Debbie Needed Legal Help and a Community. She Got Both.
by Mike Donnelly • November 15, 2019
Debbie Fleming (names changed to protect privacy) is one of the unsung heroes who represent the heart of America.
Agreeing to take guardianship of a child not her own, but who needed an adult to care for her, Debbie stepped in to fill a huge gap in the life of Sarah. She ended up homeschooling in the process, which was not an adventure she bargained for.
Debbie got to know Sarah when she was in a relationship with Sarah’s dad. Sarah’s mom had long since exited the picture—a victim to the scourge of drugs. When Sarah’s dad was incarcerated for a time, Debbie agreed to be Sarah’s guardian. Sarah was 16 at the time.
Sarah wanted to be homeschooled, but Debbie thought public school would provide more social interaction. Besides, Debbie had to work full-time to support the two of them.
Then, in 2016, Sarah accrued enough absences from school to be deemed a “status offender,” which placed her under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court system. After a period of court supervision, the case was dismissed; meanwhile Sarah continued to remind Debbie about her desire to be homeschooled.
School was difficult for Sarah. The crowded classes distracted her—and there were bullies.
Sarah told Debbie she felt like she would learn better on her own. Finally, Debbie agreed.So, having found a curriculum that Sarah could use, Debbie went to the school guidance counselor to start the homeschool process. It was near the end of the year, but Sarah’s counselor supported the decision. School was too stressful for Sarah, so the counselor accepted Debbie’s notice of intent.
New RoutineDebbie and Sarah began a routine that suited them. Debbie worked as a flagger for a utility company, which meant her day usually started at 4:30 a.m. In the afternoons and evenings, she helped Sarah with her studies and reviewed her work.
At the end of June, Debbie was surprised to receive a court summons to answer for Sarah’s previous public school absences. Debbie called the school and found that officials had sent letters inviting her to a meeting to discuss the situation, but that the mail had gone to the wrong address, and she had never received them.
A hearing was held in Harrison County Circuit Court at the end of July. Sarah was represented by a public defender who had told her not say anything to the judge.
Unfortunately, according to West Virginia law, a child charged with the status offense of school absences can be found guilty even if they say nothing. The court can then take jurisdiction over the child. But state law says that homeschoolers may not be prosecuted for truancy and are not status offenders. This was a change to the law that HSLDA championed in 2015.
There to HelpA friend told Debbie about HSLDA. We were glad to help someone like Debbie and educate the courts and officials in the case.
I made the trip to Harrison County to represent Debbie at a hearing in late September where I met the attendance director and prosecuting attorney in person as well as the judge and a social worker.
Debbie shared Sarah’s homeschool work and we discussed how she was enjoying her new educational environment and flourishing. The attendance director and prosecutor agreed that it made sense to drop the case.
Debbie and I were both grateful for this and left the courthouse relieved and pleased at what felt like providential intervention.
What happened next reinforced that feeling.
I invited Debbie to a coffee shop next to the Clarksburg Courthouse to talk about next steps. As we discussed the case, Debbie shared that she had resisted homeschooling because she felt that it was important for Sarah to be around other kids. I said there were probably lots of homeschool families in Clarksburg, and it might be good if we could help her and Sarah connect with some of them.
As we chatted, the barista overhead our conversation and interjected that she, the owner, had just graduated her seventh child from homeschooling.
Then another couple, who were seated on the other side of the small shop and the only other patrons at the time, overheard us. They interjected that they were homeschooling parents of seven. The mom told us that she was also the vice president of the local homeschool group.
I marveled at this amazing meeting of four homeschooling parents in the shadow of the courthouse after a successful dismissal of this case. It was just what Debbie needed.
Finding FavorAs they exchanged contact information, I reflected on the scene that I have often seen repeated. Although in different circumstances, I have frequently seen the favor that homeschooling receives in little ways like this. I’ve also seen it in big ways. The big ways can be easy to miss. Homeschooling has been legal in all 50 states for decades and is growing all over the world. But there are noisy opponents of homeschooling freedom. They argue that homeschooling should be more regulated because they believe it cannot give children what they need.
But Sarah and Debbie’s story reflects reality: many parents, including guardians like Debbie, are looking for something different. And they are willing to make sacrifices to do what is best for their child.
As I drove the three hours back to Northern Virginia, making phone calls to other members in trouble, I couldn’t help but appreciate that when families are free to homeschool, children are free to flourish.
Reflecting on Success
As a homeschool Dad of seven and HSLDA lawyer I have the privilege to see and talk with thousands of homeschool families all over the world. I attribute the success of homeschooling to two things. The first is really about the child and their environment.
Homeschooling isn’t bound by institutional constraints intrinsic to traditional schools: classrooms, desks, lines, strict schedules, high student-to-teacher ratios, or piles of homework. These things get in the way of education.
The second is more intangible but to me the most important. It is the love of the parent. When a parent or guardian makes the choice to homeschool, they are fighting for the best for their child. It is that kind of love that fights against all obstacles for the child. At HSLDA we fight for that kind of freedom for parents to love their children and make the choice to homeschool.
You can help us keep defending homeschooling families and children like Sarah. Join us, tell another family about us or make a donation to our freedom project!