Education

Homeschool advocates concerned about legal loopholes after Bradenton girl goes missing

Neighbor speaks on case of missing Bradenton girl Janiya Thomas

Maria Barger, who lives across the street from a family member of 11-year-old Janiya Thomas, speaks about how the Bradenton girl's family has reacted to news. Video by Amaris Castillo.
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Maria Barger, who lives across the street from a family member of 11-year-old Janiya Thomas, speaks about how the Bradenton girl's family has reacted to news. Video by Amaris Castillo.

BRADENTON -- When child abuse exists in a homeschool environment, it is typically deadlier than when abused children are enrolled in schools where people can notice their bruises, an emerging line of research shows.

Still, in Florida, there's nothing in the law that prevents someone with a history or suspicion of child abuse from homeschooling their own children or even running a homeschool for other parents' children.

Mandated school-district checks on homeschooled children are only once a year, so if a child is abused or killed, it can be hidden for months or years, as is suspected in the case of 11-year-old Janiya Thomas, a homeschool student who is presumed dead in Bradenton.

The Coalition for Responsible Home Education, a national organization that lobbies for homeschool education, has put together a database of child abuse in homeschools. Some of the cases include:

In 1995, 7-year-old Lucas Ciambrone, a homeschool student from Rubonia, died of a head injury after being starved and forced to sleep in a bathroom without towels, toilet paper or light bulbs.

In 1999 or 2000, 11-year-old Shane Graham, a homeschool student in Port St. Lucie, went missing. His body has never been recovered, but authorities believe his adoptive mother murdered and buried him. The mother had 10 other children, whom she homeschooled and abused.

In 2011, 10-year-old Nubia Barahone was found bludgeoned to death in West Palm Beach. Her adoptive parents had withdrawn her and her twin brother, Victor, from public schools to homeschool them after teachers lodged complaints of child abuse.

Nationwide, at least 84 homeschool children died as a result of child abuse from 2000-2012, the Coalition for Responsible Home Education has found. Not every case is deadly. In 1997, in Myakka City, two homeschooled girls, ages 13 and 15, were forced to sleep in make-shift cages with a brick-and-string alarm system and whipped with leather straps, sticks and rubber hoses by their parents.

There are no solid numbers of the abuse cases in homeschooling situations, according to researchers, partially because states keep records differently and have varying levels of reporting requirements. Emerging research, however, indicates child abuse cases in such environments are likely to be worse.

Homeschool education advocates are hoping to see changes in laws in Florida and across the country that could help prevent situations like Janiya's case. Those advocates, like those working for the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, want laws that prevent anyone with previous child abuse charges from homeschooling children; force more interaction with people who are required to report suspected child abuse; and to have more stringent timelines for those who are homeschooling their children to report information to school districts.

"We see that homeschool can be very positive, but we see where children can fall through the cracks," said Kathryn Brightbill, a legislative policy analyst with the coalition. "All of us here have seen the negative, and we've seen kids get hurt."

Brightbill, a Manatee County native, said she personally knew the two girls in the 1997 case in Myakka City.

Janiya Thomas

A body -- authorities believe it may be that of Janiya Thomas -- was found Sunday evening in Bradenton, after her mother, Keishanna Thomas, was arrested on child abuse charges in a case in which her son was beaten. When child protective workers came to take her children, Janiya was missing and Thomas has refused to tell police where she is located. Thomas' four other children, ages 15, 13, 12 and 2, were with her at the time.

In August 2013, Thomas pulled Janiya from traditional schooling, saying she was going to homeschool her, according to district officials. Janiya attended both second- and third grade at Manatee Elementary School until May 2013, according to Manatee County school district records. District officials would not comment whether or where Janiya had attended previously, citing student privacy. Thomas' other school-aged children remained enrolled in Manatee schools, said district spokesman Mike Barber.

Police said Janiya had a chronic illness which prompted her mother to pull her out of traditional schooling. The same illness killed the girl's father, according to police. Thomas had a criminal record for prostitution, but had never been charged with child abuse at the time she pulled her daughter out of public school.

In September 2014, the district sent a letter to Thomas saying a state-required annual evaluation was due, one of the rare contacts the district is required to have with homeschool families. The district never heard back from the mother, and two phone calls to numbers on file went unreturned, according to officials.

In January 2015, the district sent another letter, saying the family had three days to submit the evaluation or re-enroll Janiya, "pending further legal action."

"The first letter is a courtesy," Barber said. "The second one is serious."

If the annual evaluation is not completed, districts can revoke the homeschool status and order the child to return to school. If the district revokes the status and the child is not in school, the child would then be declared truant, which then triggers more official involvement.

Barber noted that the timeline between the September and January letters was fairly typical.

After the second letter, the mother sent a letter in reply, informing district officials the child no longer lived in the state of Florida, prompting the district to withdraw Janiya from the system.

The letter of termination asks parents to fill in a new address. Under state and district statute, the district does not have to follow up on the given address. Citing student privacy, district officials declined to release the letter of termination in the Thomas case, or confirm that the mother provided an address or new school district.

Homeschooling in Florida

In the last five years, the number of Florida students and families choosing to enroll in homeschool programs has ballooned by 20 percent -- 84,000 students, up from 69,281 statewide, including 1,260 in Manatee County now learning at home.

Most of those children are in family environments where parents choose to use their own curriculum, including religious lessons or letting their children learn at their own pace.

In Manatee County, homeschool students account for about 2.6 percent of the total student enrollment. In Florida, Duval County has the highest rate of homeschool students, with 7.3 percent of total students and families opting for a homeschool program.

In Florida, there's no educational background requirement for parents who homeschool their children. Florida law requires parents to declare the intent to homeschool their child, maintain a portfolio of student work, and submit an annual evaluation so the district and the state can monitor the child's progress.

The state gives parents a number of options when it comes to the annual evaluation, including having students sit for the state exams in district locations, having a Florida certified teacher evaluate the child's progress based on the review of the portfolio and discussion with the student, or the student may be evaluated by a psychologist holding a valid, active license. Thomas never submitted an annual evaluation on Janiya's behalf. Because the mother submitted the letter of termination saying Janiya had moved out of state, the school district never declared Janiya truant.

When declaring homeschool status, the state enacts stricter guidelines for parents and families seeking to set up homeschool programs for students with a history of "non-attendance," including a mandatory 30-day check, until district officials are satisfied.

Janiya did not exhibit a previous pattern of non-attendance, according to school officials. Citing student privacy, school officials declined to release Janiya's specific attendance record, even though she is missing and presumed dead.

History of abuse

From what evidence researchers have been able to gather, child abuse happens as frequently to children educated in public environments but tends to be worse for homeschooled children.

"They're more likely to be fatal or horrific abuse cases," Brightbill said.

Based in Massachusetts, the coalition, formed in 2013, is made up of a number of homeschool education alumni and advocates, who, among other issues, push lawmakers to ensure there's proper oversight for children to be educated at home.

Since May 2013, the organization has been documenting cases of abuse in homeschool children, relying on news reports and court documents. The research isn't perfect, and that's partially because data is unreliable and hard to come by.

"The states don't keep the records," Brightbill said.

While there are records of abuse, those records don't always indicate whether the children were in a homeschool environment.

The coalition would like to see more readily available and reliable data from states, more stringent requirements for those who are allowed to set up homeschool programs, and better requirements for local districts to monitor homeschool programs across the county.

Some states don't even require parents to notify the local district they are homeschooling their children, Brightbill said, so comparatively, Florida's system isn't perfect, but it's one of the better states. Brightbill said a number of parents are concerned with the information used by school districts and passed along to the federal government.

"That's driving a lot of the de-regulation," she said.

While Brightbill said she understands those concerns, preventing situations like Janiya's takes priority.

"We must do better by these children," Rachel Coleman, executive director of the coalition, said in a statement. "Janiya's name should be a call for change."

Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter@MeghinDelaney.

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