Lincoln County Abuse Case Has Some Calling for Home School Reform

The case of a 15-year-old boy rescued from a family farm near Meeker has some child welfare advocates calling for home school reform in Oklahoma.

Investigators say the boy was "within a week of death" when passersby noticed him and became concerned for his well-being, notifying authorities. The 15-year-old boy was severely malnourished, weighing only 80 pounds; by comparison, the average 15-year-old boy weighs about 125 pounds. The boy, who had been forced to live in the barn, had been eating sticks and leaves because he had been deprived of food. He also had several broken bones, serious head wounds, and shotgun pellets in his legs.

The boy had been "home schooled" for the past two years. His father, stepmother, and two adult stepbrothers were all arrested on complaints of child neglect for failing to provide the child with adequate care, including food, shelter, sanitation, and medical attention.

The case has some child welfare advocates calling for home school reform in Oklahoma. They say the problem is not with home schooling itself, and they support the rights of Oklahoma parents to educate their own children; rather, the problem is that Oklahoma's home school oversight laws are so lax that they allow abused children to slip through the cracks.

If an abused or neglected is enrolled in public school, then he or she stands a much better chance of having that abuse or neglect reported. Teachers, children, and other adults may be able to see signs of abuse or neglect, and an abused child will have contact with others to whom he or she can report the abuse. These children are also exposed to others who are free from abuse, which allows them to see that what is happening at home is not normal.

If a home schooled child is abused, then he or she may not ever be exposed to others who can help him or her escape the abuse. Abused or neglected home schooled children are more easily isolated and may "fall off the grid."

In Oklahoma, the only requirement for home schools is that children receive 180 days of education; however, there is no oversight to even that requirement. Some critics say that the vague home education laws in Oklahoma allow abusive parents to pull their children from public school under the guise of home schooling to hide the abuse and avoid reporting.

Those calling for reform say that the problem isn't with home schooling; rather, it is withabusive parents who use homeschooling as a method of avoiding detection. They point to two other Oklahoma cases in which abusive parents used home schoolingas a means of hiding serious abuse and neglect.

  • In October 1995, Bertha Jean Coffman notified Newalla school officials that she was pulling her children from public school to be home schooled instead. By February 1996, investigators discovered the bones of 8-year-old Shane Coffman in a freezer behind the family's mobile home. They discovered two other children living in cages inside the home. These two children were severely malnourished and had to be hospitalized. Investigators believe that Shane died in August 1995, and that the abuse of the other children continued undetected until Shane's remains were discovered six months later. Police arrested Bertha Coffman and her boyfriend Donald Lee Gilson on complaints of first degree murder and child abuse. Again, advocates of home school reform say the issue is not with home schooling itself, but with the fact that it is so easy for abusive parents to use home schooling to hide the abuse.
  • In 2003, Colton and Homer Clark were pulled from Seminole public schools to be home schooled shortly after moving in with their aunt and uncle. Three years later, Colton was missing. His aunt and uncle, Rebecca Faith Clark and James Rex Clark, claimed the boy was mad about an upcoming appointment with a psychiatrist and either ran away or was picked up by his father. Eventually, Homer revealed that his aunt and uncle made him lie about his brother's disappearance and says that the last time he saw his brother, he was lying motionless on a couch after having been severely beaten. Homer detailed the abuse he and his brother suffered, and more than a decade after Colton went missing, Rebecca and James Clark were convicted of his murder and abuse.

The Coalition for Responsible Home Education is one organization calling for home school reform in Oklahoma. This organization is led by supporters of home schooling who want to ensure that all home schools are providing children with the education, support, and care they deserve. The group fights against educational neglect and wants safeguards to ensure the well-being of children who are being home schooled.

Bethany Patterson, a research volunteer for the organization, was herself home schooled and values her education. However, she says reform is needed to prevent educational neglect and child abuse and neglect. Patterson supports the requirement of third party academic testing to ensure students are receiving adequate education, and she also supports the requirement of annual medical check-ups with a physician. She says the requirements would have helped in the Meeker case and other similar cases: "Doctors and physicians are mandatory reporters of abuse and, in this case, they would have seen gunshot holes, they would have seen the hole in his head, they would have seen that he's massively undernourished. Something would have happened, and this kid wouldn't have been a week from death with no one seeing him and no one seeing his condition."

Such requirements would not change parental autonomy in educating their children; however, they could prevent abuse and neglect from going undetected.

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