Federal Case Does Not Change State Law
by Mike Donnelly • October 1, 2019
A federal district court judge recently dismissed most of HSLDA’s claims in a lawsuit on behalf of a Massachusetts mother whose civil rights were violated.
In April 2018, state CPS investigators removed Josilyn Goodall’s son from the family home and kept him for a week over a dispute involving homeschool paperwork.
Home School Legal Defense Association contends that Josilyn’s constitutional rights were breached and that state officials disregarded Massachusetts law in their handling of the case.
We are evaluating whether an appeal would be appropriate.
The federal judge’s decision, which focused on Josilyn’s parental rights under the 14th Amendment, has no bearing on state law pertinent to the case.
HSLDA still insists that education authorities in Worcester acted improperly in reporting Josilyn’s son as truant.
The controlling case law on home education, the Charles decision, lays out the framework for relations between homeschooling families and local school committees. The case cites the law which requires advance approval for homeschooling but cautions authorities not to seek court action until after good faith efforts have been made to resolve any disputes.
The court case establishes guidelines for superintendents, which include the use of either a care and protection proceeding or a truancy prosecution as a way to seek judicial review.
Abuse of Authority
But we feel the greatest harm to Josilyn occurred when school officials reported her—and several other homeschool families—to the state’s Department of Children and Families (DCF).
HSLDA contends that Massachusetts law does not grant schools authority to report children as neglected simply because they are absent from school due to homeschooling. State law instead delegates oversight and enforcement of student attendance issues to schools and provides ample means for the school to address truancy concerns.
Using DCF to police school attendance is a poor use of scarce child protection resources. It is inappropriate, and we argue, unlawful, to use the sweeping authority of DCF, which includes the capacity to easily remove children from a home, for such situations.
The removal of a child from his home should only happen when a child is at imminent risk of harm. Removal of a child from a parent’s care, even when there is suspected abuse or neglect, is traumatic to the child and should only be used when absolutely necessary.
In this case, the harm to Josilyn and her son was serious. HSLDA sought to vindicate their rights and seek compensation even as we sought to stop schools from using DCF as truant officers. Over the past two years, HSLDA has obtained the reversal of abuse or neglect findings solely related to homeschooling disagreements. There have been many others who were reported, but HSLDA was able to demonstrate to DCF workers that families were in compliance and that a child neglect charge was not justified.
HSLDA will continue to work with families to safeguard their right to homeschool. Although Massachusetts is only one of two states that require approval, the relations between the homeschooling community and most school authorities is positive. As our work in Worcester shows, when HSLDA and an active homeschooling community work together with local and state groups (such as MassHOPE or MHLA) we can help improve policy.