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‘Worst ever:’ Proposed homeschool law would require background checks on parents

By   /   December 19, 2013  /   No Comments

By Maggie Thurber | for Ohio Watchdog

WORST EVER: Michael Donnelly says a proposed Ohio law requiring social worker interviews for parents who decide to home school is the worst ever and “breathtakingly onerous.”

An Ohio senator wants the state to investigate parents who decide to homeschool their children.

This comes after the death of a Theodore “Teddy” Foltz-Tedesco, who was brought to Akron Children’s Hospital Mahoning Valley with head trauma Jan. 21. His injuries, the result of a beating, were so severe he was immediately transferred to St. Elizabeth Health Center. Teddy died in the hospital Jan. 26. He was 14.

Teddy’s murder led state Sen. Capri Cafaro, D-Hubbard, to introduce a bill that would “require a public children services agency to recommend whether a child should be admitted to an internet or computer-based community school or excused by a school district superintendent from attendance at school for home education.”

Teddy’s mother, Shain Widdersheim, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for child endangerment and obstructing justice. Zaryl Bush, her boyfriend at the time, was sentenced to life in prison for Teddy’s murder and for child endangerment, intimidation of witnesses and tampering with evidence.

According to various news reports, Bush tortured and abused Teddy and his 10-year-old twin brothers.

Teddy’s grandmother tried to intervene. Friends and neighbors contacted social services. Police were told and Teddy’s teachers noticed and initiated a complaint with the county children services agency.

Widdersheim responding by taking Teddy out of the public school.

It all sounds so innocuous, from the name, “Teddy’s Law,” to the language of “recommend.”

But the Home School Legal Defense Association has a different take, calling it the “worst-ever home school law” and saying Senate Bill 248 “is breathtakingly onerous in its scope.”

“It requires all parents who home school to undergo a social services investigation which would ultimately determine if homeschooling would be permitted. Social workers would have to interview parents and children separately, conduct background checks and determine whether homeschooling is recommended or not. If it is not recommended, parents would have to submit to an ‘intervention’ before further consideration of their request to home school.”

That intervention would include individual and/or group behavioral counseling and classes on parenting, decision-making, personal or household finance and homeschooling – plus anything else the agency might decide is needed. Agency social workers would decide whether the intervention was successful, or not – and whether the parents will be permitted to homeschool their children.

Michael Donnelly, a staff attorney for HSLDA, said his group is asking the sponsors to withdraw the legislation and meet with them to see what legislation, if any, might be needed.

Donnelly said this bill “would not have saved Teddy and it won’t save other children like Teddy. The only thing it does is impose unreasonable and unconstitutional restrictions on parents who want to homeschool their children.”

“We support strengthening systems that prevent child abuse,” he said. “But this bill goes in absolutely the wrong direction. If they want to have a serious discussion, we want to help them in a way that does not unduly burden homeschooling parents and infringe upon their constitutional rights.”

HSLDA wasn’t the only group expressing that sentiment.

“This legislation is the most highly invasive policy that has been proposed since the inception of the Ohio home education regulations,” Christian Home Educators of Ohio said.

Melanie Elsey, the legislative liaison for CHEO, was in meetings on the bill and unavailable for comment, but she directed Ohio Watchdog to a statement on its website, where the act is called a “dangerous infringement on the right of parents to direct the education of their children.”

Cafaro said the intent of the bill, which she hopes to fast-track through the General Assembly, is to protect children and prevent them from falling through the cracks.

But in Teddy’s case, child services agencies had the information and failed to protect him long before his mother tried to withdraw him from school. The bill doesn’t address the failure of the agencies to act, though it does require them to investigate all parents choosing to homeschool, not just those suspected of abuse.

“Teddy’s tragic death is NOT due to any attempt to home educate and has NOTHING to do with home education,” the CHEO statement said. “This was a complete failure of the agency to carry out their responsibilities under EXISTING laws and regulations designed to protect children.”

Cafaro said she’s not trying to create a barrier for parents who want to homeschool their children.

Donnelly disagreed.

She is “absolutely wrong,” he said. “It might not kill homeschooling, but it is a barrier, and no parent should have to go through a social worker interview to be able to homeschool their kids.”

While he hopes the bill won’t go anywhere, he said Cafaro has been a Democrat leader in the Senate and “that’s a significant point,” Donnelly said. “Republicans haven’t been in control of the statehouse forever.”

Donnelly said Carfaro has expressed a willingness to amend the measure, but “the current bill is not a workable starting point.”

“Would they want to pass a law to get people to get permission from government if they were moving?” he asked. “In Germany, where homeschooling is banned, you have to give the government notice of moves. I don’t think Ohio wants to go down that path. I would hope not.”

He said it’s sad lawmakers took “all this time and energy and, instead of finding out what happened to this poor little boy, they’ve targeted tens of thousands of law-abiding citizens, forcing them to defend their rights.”

Donnelly issued a challenge.

“I invite Senator Cafaro to call me to discuss this issue … I will be happy to have a conservation with her that addresses, in a meaningful way, the problem and the fundamental values of our Constitution and the freedoms we hold dear,” he said.

The bill will be referred to a Senate committee.

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Maggie Thurber is a contributor to Ohio Watchdog. She is a former elected official from Lucas County who started writing on her own blog while in office as a way to better share information with her constituents. She owns a communication consulting firm and lives in Toledo, Ohio. She can be reached at maggie@ohiowatchdog.org