Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie

HARTFORD, CT — Some homeschool families rallied at the state Capitol Wednesday to complain that the Child Advocate’s office is scapegoating them by investigating how many homeschooled children have also had interactions with the Department of Children and Families.

Child Advocate Sarah Eagan’s report is part of a supplemental investigation stemming from the death of Matthew Tirado of Hartford, a teenage boy with autism and intellectual disabilities who died from starvation, dehydration, and child abuse. He was absent from school for years, but never homeschooled.

Tirado’s younger sister, however, was withdrawn from school for the purpose of homeschooling, but the Hartford Public School district never notified DCF of her change in status.

“After Matthew’s death, DCF’s investigation found no evidence that his sister was in fact being homeschooled, and Ms. Tirado could provide no explanation for why she withdrew her younger child from school,” the Child Advocate’s supplemental report states.

Matthew’s mother, Katiria Tirado, was sentenced Tuesday to 11 years in prison on manslaughter charges.

Eagan’s report states that as part of the investigation into Tirado’s death her office reviewed information from six school districts to find out “whether there were other children who were removed from school to be homeschooled and who lived in families that had a history of prior involvement with DCF due to reported concerns of abuse or neglect.”

The report found that from 2013 through 2016 there were 380 students withdrawn from the six school districts for the purpose of homeschooling, and that 138 of these children lived with families who were the subject of at least one prior report of suspected abuse or neglect that had been accepted by DCF.

And of those 138, “the majority of these families had a history of multiple prior reports to DCF of suspected child abuse or neglect,” the report said.

Members of the homeschooling community felt they were being attacked in the report and by a subsequent subpoena for school records from 18 more school districts, which is why they rallied Wednesday at the state Capitol.

Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie
Deborah Stevenson, an attorney with the National Home Education Legal Defense (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

The subpoenas sent May 1 are requesting information about students who were withdrawn in the last three years to be homeschooled, including their name, age, grade, and ethnicity.

Candice Huss, a mother of three from Groton, said this is not a homeschool issue. She said it’s not even a parental rights issue.

“What I have heard over and over again is that this is a discrimination issue,” Huss said. “It is discriminatory what they are doing.”

She said they shouldn’t allow an increase in regulation based on the actions of a few or misinformation.

She said the “limited empirical evidence that is available shows the rates of abuse in homeschooled families is lower than that of the general public. Those are not the statistics that Sarah Eagan would like for you to know.”

She said she has nothing to hide and is not afraid to answer questions, but if this is allowed then it “opens a flood gate to all types of groups to be discriminated against.”

Huss said she has been homeschooling her children, ages 11, 8, and 5, for four years.

“I am fighting for my God-given right to homeschool mine,” she said.

Connecticut has very little regulation for homeschooled children once they are withdrawn from school.

“Connecticut law is, at best, unclear as to whether a school district has an obligation to check in with or ensure that a student who has been withdrawn to be homeschooled is receiving an equivalent education as the term is used in state compulsory education law,” Eagan wrote in her report. “… Connecticut and ten (10) other states have no regulation or notice requirements regarding homeschooled children.”

That means parents don’t even have to tell the school system they are withdrawing their children to homeschool them.

Eagan said her report is not seeking to examine or criticize or characterize the merits of homeschooling, but is focused solely on understanding the “processes by which children are withdrawn from school” and whether they have a history of abuse or neglect.

But don’t tell that to the families gathered Wednesday at the state Capitol.

“This is not about homeschooling,” Peter Wolfgang of the Family Institute of Connecticut said. “This is about neglect. But the attack on us seems to be about something else.”

He said there are policy professionals who want to regulate homeschooling.

“It drives them crazy that we’re not under their control,” Wolfgang said. “And they’re exploiting the death of this poor young man in order to try and grab that.”

Eagan said they have recommended that the legislature create a working group of stakeholders to further discuss a framework for the permanent withdrawal of children from school.

“OCA is a strong supporter of the constitutional rights of parents and children, and we are confident that our partners will work together to ensure that no parent or guardian is able to use the pretext of homeschooling as a guise to hide or abuse their children,” Eagan said in a statement.

Not all home education experts agree with the rallying homeschoolers.

The Coalition for Responsible Home Education said many homeschooling families provide their children with excellent educations in a loving home environment. However, due to limited legal oversight, there are also many parents who abuse and neglect their children under the guise of homeschooling.

A 2014 study of child torture showed that 47 percent of the school-age victims examined had been withdrawn from school to be homeschooled. In that study, researchers found that this homeschooling was “designed to further isolate the child,” that it “typically occurred after the closure of a previously opened CPS case,” and that it “was accompanied by an escalation of physically abusive events.”
Connecticut’s homeschooling law lacks basic protections for homeschooled children, as do the laws of many other states, the organization said.