OKLAHOMA CITY (KOKH) — A horrific child-abuse case this past summer sparked debate about Oklahoma's homeschooling laws.
A 15-year-old boy was found starving and sleeping in a barn in rural Lincoln County. His family had pulled him out of school a few years before the abuse was reported. The teenager's father, stepmother and two older brothers were arrested on child neglect complaints.
FOX 25 wanted to look into what role - if any - the state should have in making sure homeschooled students are safe.
The Oklahoma Department of Education has zero oversight over homeschooling in our state. Neither does DHS.
The only ones keeping tabs on these children are their parents or legal guardians. For thousands of Oklahoma families, that's more than enough to ensure they're safe and well educated. But to protect those in abusive homes, some advocates believe Oklahoma needs to do more.
"I absolutely believe in the right of parents to be homeschooled, but I also believe in the right of children to be protected while being homeschooled, and that's really what's lacking right now," says Bethany Patterson, who was home schooled.
Home schools aren't regulated in Oklahoma. Oklahoma is one of 11 states that doesn't require parents to even notify the state of plans to home school.
"So, in practice, if a family homeschools, all they have to do is just not register their child in school. That's it," said Rachel Coleman, executive director of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education. "There's no oversight at all. There's no requirement to show evidence the child's being educated."
The Coalition for Responsible Home Education is a national non-profit that advocates for homeschooled children. It's tracked 14 cases of severe or fatal abuse of homeschooled children in Oklahoma.
The group believes states should do background checks on parents who want to home school to flag any with concerning criminal history. They also recommend students' academic progress be reported and evaluated annually by presenting a portfolio of work or by taking a standardized test.
However, many homeschooling families don't think it would be fair to increase government oversight based on isolated cases of abuse.
Paul Rose, the president of the Oklahoma Christian Home Educators' Consociation told us: "These families provide a quality education to their children in the most loving and safe environment possible without any burden to the state finances. a win-win situation in my eyes."
Advocates pushing for reform still believe some type of basic monitoring would better protect kids.
"They'd have oversight, they'd have follow up, and there'd be mandatory reporters in their life that could see signs of abuse and possibly help sooner," Patterson said.
According to the Oklahoma Department of Human services, nearly 30 percent of child abuse and neglect cases in 2017 came from tips from law enforcement, the top reporting source. Schools came in fourth, followed by hospitals. Under state law, everyone in Oklahoma is a mandatory reporter, with an obligation to report any suspicions of child abuse.
"We can’t be in every home, every day," said Casey White with DHS. "So we do rely on the public to watch their neighbors, to watch the kids their kids come into contact, to be that first line of defense to make sure kids are kept safe. So if you see something, we really think you should say something – and you could be that person who saves that child."
DHS does not keep a database of confirmed cases of child abuse and neglect that involved homeschooled children, versus those in public or private schools, so there's no way to directly compare the percentages. Since the state doesn't keep track of children who are homeschooled, it's unclear exactly how many families in Oklahoma choose this path for their children's education.