Today’s update illustrates the reason I feel as strongly as I do about calling attention to the tragic stories of the kids I write about: because as terrible as these stories are, they can be the catalysts for positive change in the systems designed to protect children.
A couple of months ago, I covered the horrific case of West Virginia eight-year-old Raylee Browning, who, according to the medical examiner who performed her autopsy, most likely died of a severe septic infection “due to necrotizing Bronchopneumonia with diffuse alveolar damage of uncertain etiology.” When she died, she was covered with bruises, burns, and lacerations, and there was a tear in her rectum. The autopsy report stated that the infection that killed the little girl should have been obvious to her caregivers before she died, but therein lies the problem.
According to police, not only were Raylee’s caregivers well aware of her health problems, they were the cause of them. Raylee’s father, Marty Browning, his girlfriend, Julie Titchenell, and Julie’s sister, Sherie Titchenell, have been charged with death of a child by parent, guardian, or custodian and child neglect causing death.
Staff at Mount Lookout Elementary School, which Raylee briefly attended, made reports to CPS alleging that Raylee was being abused, neglected, and starved by her caretakers to the point where she would beg school cafeteria staff for extra food because, she explained, she wasn’t allowed to eat at home. Raylee’s biological mother, Janice Wriston, was unable to intervene, because, she alleged, Marty took Raylee (along with Julie, Sherie, and Julie’s three children) and moved to an undisclosed location, failing to notify the court of their new address, so she was unable to locate her daughter until it was too late.
Raylee was savagely punished by the adults in the home for any perceived wrongdoing. Sherie frequently punished Raylee by withholding food and water. The adults would also punish Raylee by hitting her with various items, including belts, metal objects, and wooden spoons.
CPS came to the school to talk to the children, but Marty, Julie, and Sherie coached the kids not to disclose anything to the CPS workers who interviewed them. At one point, when Sherie was unable to come up with any more plausible lies to explain Raylee’s injuries to the school, she was withdrawn to be “homeschooled.” While Sherie and local homeschool mother Lynaia Castle gave the other kids some of their lessons, however, Raylee was forced to stand quietly in a nearby hallway. If Raylee moved or made a peep, Sherie forced the little girl to walk up and down the hallway for hours.
The three adults charged in the case were initially arrested in December 2019, a year after Raylee’s death, and have since been released on bond. In January of this year, Sherie told reporters that a gag order bars her from speaking publicly about the case.
When Raylee died, Nicholas County Child Protective Services was in the midst of investigating claims of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse against the adults in the home.
Unfortunately, homeschooling is a common tactic employed by abusive parents and guardians, because it is a way to isolate an abused or neglected child from mandatory reporters, such as school staff, who are mandated by law to report any suspicions of such conduct. Homeschool educators, by contrast, are not required by West Virginia state law to report suspected child abuse or neglect, which is far too convenient for those “educators” who happen to be the abusers themselves.
Various sources estimate the number of children currently homeschooled in the United States to be around 1.6 to 1.8 million, which equates to 3 to 3.5% of all school-aged children in the country.
The Coalition for Responsible Home Education (CRHE), an advocacy group that “empowers homeschooled children by educating the public and advocating for child-centered, evidence-based policy and practices for families and professionals,” reported that from 1986 through the present, there have been at least 162 homeschooled children nationwide who have died, with 147 of those deaths taking place from 2000 to 2019.
So what about this positive change I mentioned earlier? Well, recently, legislation was introduced in the West Virginia House of Delegates seeking to protect kids like Raylee. House Bill 4440, sponsored by Del. Shawn Fluharty (D-Ohio), would prevent anyone from homeschooling while under a CPS investigation for abuse or neglect or if convicted of domestic violence.
Del. Fluharty introduced the bill, also known as Raylee’s Law, after a teacher at Raylee’s school informed him about her heartbreaking case. While the bill has received strong support from Democrats and Republicans alike, Del. Fluharty is perplexed by the influx of oppositional emails he has received since the bill’s introduction from homeschool educators, who dislike the bill due to fears that false CPS reports may be made against them, even though current state law would cause penalties to be imposed on anyone who falsely reports child abuse.
“I don’t understand why I’m getting hit with so many emails and people are so upset,” Del. Fluharty said. “It’s straightforward… If there’s an investigation, we can’t just allow anybody to pull their children from a public school when they’re alleged to be abusing them. If there’s a pending investigation, that takes time. We need to make sure it’s followed through on and find out whether the reports have merit or not.”
To me, this is more than straightforward; it’s a no-brainer. No one is suggesting that, under Raylee’s Law, you couldn’t homeschool your kids; they’re merely saying you couldn’t pull your kids out of school if CPS is investigating you. It’s one thousand percent intended to protect children. I see very few valid reasons anyone would oppose this bill unless, for example, they’re abusing their children.
“Under current law, the abuser himself can go to the school and say, ‘I’m going to homeschool,’” said Del. Fluharty. “Let’s have an objective measure that says, ‘[Not if] there’s a pending CPS report.”
In this article from The Register-Herald, several homeschool educators, including biological and foster parents, raise concerns about the bill. While their thoughts on the matter are presented articulately and intelligently, reading this article, for me, amounted to several minutes of an adult from the Peanuts cartoons talking directly into my ear. Honestly, the entire article infuriated me, especially this quote from Jamie Buckland, a homeschool parent and legislative liaison for Raleigh Educational Association of Christian Homeschoolers, also known as REACH: “At what point should a parent have their rights and freedoms taken away by the government for the betterment of the child?”
Um… how about fucking immediately?! As a parent, I would willingly and happily hand over my every last right and freedom if that’s what it took to keep my children happy, healthy, safe, and alive. Anyway, my point is, read the Register-Herald article linked above at your own peril.
Other homeschool advocates with consciences and brains in their heads, including CRHE, urge lawmakers to pass Raylee’s Law. Dr. Rachel Coleman, executive director for CRHE, said, “Raylee’s Law creates critical protections for vulnerable children. Abusive parents should not be able to exploit the homeschooling law by using it to conceal child abuse.”
“We are working with lawmakers and speaking with homeschooling parents in West Virginia to ensure that the state’s homeschool statute supports West Virginia’s homeschooling families and vulnerable children alike,” Dr. Coleman continued. “We are grateful to Del. Fluharty for taking bold action to protect vulnerable children in West Virginia.”
Only one state, Pennsylvania, currently has a provision on the books to prevent parents convicted of violent crimes or crimes against children from using homeschooling laws to their twisted advantage, although, Dr. Coleman says, lawmakers in an increasing number of states are becoming aware of the issue. “By passing Raylee’s Law, lawmakers in West Virginia have the opportunity to provide leadership in this area.”
Until the matter is decided, I’ll be keeping every finger and toe crossed that Raylee’s Law is passed and that it will usher in a new era of protecting at-risk homeschooled children. As horrible as Raylee’s story is, if this law is passed, at the very least, her death will not have been in vain.
Sources: Times West Virginia, The Register-Herald, WOAY