Educated: A Must-Read for all Child Advocates

EducatedEducated, the new memoir by Tara Westover, deserves to be read by anyone who is concerned about child abuse and neglect. Born in 1986, Westover tells her story of being raised with her six siblings by a paranoid, bipolar survivalist father and her mother, a midwife and herbalist, in a Mormon community at the foot of a mountain in Idaho.

Westover had no birth certificate until the age of nine. Her parents did not remember her birthday and had to obtain her christening and baptism certificates from Salt Lake City. She had no medical records because she had never seen a doctor or nurse.  She got her first vaccinations at the age of 22. Westover never went to school until she entered college at the age of 17. She spent her summers bottling peaches and her winters working in her father’s junkyard.

Westover’s mother initially attempted to teach her children at home, but by the time Tara reached school age any pretense of home education was gone. One of her brothers taught her to read, but that’s where her education ended. Instead of going to school, Tara became a member of her father’s junkyard crew.  On her first day, he threw a steel cylinder into a sorting bin, unaware that she was in the way, hitting her in the stomach. On another occasion he ordered her to get into a bin filled with 2,000 pounds of iron. He then used a massive forklift to raise the bin 25 feet in the air with her in it. She was impaled by an iron spike and thrown some 20 feet to the ground. With a wide gash in her leg her father sent her home so her mother could stop the bleeding with home remedies.

Doctors and hospitals were avoided as tools of Satan, even though the family had an unusual number of severe injuries due to their lifestyle. Westover’s mother suffered a traumatic brain injury when her brother fell asleep at the wheel driving through the night from Arizona. (No member of the family wore seatbelts.)  In another overnight driving accident, Tara blacked out and her neck was “frozen” for a month. Her seventeen year old brother received third-degree burns to his leg when he spilled gasoline drained from cars on his jeans, and later lit a cutting torch. Ten-year-old Tara treated him by immersing his leg in a trash can filled of water. His parents debrided the burns with a scalpel and treated his fever and agony with ice and herbs. When Tara had tonsillitis, her father directed her to stand outside with her mouth open for 30 minutes each day.

Westover’s brother “Shawn” (a pseudonym) began to abuse her when she was about 15.  When she refused his commands or otherwise displeased him, he would drag her by the hair to the toilet, dunk her head, and twist her wrist until she apologized, breaking it one one occasion. and calling her a whore. This went on for a decade. She later found that he had done the same to her older sister. Westover’s mother witnessed the abuse but later sided with her father in refusing to accept Tara’s account. “Shawn” eventually went on to inflict similar treatment on his wife. Westover is currently estranged from her parents and some of her siblings because she confronted them about her brother’s violence and abuse.

Tara’s older brother Tyler (to whom the book is dedicated), who had been in school before his father withdrew his older children, had escaped to college and encouraged her to follow the same route. He told her about the ACT test, showed her how to access the internet, and completed her application to Brigham Young University (BYU) for her. Tara taught herself algebra and grammar and scored high enough to gain admittance to BYU.

BYU was  a new world for Westover. In one of her first lectures on Western art, she asked what the Holocaust was and her teacher and classmates thought she was making an inappropriate joke. Although initially lost and bewildered, her passion for learning  enabled her to excel despite having to work multiple jobs to pay for her schooling. Westover graduated from BYU magna cum laude in 2008, receiving “the most outstanding undergraduate” award from the history department. She won a prestigious fellowship to Cambridge University, where she earned her PhD in intellectual history and political thought at the age of 27.

Educated highlights two of the issues that were most recently raised by the Hart and Turpin cases–homeschooling risks and failure to report maltreatment.

Homeschooling. “Homeschooling” for Tara was first and foremost educational neglect. She was given no formal education  and was reliant on a few old textbooks to try to teach herself. It was only her exceptional ability and desire to learn that allowed her to make up for lost ground in college or beyond. “Homeschooling” allowed her to be exploited as a child laborer during school hours, In addition, it deprived her of contact with professionals who might have questioned her various injuries from work and from her brother’s abuse and reported them to the authorities.

Failure to report maltreatment: As in the cases of the Harts and Turpins, nobody reported this family to CPS, even though many family members and residents of their town were aware of the dangerous conditions and educational and medical neglect, if not the abuse, to which these children were subject. Westover’s paternal grandmother argued passionately with her son against his choices to avoid school and medical care. Many members of the community had worked for Westover’s father, been injured and quit or were fired. They were well aware that the children were being forced to work under these conditions instead of going to school. The family attended Mormon church weekly with nearly everyone in the town, and it is inconceivable that other members were unaware of the children’s situation. Westover got to know others in the community by participating in musical theater. She reports that people in the community “reached out to her,” but she never spoke to a social worker or any other person who could really help.

Why did nobody report?  The same reluctance to interfere and fear of reprisal that influenced neighbors and family of other maltreated children like the Harts and Turpins probably played a role in this case. But the culture of this particular rural, Mormon community likely made reporting to a government agency unthinkable. Many residents may not even have known that there was an agency to receive such reports. Unfortunately, this type of community is more likely that others to harbor more families living off the grid and failing to meet their children’s fundamental needs.

The key question in the end is this: What, if anything, could be done to save Tara and her siblings from the extreme neglect they all suffered as well as the abuse endured by Tara and her sister? Two possibilities come to mind.

Regulate Homeschooling: There is very little regulation of homeschooling in Idaho,. The state requires that parents who homeschool must provide instruction in “subjects commonly and usually taught in the public schools of Idaho.” However, there are no requirements regarding notification of the relevant authorities, parent qualification, instruction time, bookkeeping, or assessment requirements. The Coalition for Responsible Home Education, an advocacy group made up of homeschool alumni, recommends that parents be required to provide annual notification of homeschooling, and  maintain academic records for each child; students’ academic progress should be evaluated and reported annually and failure to make adequate progress should result in intervention; homeschooled children should meet the same medical and immunization requirements as children who attend public schools; and students should be assessed annually by mandatory reporters. These measures might have protected Westover’s older siblings after they were withdrawn from school. However, someone would have to report the four younger children’s existence to the educational authorities to trigger these protections. Thus, reporting–either to educational or child welfare authorities–becomes crucial

Encourage Mandatory Reporting: To prevent future cases like that of the Hart children, I have recommended universal mandatory reporting accompanied by a robust public information campaign to inform adults about the signs of maltreatment and the obligation to report any reasonable suspicion of maltreatment. But in a small Mormon community like the one where Westover grew up, this many not be enough. Perhaps states like Iowa and Utah could enlist the Mormon church to help promote the message about the importance of reporting abuse and neglect, including educational neglect.

Most people who read Tara Westover’s memoir will marvel at how she managed to escape her deadly background and become an academic superstar and successful writer. But not all children have the strength and gifts Tara had, and she paid a high price in suffering and lifelong scars. So I hope people will also think about how to save future Tara Westovers. It takes a caring community to protect a child whose family is a source of danger instead of protection.

How to prevent more Hart cases

Hart family
Image: katu.com

In my last post, I discussed the tragic case of the six children adopted by Jennifer and Sarah Hart. The entire family is presumed dead in the crash of their SUV off a cliff in California on March 26. Multiple system gaps resulted in the failure to rescue these children before their tragic death. Below are some suggestions for filling these gaps so that children do not continue to suffer and die in abusive homes.

  1. Improve Vetting of Potential Adoptive Families. States that are desperate to find adoptive parents for large sibling groups or other children with special needs should not overlook obvious red flags. Clearly a past investigation for abuse of an adopted child–as in the Hart case– should have resulted in serious reconsideration of their application to adopt the sibling group that was currently living with them for a trial period. But the home study process should also be sophisticated enough to identify more subtle problems. These might include parents with a “white savior” complex who are adopting for the wrong reasons and are not suited to parent traumatized children.
  2. Monitor adoption subsidy recipients. The Harts received almost $2,000 a month in adoption subsidies, but the children were never monitored to ensure that all was well. All agencies paying adoption subsidies should verify periodically that the children are alive and well and still living in the adoptive home.  Submission of an annual doctor visit report, and/or an annual visit by a social worker could be used for such verification. There has been little support in the past for monitoring families receiving adoption subsidies, on the grounds that adoptive families should be treated the same as biological families. But the addition of money to the arrangement modifies the picture. Adoptive families sign contracts with the state, which could include a requirement that they cooperate with monitoring. When taxpayers are financing the care of our most vulnerable children until they reach adulthood, they should demand that the well-being of these children be regularly monitored.
  3. Regulate homeschooling. The Harts removed all their children from school after their child abuse case closed in Minnesota. The Coalition for Responsible Home Education (CRHE), an advocacy group for homeschooled children, recommends barring from homeschooling parents convicted of child abuse, sexual offenses, or other crimes that would disqualify them from employment as a school teacher. CRHE also recommends flagging other at-risk children (such as those with a history of CPS involvement) for additional monitoring and support and requiring an annual assessment of each homeschooled child by a mandatory reporter.  Unfortunately, the powerful homeschool lobby has beaten back attempts to impose such requirements in many states. But the climate may be changing, with a raft of horrific cases around the country (most recently the Turpins) resulting in proposals to require regulation.
  4. Adopt universal mandatory reporting and educate the public about reporting child maltreatment. If a friend who witnessed abuse by the Hart parents in 2013 or their Washington neighbors had reported their disconcerting observations earlier, the children’s lives might have been saved.  Eighteen states already require all adults to report suspected child abuse; the rest impose this requirement only on specified professional groups. All states should adopt universal mandatory reporting, but more importantly they should inform their residents about the signs of child maltreatment and the need to report. Public information campaigns should emphasize that the reporter need not have proof that there is maltreatment before making a report. As one child advocate puts it, “a reasonable suspicion that a child is at risk” warrants a call to the child abuse hotline. Better safe than sorry.
  5. Make investigations more child-friendly. A family friend who reported that the Harts deprived their children of food as punishment was told that CPS could not verify the allegation because the children had apparently been coached to lie. We need to rectify the pro-parent bias that allows many true allegations of abuse to be unsubstantiated or even not accepted for investigation. Investigators must be required to interview children before they can be “coached” by parents. If children appear to be coached, the case should be kept open until enough information is gathered to ensure they are safe.

The Hart children can be seen as victims of a “perfect storm”–adoption by unqualified parents, home schooling, neighbors who failed to report, history not shared between states, and inadequate investigations.  But it only takes one system failure to kill a child or scar one for life. All of these systemic gaps must be addressed, so that all children can have a real childhood and grow to be happy, productive adults.

 

 

Multiple System Failures Allowed Hart Children to Die

Hart family
Photo: Associated Press

On March 26, an SUV filled carrying a family plunged off a cliff. The car belonged to Jennifer and Sarah Hart. Their bodies, and those of three of their children, were found on the scene. Three children are still missing although another body found in the ocean may be one of the children. Initial coverage focused on the fact that the family consisted of two white mothers and six adopted black children. The family had had an earlier brush with fame when one of the boys was in a viral photograph hugging a police officer at a Ferguson protest.

As the days passed, disturbing details came to light. Days before the crash, Washington Child Protective Services (CPS) had opened an investigation of the family after a neighbor called the child abuse hotline. We eventually learned the family had a history of abuse reports. Then we learned that the crash appeared intentional, and probably triggered by the CPS report.

With each new discovery, we learned of another systemic failure to protect these vulnerable children. The Hart case brings together several common themes found in many cases of severe child maltreatment. Each of these themes highlights a different gap in the system that is supposed to protect our children.

Adoption: All six Hart children were adopted from foster care in Texas: three in 2006 and the next three in 2009. It is not that being adopted makes children more likely to be abused.  Indeed, one Dutch study indicated adopted children were less likely to be abused than children growing up in their biological families. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that adopted children are overrepresented among children who are severely abused or neglected, at least in homeschool settings. Many of these cases involve common elements, including locking children up in a room, withholding food, and isolating the child by homeschooling or other means, all of which were present in this case. One possible explanation for this pattern focuses on the traumatic backgrounds of many adoptive children, which may lead to behaviors that adoptive parents are not prepared to deal with. While they may start out with good intentions, they end up resorting to punitive and eventually abusive parenting to control the undesired behaviors.

Writer Stacey Patton has described a “white savior attitude” among some white parents who adopt black children from the U.S. or abroad. These parents “wear their transracial adoption as a status symbol.” These adoptive parents often post on social media about their extraordinary efforts to deal with their children’s emotional and intellectual challenges that they attribute to the deficiencies of their birth parents.” The Harts fit this pattern. According to the Oregonian, the Harts often said their children suffered a multitude of early childhood behavioral and developmental issues that made parenting a challenge.  Jennifer Hart also polished her image as an ideal mom who gave her underprivileged children a beautiful life. She frequently posted on Facebook portraying an idyllic family life full of trips, celebrations, community service, and events like the Ferguson rally in which Devonte sported a sign offering “Free Hugs.” When adoption is all about the parents, and the children become part of their public image, a bad outcome is not surprising.

There is reason for concern about the vetting process the Harts received when adopting the children. The Hart kids were among the 300 to 400 Texas children adopted each year by out of state foster parents, often because they are harder to place because they are in large sibling groups or have special needs. The Harts would have been vetted by a Minnesota agency, which would have submitted their home study to Texas for approval. After a child visit, the children would have probably moved in with the Harts for a six-month trial period. A Texas agency spokesman told the San Antonio Express-News that during the trial period for out-of-state adoptions, the out-of-state agency would be monitoring the family and reporting back to Texas. But in September 2008, probably during the trial period for the second adoption, Hannah Hart was asked about a bruise in her arm. She reported that her mother hit her with a belt. Police and social services interviewed the mothers, who denied the beating and said she had fallen down the stairs. Nevertheless, the second adoption went through. We need to know whether Texas was informed of this investigation.

Once the adoption was finalized, there was nobody monitoring the Hart children, even though Texas continued to pay for their care. The San Antonio Express-News reports that Jennifer Hart received nearly $1,900 per month in adoption subsidies from the State of Texas. The paper estimates that she collected a total of $270,000 from the state for caring for the six children during the time they lived with her. Unfortunately, children who receive adoption subsidies are not monitored to ensure that they are being properly cared for, are still in the home, or are even alive. Such monitoring has not been imposed even in the wake of cases in which adoptive parents like Renee Bowman and Edward and Linda Bryant have fraudulently collected adoption subsidies after killing–or allegedly killing–their children.

Home Schooling. On April 11, 2011, Sarah Hart made a plea agreement a week after pleading guilty to physical abuse of a six year old child. The next day, all six children were removed from school, never to attend again. The Harts joined a long line of abusive parents that removed their children from school after a brush with CPS. The notorious Turpin family, who gained worldwide attention this winter when one of their 13 malnourished children escaped confinement in their home, who also liked to dress their children in matching tee shirts. As the Coalition for Responsible Home Education points out, Pennsylvania is the only state that bars convicted child abusers from homeschooling, and then only if the conviction is in the past five years. No state has any mechanism to identify cases where parents remove a child from school after a child protective services case is closed, or after a series of child abuse allegations.

Failure to report: At a festival in Oregon, the Oregonian reports that one acquaintance observed the mothers become enraged after she brought Devonte and Sierra back to her parents from a day out, bearing food.  Sarah Hart grabbed Sierra’s arm, inflicting a bruise that lasted for days, and both mothers chastised her for “being selfish” and not sharing. Sierra told the woman that she often got in trouble for talking to people her mothers did not know. But the neighbor did not report the disturbing incident. The Hart family’s neighbors in Washington, Dana and Bruce DeKalb, told reporters that they had suspected that something was not right in the Hart household.  A few months after the Harts moved to Washington, the DeKalbs reported that Hannah Hart came to their door at 1:30 AM. She had jumped out of a second-story window and ran through bushes to their home, begging them to protect her from her abusive parents. The neighbors noted that she was missing her front teeth and appeared to be about seven years old, although she was twelve. The other children also appeared small and thin when the family came over the next morning.

The DeKalbs told the Washington Post that they considered calling CPS but “tried to overlook the incident.” In the next eight months, the DeKalbs saw Devonte doing chores but never saw the other children outside.  About a week before the crash,  Devonte began coming to the DeKalbs’ house requesting food and saying that his parents had been withholding food as punishment.  The visits escalated from daily to three times a day. It was only after a week of such visits that they finally called CPS, setting in motion the the escape attempt that ended in the fatal crash.The DeKalbs’ hesitation echoes that of the Turpins’ neighbors, who never reported the many red flags they saw.

Biased Investigative Process: As mentioned above, Oregon CPS was unable to substantiate a report from a family friend that the Harts were punishing the children by withholding food and emotionally abusing them. CPS interviewed the children but told the friend that it appeared they had been “coached” to lie, so there was no evidence to substantiate the allegation. The question is, why were the parents given enough warning that the children could be coached? This is only one example of how the system is biased toward parents’ rights over children’s safety.

Multiple systemic gaps allowed the abuse of the Hart children to continue until it culminated in the deaths of the entire family. A variety of policy changes are needed to address the gaps highlighted by this tragic case. I will discuss these in my next post.

 

 

 

 

Breaking the Silence: How to Encourage Family and Neighbors to Report Child Abuse

Report child Abuse
Image from: Michigan-Family-Law Litigation.com

Yesterday I published a post arguing for monitoring of home schools to prevent cases like the horrific story of the Turpins in California. But we really can’t be sure if regulation of home schools would have prevented the horrific abuse of these children. Even if David Turpin had not registered his home as a school, he would not have been caught unless somebody reported his children as truant. Given the silence of their neighbors and family about the disturbing signs of maltreatment, they might have been equally silent about the children’s apparent failure to attend school.

The silence of neighbors and family despite multiple signs that something was terribly wrong in this family was striking. There were numerous red flags. One neighbor reported trying to speak to some of the children when they were outside of the house. She reported that they “froze,” “shut down,” and were “terrified.” They also appeared thin and malnourished. And yet the neighbor did not notify authorities.

Multiple neighbors told reporters that the family was only rarely seen working in the yard or getting into vans at odd hours and always responded to greetings with silence. as a representative of the Riverside County Department of Social Services told USA Today, “Not one person called us. How sad,” she said. Sad indeed.

Before they moved to California, the Turpins’ household also raised questions among their neighbors in rural Rio Vista Texas, according to the Los Angeles Times. One neighbor, Ricky Vinyard, was concerned that the children rarely left their home,  lights were on at all hours with blinds drawn, and eight new children’s  bikes sat outside for months. A dumpster outside the house was filled with trash and David Turpin “would stand in the driveway shooting cans with his pistol, aiming toward the road.” Mr. Vinyard told the Times that he and his wife suspected abuse but decided not to report it, fearing repercussions, especially since Turpin had a gun.

Elizabeth Flores, Louise Turpin’s sister, tearfully told Good Morning America that all attempts by family members to see the children were rebuffed. When Flores came to her sister’s home in Texas, she was not allowed inside and visited with her sister in the driveway. The children never appeared. When her mother drove hours to visit in Texas, she was denied entry, and when her father bought a flight ticket, he was told not to come. The family must have discussed this strange behavior among themselves, but they never reported it to authorities.

The silence of neighbors and family seems to defy belief, yet similar silence has been noticed in other cases of long-term abuse. Is it part of American culture to believe that one’s home is one’s castle and neighbors should not interfere? What can be done to change this reluctance to intervene? This is not an easy issue so I would love to hear readers’ suggestions on how to get members of the public to report suspected abuse or neglect.

At a minimum, it seems clear that states should do a better job of informing the public of the signs of child abuse and neglect and the responsibility to report even a suspicion of maltreatment to avoid a tragedy. Brochures with this information should be available at libraries, pediatricians’ offices, health centers, departments of motor vehicles and police stations. This information should be given out along with drivers’ licenses and voter registrations and included with tax forms. Television and radio PSA’s (along the lines of “If you see something, say something”), bus ads, and other vehicles should be used to disseminate the information. Online training should be available to all citizens.
Beyond public information, the question is whether states should require reporting of suspected abuse or neglect with penalties for those who fail to report. All states require certain professionals, such as doctors and teachers, to report their suspicions.  But most states (including California) don’t require ordinary citizens  to report when they fear a child is being harmed.

However, Texas is one of about eighteen states that require any person who suspects abuse or neglect to report it. The identity of the reporter is confidential and cannot be released except under very limited circumstances. Failure to report suspected child abuse or neglect is a misdemeanor, punishable by imprisonment of up to one year and/or a fine of up to $4,000. And that law has been in existence in Texas at least 20 years. Nevertheless, Mr. Vinyard and his wife chose not to report.

This leaves several questions. Did the Vinyards know that they were required by law to report their suspicions of abuse? Did they know that failure to report was punishable by a fine or imprisonment? While penalties have been imposed on mandatory reporters who failed to report abuse that they saw in their professional capacity, I have not been able to find documentation of such a penalty being enforced upon a member of the general public. Such enforcement might be considered too heavy-handed by most citizens and legislators. However, one way or another it is critical that citizens report to the authorities  when there are signs that things are desperately wrong as they were in in the Turpin case.

The Turpin children have been rescued. But they are physically and mentally stunted, most of them probably for life. We don’t know how many children are currently chained to their beds, locked in rooms. and starved by the people who are supposed to care for them. Monitoring all children who are ostensibly home-schooled and campaigns to encourage citizens to support their suspicions of maltreatment seem like the best ways to save these children and prevent more horror stories.