to 22 years each in prison for mistreating to death Dennis, the son they adopted from Russia. Following the guilty pleas of the Merrymans, a state senator wants stricter oversight of homeschooling families to prevent other parents from doing the same thing.
Starvation Case Has Senator Asking Questions, 20 April 2008, WJZ TV, Baltimore, Maryland
A Harford County child starves to death, leaving a senator to wonder if the state should be checking in on the welfare of children who are schooled at home. …
“The one question I keep getting asked is ‘didn’t the teachers notice?’ But they were not in public schools. They were home-schooled,” Tobin said. …
“So whether it’s a check in with education officials or health officials, there has to be something in place to protect a child in this type of circumstance,” said Sen. Bobby Zirkin.
When children are in danger, it is difficult to advocate maintaining the status quo. A couple of questions to ask, though, are
- how many homeschooled children are in danger?
- would even having them in school make them safer?
From the following, it would seem that schooled children are no safer in some respects than homeschooled children. The same public official that prosecuted Dennis Merryman’s parents, prosecuted the following case.
Teacher enters guilty plea, 7 July 2005, State’s Attorney, Harford County, Maryland
A teacher who had been charged with molesting a student has entered a guilty plea. …
The State agreed to drop the remaining charges. The case was handled for the State by Assistant State’s Attorney Diane Tobin of the Harford County Chil [sic] Advocacy Center.
There is no information online about the molestation case, so it is hard to tell how this rogue teacher’s activities were discovered. Did the child report it? Did a classmate discover the teacher in flagrante delicto? Did another teacher see the crime? Did an administrator? Did the parents? For us, it is impossible to say.
Still, Ms. Tobin prosecuted a teacher who molested a student, but thinks that teachers are to be watchdogs over parents. During the molestation case did Ms. Tobin ever suggest that parent volunteers should chaperone their children’s classes?
Of course, people involved in something like this must say something. Decency requires condemnation of callous mistreatment of children whether it is purposeful or misguided. Still, it does not follow the same logic to say that one group of adults [homeschooling parents] need oversight because of a tragedy, when, in another case a self-serving adult [the pedophile] ruined the childhood of someone else’s son or daughter, and is minimally punished, plus his group is not held up for alternate oversight.
The fact of molestations negates the opinion that the education system includes monitoring of teachers and that no further oversight is needed, or was needed in the past. When I was in 7th grade in 1962, my home room teacher was fired for making the boys sit on his lap during recess and at lunch. Pedophiles using occupations involving children is nothing new.
Even though some of the reports of the investigation of his death said that young Dennis Merryman suffered from cystic fibrosis and that the disease caused the starvation (people with the disease must have some enzymes added to their food to aid digestion), it is heartrending to think that Dennis did not receive effective treatment for such a horrible disease. Yet, even if Dennis had been in school, would that have ensured his safety? Would teachers have figured out what was going on? Maybe. Maybe not.
Man accused of starving son to fake illness, 22 September 2006, The Guardian, London, England
A father was arrested on charges of faking cystic fibrosis in his son by keeping the boy thin and fabricating medical bills – a story that authorities say fooled even his estranged wife. …
The authorities said Mr Bradway began fabricating medical bills in 2001 when his son was five. He allegedly put him on a severe diet to make him thin and, to avoid doctors, told school officials that the boy could not be immunised for religious reasons.
The main points that strike me concerning homeschooling and crimes against children are that:
- laws prohibiting atrocious behavior are in place — and have been for some time
- infants are entrusted to parents
- adoptive parents are investigated
- crimes continue
Point number one: laws themselves do not stop criminal behavior. Laws allow a way to prosecute perpetrators after the fact, but so far we are not living in a Minority Report world where one’s future actions while undertaking a legal behavior is a reason to assume that one will commit a crime.
Point number two: if parents cannot be trusted with their children, where does that leave society? Another aspect of that question is, why (gauged by the reactions) are children more valuable than infants? In general, from birth to the age of compulsory school attendance, parents are not compelled to produce their infants and toddlers for inspection at social gatherings despite the frailty of the wee ones. Daily stroller walks for neighborly perusal of the child are not mandatory; play groups are not mandatory; preschool is not (yet) mandatory. If the law requires homeschooling parents to produce their children for inspection if there is no evidence of any factor indicating criminal misbehavior, then the civil rights of those parents will have been violated, and the door will be cracked open for intrusion into any family with children.
Point number three: adoptive parents are investigated. What more will a “check-in” of children do to weed out the parents with poor judgment, or who will mistreat the children? I asked a question at Talk2Action in a discussion about Regulating Homeschooling.
How far are you willing to go?
Point number four: laws have not stopped crimes. I do not say this to challenge the concept of passing laws; I don’t want to live in an anarchy. But, despite existing laws that inflict punishment for anti-social behavior, crimes still happen.
- Boy Found Nearly Starved To Death, 12 March 2007. kirotv.com, Seattle, Washington
- Report cites CPS errors, caseworker load in deaths, 13 April 2005, The Seattle Times, Seattle, Washington
- DOCS under investigation over 7yo’s ‘starving’ death, 7 November 2007, ABC News (Australia)
- Kids in flat starved to death, 7 May 2007, Mirror.co.uk (United Kingdom)
- Five children left to starve were failed by care workers, 22 December 2005, The Independent, London
- Dead Girl’s Mother Accused Before, 12 August 2003, WTAE, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Will criminally-inclined people take advantage of homeschooling? Sure. Why wouldn’t they? Criminals take advantage of everything else, why should they ignore homeschooling?
- Gun laws allow poorly-motivated people to carry guns.
- The manufacture of guns provides materiel for nefarious creeps.
- Ditto the manufacture of really sharp objects such as kitchen knives, axes, saws, katanas, swords, hunting knives, machetes, awls, ice picks and so on.
- Driving licenses allow people out on the highways who can keep it together long enough to pass a driving test.
- Legal alcohol and tobacco allow drinking smokers to fall asleep with lit cigarettes.
- Motor vehicles allow kidnappers and robbers to make quick getaways.
- Computers allow the easy distribution of child pornography
- Disposable cells phone provide untraceable calls for any manner of bad guys.
- Readily available potting soil nurtures marijuana plants.
- Lawyers have legal training which may help them get around the law.
- Ditto police officers.
- Many military servicemembers are ‘trained killers.’ (or so my husband says — he warns us he may snap at any minute, so don’t touch that car)
- Not to mention hundreds of other examples of normal materials and processes used in a criminal manner.
It isn’t so much whether homeschooling or parenting or schools should be regulated to stop tragedies, rather that when you have humans with freedom, the various outcomes can’t be fully predicted or controlled. If we collectively tried, freedom would be smothered.