“We Were Preparing for Jail …” Say Irish Homeschoolers
by Mike Donnelly • October 4, 2019
An Irish circuit court has reined in an agency that had become increasingly intrusive in a major precedent-setting case.
On September 26, 2019, the court issued a seven-page ruling in Tusla v. Sunshine holding that Irish homeschoolers do not have to use the national Child and Family Agency’s form known as R-1 when “applying” for home education registration in the Republic of Ireland. The judge wrote succinctly, “I am satisfied that the prosecuting authority is incorrect in asserting that full completion of Form R1 is a necessary prerequisite to the Preliminary Assessment.”
Many homeschoolers objected to the form as it gave open-ended and uninformed “consent” for ongoing assessments and demanded large amounts of personal information not required by law.
Irish homeschoolers resisted increasing pressure from the agency, charged by statute with overseeing the home education registration process. Some homeschool families left the country to escape prosecution; others were convicted and spent time in jail.
Family Fights Back
Although the Irish constitution explicitly protects the right of home education, the Irish Legislature enacted a statute requiring registration in 2000.
In September 2018, Catherine and Nicholas Sunshine were convicted in a district court proceeding of not sending their oldest child to a “recognized” school. The parents had refused to use Tusla’s form to apply for registration for home education.
In turn, agency officials refused to accept the family’s written homeschool notification and sent a notice purporting to require the child to attend an otherwise “recognized” school. The school attendance notice was enforced under section 25(4) of the education welfare act of 2000 as a criminal truancy prosecution.
“We moved to Ireland from England in 2014 and always intended to home-educate our children,” Catherine Sunshine said. “When we read the statute for ourselves, we sent in a letter applying for registration. But Tusla sent us back their form and told us we had to use it. In addition to all kinds of unnecessary and unlawful personal information, they wanted our child’s birth certificate, [our] marital status, and so much more. None of this was required by the statute or even their own guidelines.”
But what was worse, she told HSLDA, was that by signing Tusla’s form they were essentially providing consent for an open-ended ongoing series of “assessments.”
The education act requires an initial assessment to obtain very basic information about home education, but is not required to be conducted in person. However, successive agencies in charge of registration have increased the intrusiveness of the assessments over the years, creating fear and unease in the homeschool community.
Homeschoolers in Jail
HSLDA has been involved in several cases challenging the various agencies administering the statute. Some families refused to comply with the requirements and ended up leaving Ireland. In several cases truancy prosecutions resulted in parents serving time in jail.
“We rejected the idea that we had to consent to anything more than a ‘prelimary assessment’ to start the registration process,” Catherine said. “But Tusla’s R-1 form gave our ‘consent’ to all kinds of ongoing oversight not required by statute. We had no choice but to resist Tusla’s unlawful intrusion in our family. We also knew others were fearful and some chose not to home-educate out of fear of Tusla’s power. People were saying the kinds of things to us about being afraid that you would expect to hear in a dictatorship, not a democracy.”
The Sunshines’ lawyer Berenice McKeever agreed.
“The court’s ruling affirmed everything we had said to Tusla in trying to avoid litigation,” McKeever said. “It is a credit to our clients who stuck to their principles and what we all believed was obvious—that the use of Tusla’s form was not a legal requirement. They withstood great pressure, especially after the initial conviction and saw this through on behalf of themselves and other parent.”
Catherine Sunshine added that losing at the district court level was stressful.
“When we lost we were preparing ourselves to pack our bags, say goodbye to our kids and to go to jail—like some others who lost in similar cases,” she said. “But we are people of faith, and we are so thankful to God for how we have been delivered. He brought marvelous people around us in our church community but also our solicitor and barrister who stood by us. We know that there is power in prayer, and there were many praying for us. We are so thankful for that—it is what got us through this very stressful time.”
Many homeschoolers felt powerless as Tusla officials—with increasing frequency—kept asking for student assessments and demanding to enter people’s homes, in order to interview children. HSLDA advocated for several families experiencing this very process.
“We see this not as an end but a beginning,” Catherine explained. “Some people said we should keep quiet, but we want as many people as possible to hear about this and realize that they don’t have to use the agency’s form. This is an important win for the citizens of Ireland in the face of serious state overreach.”
The Sunshines sent a letter to the Minister of Families and Children Katherine Zappone requesting she affirm that Tusla will abide by this court decision. The minister’s personal secretary acknowledged receipt of the letter and promised that it would be reviewed.
For me, this outcome has been a long time in coming. I’ve worked with numerous families over the years and witnessed the fear and increasing intrusiveness that came in dealing with Tusla. As the equivalent of Ireland’s CPS, it is an agency with fearsome power. The fact that home education is under the supervision of Tusla is a sore point with many Irish homeschoolers.
As Ruth and Peter Redmond, leaders of the national home education organization ICHEA told me, they don’t like that they are under Tusla.
“Home education is an education matter, not a child protection matter,” Ruth said. “By putting us under Tusla, it’s like the government saying home education is presumed to be child abuse. Of course, that’s nonsense.”
The Redmonds welcomed the ruling.
“We are delighted for the family and for Irish home educators,” Ruth said. “The intrusiveness of Tusla has become worse over the years and has struck fear in the home education community. We never knew what they were going to ask for next.”
She added: “It is a disgrace to think that Tusla would take a couple, described by the courts as ‘responsible and caring parents who want what is best for their son,’ and bring criminal charges against them to intimidate them, and by proxy, the entire homeschool community, into following procedures well beyond their remit. This judgment will, hopefully, bring vital changes to the homeschool registration process and give home educators confidence that Tusla is not above the law, and that we are truly free to home-educate here.”
This is an important step forward for Irish homeschooling and a welcome commonsense ruling in Europe, where there has been a steady stream of negative outcomes.
It shouldn’t have taken a judge to tell Tusla that it was overreaching. Regrettably, too many government institutions, especially in Europe, view education as a paramount state responsibility. Home education is regarded with suspicion and as something that requires invasive state oversight.
More Work to Do
We hope that this ruling will inspire other governments, such as Germany and Sweden, to re-evaluate their hostile policies towards home education.
Home education is a fundamental right that all governments must protect and respect. And even where the state chooses, as in Ireland, to have regulations, it must not tread heavily on the rights of parents and families to be able to homeschool free from unreasonable government intrusion.
HSLDA’s mission is to make homeschooling possible. We commend the Sunshine family for their courageous stand. We, too, are thankful for their providential victory and commend the judge for a logical and commonsense ruling that is fully consistent with the explicit language of statute as laid down by the Irish Legislature.
HSLDA encourages all Irish homeschooling families to become familiar with this ruling and to assert their right by not using Tusla’s R-1 form. With many members in Ireland, HSLDA stands in solidarity with the Irish homeschooling community.