Homeschooling rules allow abused children to slip through the cracks

Lenient homeschooling rules could let abused children slip under the radar
Published: Jul. 27, 2017 at 10:44 PM HST|Updated: Jul. 28, 2017 at 10:44 AM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Parents who want to homeschool their kids don't encounter any resistance — not even if they're under investigation by state Child Protective Services, a Hawaii News Now investigation has found.

To homeschool a child, there's only one form to fill out.

And the state Department of Education doesn't have the authority to deny any request.

The issue is garnering greater scrutiny in the wake a Big Island murder case in which a 9-year-old girl was pulled from school and then starved to death.

Shaelynn Lehano Stone, 9, died last year from starvation.

Her parents, Kevin Lehano and Tiffany Stone, has been charged with murder. So has her grandmother, Henrietta Halaka Stone, who had custody of the girl.

The girl had been in the CPS system since she was a toddler, but her family was allowed to pull her out of Hilo Union Elementary School in November 2015.

Seven months later, she was found unconscious in her Hilo town apartment. She died within hours at the hospital.

"Anybody can pull a kid out for homeschooling," said Hawaii County Prosecuting Attorney Mitch Roth, who is drafting legislation that would require the DOE to provide homeschooling information to CPS for review before approving an application.

Roth said the proposed legislation would close a loophole that allows child abusers to pull abused kids from the school system. Educators are mandatory reporters, which means they have to notify authorities if they believe a student is in danger.

Roth said his proposal, which already has the support of several lawmakers, would require further review if a family is in the CPS system and a family court judge would intervene.

A former neighbor of Lehano and Stone, who did not want her name used, said she and others who lived close to the family had called police before to report suspected abuse.

"I know that CPS was involved in this case," the woman said. "Why would you let those parents homeschool their children when school is the only place where a lot of times the injuries can be found?"

HNN also found that while students in homeschool are supposed to be tested each year, that doesn't always happen.

"Parents may choose whether or not to have their child participate in the annual Smarter Balanced Assessment," the DOE said, in a statement.

That means once a student is out of the system, that child may never be followed up on.

"Common sense dictates that we don't allow a child to become invisible when there's been any history of abuse," said state Sen. Josh Green, chairman of the Human Services Committee.

He said he will sponsor Roth's bill and introduce it when the next session begins in January.

"It's not too much to ask to have coordination between Department of Education and Department of Human Services," he said. CPS is part of the Department of Human Services.

HNN has also learned that Shaelynn Lehano Stone was not just isolated from educators, but from others in the community.

Neighbor Makana Rossetti said his niece and nephew would play with Shaelynn's siblings, but that she was never allowed outside the apartment. He is also floored that the state doesn't follow up when kids in the CPS system are no longer enrolled.

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