New bill targets child abuse in homeschool settings

New bill targets child abuse in homeschool settings

(Hawaii) Parents who opt to homeschool their children in Hawaii will have to undergo a background check under a new bill introduced in response to a rash of highly publicized cases of abuse of children being taught at home.

Prompted by the death of a 9-year-old in his district, Sen. Kaialii Kahele, D-Hilo, said his bill isn’t an attack of all homeschooling families–just those who use homeschooling as a way to hide their abuse from the public.

“If a parent that has a history of abuse or neglect wants to pull their child out of school to remove them from that layer of protection, this piece of legislation would close that loophole,” Kahele told Hawaii News Now. “It is absolutely not to prevent a family from homeschooling their child. It’s to protect children who can’t protect themselves.”

Kahele said that his bill was a direct response to the 2016 death of Shaelynn Lehano, who was starved, and deprived of water and medical attention for about eight months after her family pulled her out of Hilo Union Elementary School to homeschool her.

Proposals similar to Kahele’s that call for stricter oversight of homeschooling families have been floated throughout the U.S. after 13 siblings were found severely malnourished and trapped in their Perris, California home last month. Police said the children’s conditions were kept hidden because parents hid them under the guise of homeschooling. The parents have since been charged with multiple counts of torture, child abuse, dependent adult abuse and false imprisonment, among other crimes.

Advocates for homeschooling families have largely disagreed with the use of background checks. Some have argued that proposals like Kahele's unfairly single out home-schooling families without including all parents of school-age children, while others say it could violate the civil rights of homeschooling families.

Coalition for Responsible Home Education executive director Rachel Coleman has said that while some changes need to be made, background checks for new homeschooling families won’t solve the problem.

In an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, Coleman cited a 2014 study of child torture from the University of Wisconsin, which found that 47 percent of school-age victims had been withdrawn from school for homeschooling. The problem isn’t a lack of background checks, but rather, a lack of any oversight whatsoever, she said.

Only 15 states require that homeschool parents even register with the state, and in many cases, there is no mandate that parents even show evidence that they are educating their children or ensuring that they have contact with anyone outside the family at all, Coleman said.

In lieu of a administering a single background check, Coleman argued that requiring annual assessments by a certified teacher and yearly doctor's visits would create at least two opportunities for a trained professional to recognize abuse.

As introduced, Kahele’s bill would only require that child welfare services conduct a child abuse and neglect history inquiry, and that the department of education to conduct a background check before approving or denying a parent or guardian’s notification of intent to home school. Background checks would be conducted for any adult residing in the home of the child intended to be home schooled.

The bill allows for a parent to petition the family court if the notification of intent to home school is denied.

The bill, SB 2323, is scheduled for a joint hearing Wednesday between the state Senate committees on education and human services.

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