Legislation in the House of Delegates seeks to protect children like 8-year-old Raylee Browning, a home-schooled Oak Hill girl who allegedly died of abuse and neglect while Nicholas County Child Protective Services was investigating physical, emotional and sexual abuse claims against her home-school educator and guardian.
A national home-school legal defense group opposes the bill.
Sponsored by Del. Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, the bill (HB 4440) bars parents and other home-school teachers from home-schooling if there is a CPS investigation of abuse or neglect or a conviction for domestic violence.
Current state law requires that a parent or guardian notify the district school board of a plan to withdraw a child from the public school system in order to home-school or else appear before a school board. Parents and guardians who are accused of abusing a child may withdraw the victim from school and keep the child at home under current home-school laws.
The bill, which is currently in the House Education Committee and has bipartisan support, would make a slight change to state code, said Fluharty.
“The procedure right now is, essentially, the superintendent just blanket-stamps every request,” Fluharty said. “Right now, if you have a CPS case against you, you can currently home-school.”
He introduced the bill after a Mount Lookout Elementary School teacher notified him of Raylee Browning’s case.
Raylee, 8, of Oak Hill, died on Dec. 26, 2018. She was living with her father, Marty Browning Jr., his domestic partner Julie Titchenell Browning and Julie’s sister, Sherie Titchenell, on Park Street at the time of her death. Sherie was home-schooling the girl.
Prior to the move to Oak Hill, Raylee had briefly attended Mount Lookout Elementary in Nicholas County. Her teacher had reported to CPS that she believed Raylee was being abused. Raylee’s mother, Janice Wriston, and others had also made reports to CPS.
After the reports to CPS, the adults withdrew Raylee from Mount Lookout Elementary and later moved to Oak Hill.
According to testimony to police from a child who lived in the home with Raylee, the adults withdrew her from school in order to hide ongoing abuse and starvation. Police reported that Raylee had a number of physical injuries and a tear in her rectum at the time of her death.
The child reported that Sherie did not educate Raylee once she had her at home but forced her to stand in a hallway quietly while she and an adult from another home-school family gave lessons to other children. If Raylee moved, the girl alleged, Sherie forced her to walk the hallway “for hours.”
Oak Hill Police Department officers arrested Marty Jr., Julie and Sherie in December for child abuse or neglect resulting in death of a child and death of a child by a parent, custodian, or guardian, both felonies.
Sherie told The Register-Herald earlier this month that a gag order prevents her from speaking publicly about the case.
Despite strong bipartisan support for HB 4440, Fluharty said, he has received emails from home-school educators who oppose the bill on the fears that false CPS reports will be made against them.
Fluharty said current state law imposes penalties for those who make false reports of child abuse.
“I don’t understand why I’m getting hit with so many emails and people are so upset,” he added. “It’s straightforward.
“If there’s an investigation, we can’t just allow anybody to pull their children from a public school, when they’re alleged to be abusing them. If there’s a pending investigation, that takes time,” Fluharty said. “We need to make sure it’s followed through on and find out whether the reports have merit or not.
“Under current law, the abuser himself can go to the school and say, ‘I’m going to home-school,’” Fluharty said. “Let’s have an objective measure that says, ‘(Not if) there’s a pending CPS report.’”
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Mike Donnelly of the nonprofit Homeschool Legal Defense Fund said his group is fighting Fluharty’s bill.
“The home-school law in West Virginia provides for the superintendent to seek an order denying home instruction if the superintendent has probable cause to believe a child’s education would be neglected, or other compelling reasons,” Donnelly told The Register-Herald on Monday. “If the CPS is aware of the concern, and the attendance officer isn’t aware, it looks like there’s some communication issues.”
The HSLDA website reports that West Virginia parents have two ways to request a waiver for home-school. The first is to ask the school board, which may deny the request in writing. The second is to submit a written one-time notice to the school board or superintendent of the intent to home-school.
“HSLDA recommends this (second) approach because it does not require obtaining permission to home-school,” the website published. “As long as the notification complies with the law, the child is excused from compulsory attendance.”
Donnelly said Monday that he has notified sponsoring legislators that his group opposes HB 4440, adding that it is a hurdle for parents who want their children home-schooled.
“We think this bill is going after the wrong problem,” said Donnelly. “It targets home-schooling as a risk factor.
“Our view is that, if the Legislature is serious about reforming CPS or DHHR regulations to kind of catch and prevent these kind of situations, we’re very open to working with them and making recommendations.”
HSLDA provides legal defense and counsel for member home-school families and provides legal defense for families that are being investigated by CPS.
Pointing to an October DHHR audit which showed CPS did not respond to 50 percent of child abuse reports in 2018 in a timely manner, Del. Fluharty said HB 4440 provides a layer of protection for West Virginia’s most vulnerable children.
MetroNews reported that West Virginia had 27,000 cases of child abuse and neglect in 2018.
Donnelly estimated that “90 percent” of CPS complaints are “not substantiated” but did not identify a source for his data.
Lynaia Castle, a home-school mother in the region, was identified by court documents in Raylee’s case as a parent who had allegedly home-schooled with Sherie on occasion. Castle, who was not accused of wrongdoing, told The Register-Herald in January that she could not talk about the case, due to a gag order.
“I can say, 90 percent of what is out there is lies,” she added.
Pacific Standard magazine reported that the number of home-schooled students is steadily rising in the country, with 1.7 million (3.4 percent) in 2017.
The Coalition for Responsible Home Education, a group which has examined Raylee’s case and tracks deaths of home-schooled students and lobbies for legislative reform of home-schooling, reported that there have been at least 162 child fatalities in home-school families from 1986 to the present, with 147 occurring from 2000 to 2019.
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State law does not require home-school educators to report suspected child abuse or neglect. By contrast, teachers and public school administrators are mandatory reporters of child abuse. They face a criminal misdemeanor conviction of up to 90 days in jail and up to a $5,000 fine for failing to report child abuse or neglect. Those who fail to report a sexual assault face six months in jail and up to $10,000 in fines.
Of the estimated 1,720 children who died of abuse and neglect in 2017, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services data, mandatory reporters made 66 percent of the initial complaints.
Donnelly reported that while home-school educators are not mandatory reporters, his group encourages home-schoolers to report child abuse.
“We condemn child abuse,” he added. “We encourage people, if they are aware of a child who is being harmed by their parents, they should take action and report it to the authorities.”
Fluharty said his bill is a straightforward measure to protect West Virginia children.
“This (HB 4440) is, if you have a CPS report against you, that we have to confirm and that report has to get (investigated and closed) prior to home-schooling,” he said.
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The onus for ensuring that home-school cooperatives and associations do not admit students who are legally truant from a public school also falls on the public school system. State law does not require a home-school education cooperative or association to verify that member students were legally withdrawn from public school.
Donnelly said HSLDA has no requirement for members.
“When people join HSLDA, we don’t say, ‘Show us your paperwork,’” he said. “We take people’s word for it. That’s kind of the civil society we have, generally.
“People don’t hand their notice of intent around,” he explained. “If they ask, we’ll help them.”
Due to student privacy laws, Fayette and Nicholas school officials could not give The Register-Herald access to Raylee’s public school records. It was unclear if she had been legally withdrawn from public school. Donnelly said he also did not have that information.
The platform Homeschool Alumni Reaching Out (HARO), which is not affiliated with HSLDA, publishes educational information on abuse within the home-school community at www.homeschoolersanonymous.com.