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There have been a lot of concerns raised about the kind of things homeschooled kids are taught, especially in Christianist-oriented curricula.  But an article that appeared below the fold of this morning's Charlotte Observer reveals a more fundamental concern about homeschooling in North Carolina--current policy makes it all too easy to conceal abusive behavior.

“Most children who are home-schooled are safe, with very good parents,” says Dr. Preeti Matkins, a pediatrician with Levine Children’s Hospital and Charlotte’s Teen Health Connection. She’s a member of the N.C. Pediatric Society’s Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect, which has delved into concerns about home schooling.

The Charlotte area alone has at least a dozen home-school groups, where parents meet to support each other and provide proms, sports, field trips and community service projects for their children.

The fear is focused on the people who use the cloak of privacy afforded by home schooling to hide mistreatment. In a recent report, the Pediatric Society dubbed the victims “invisible children.”

Robert McCarter, managing attorney for the Council for Children’s Rights in Charlotte, says there’s no reason to think that home schooling encourages abuse, but notes that abusers can use it as a cover: “The people who are going to be abusive to children don’t want to do it in public. If they are sending a child out to school every day, and he has a black eye or a chain mark on his wrist, people are going to notice.”

This issue came into sharp focus two weeks ago, when it was discovered that Wanda Larson, the lead child protection supervisor for the Union County Department of Social Services, was accused of forcing five children under her care to live under appalling conditions, including feces on the floor and no running water.  This was only discovered when an 11-year-old for whom she was legal guardian was found chained to the porch with temps in the mid-20s.  

This is the third case in the last decade of kids being supposedly homeschooled in this state being abused.  In 2010, Zahra Baker's family moved from Lenoir to Hickory, and her parents said they were homeschooling her.  She was reported missing in October, and was later found to have been killed and dismembered.  Her stepmother pleaded guilty to killing her.  Just last week, state officials revealed that the Bakers never submitted the required paperwork to homeschool Zahra.  And this July, Erica Parsons' brother revealed that she'd been missing since 2011.  Erica's aunt and uncle, who adopted her, claim they had homeschooled her off and on since 2005 at their home in Salisbury, but they produced no records after that date.  Police believe that Erica is dead and her aunt and uncle are somehow responsible.  

While those are only three cases out of the thousands of homeschooled kids in this state, it's too many to credibly dismiss as isolated.  And at least one homeschooling advocate recognizes there's a problem.

“It’s a very troubling situation,” says Spencer Mason of Charlotte, a North Carolinians for Home Education board member who worked with the pediatricians to study concerns about home-school abuse.

Mason and other leaders have been working for the last couple of years to educate home-school parents about signs of abuse and encourage them to report any suspicions, even if it means turning in another home-school family. While some abusers may avoid interaction with other families, Mason said there’s also a risk when well-meaning parents adopt tactics that include corporal punishment and extreme behavioral modification.

“There have been instances of parents who were sold a bill of goods and used a terrible technique that really was abuse,” said Mason, who has warned other parents about books that promote abusive methods.

The question, though, is how to solve it.  The courts have ruled that mandatory home inspections violate the Fourth Amendment.  I don't think you'd have to go that far--but it would seem common sense to at least require background checks.  Brick-and-mortar school employees, and just about everyone who works with kids, have to undergo extensive background checks before being hired.  Shouldn't homeschooling parents have to do the same?  

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1:51 PM PT: Just to be clear--I oppose mandatory inspections as unconstitutional and unnecessary.  But if there's a way other than background checks to prevent situations like what happened to Larson's kids and to Erica and Zahra, I'm all for it.

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