A West Virginia bill intended to protect homeschooled children from abuse and named for a little girl who was tortured and neglected by her family is drawing no shortage of controversy among homeschoolers in the state.
In 2018, 8-year-old Raylee Browning of Oak Hill died at the hands of her father, Marty Browning, Jr, his girlfriend, Julie Dawn Titchenell, and the girlfriend’s sister, Sherie Titchenell.
According to The Journal, Raylee died from untreated pneumonia after being subjected to horrendous abuse by the trio of adults in the home, including withholding of food and water. While still attending public school, Raylee began asking for extra food and drinks during lunch, saying she was not allowed to eat at home. Her teachers reportedly made multiple reports to CPS, as did the girl’s mother, Janice Wriston.
While Nicholas County Child Protective Services was investigating physical, emotional, and sexual abuse claims against the adults in the home, Browning pulled Raylee from school, claiming to homeschool her.
In reality, Raylee was made to stand silently or walk the hallway for hours while the other children in the home learned.
Now, years after Raylee’s tragic death, West Virginia legislators are mulling over House Bill 4440, also called “Raylee’s Law.”
The bill, sponsored by Del. Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio with moderate bipartisan support, would prohibit homeschooling by individuals if there is an active CPS investigation of abuse or neglect or a conviction for domestic violence against them.
According to The Register-Herald, current state law requires a parent or guardian to notify the district school board of a plan to withdraw a child from the public school system in order to homeschool. Failure to do so results in the parent being called before a school board.
“The procedure right now is, essentially, the superintendent just blanket-stamps every request. Right now, if you have a CPS case against you, you can currently home-school,” Del. Fluharty told The Register-Herald. “Under current law, the abuser himself can go to the school and say, ‘I’m going to home-school.’ Let’s have an objective measure that says, ‘(Not if) there’s a pending CPS report.’”
“Raylee’s Law creates critical protections for vulnerable children,” said Dr. Rachel Coleman, executive director of The Coalition for Responsible Home Education, according to WOAY. “Abusive parents should not be able to exploit the homeschooling law by using it to conceal child abuse.”
While no homeschooler would even dream of defending the sick individuals who tortured this little girl (and would be furious at the fact that Browning was eventually released on bail), several homeschoolers interviewed by the Register-Herald expressed deep concerns with HB 4440.
“Read through this one time and your initial response probably won’t raise an eyebrow. It almost seems like a no-brainer to anyone who rightly thinks abuse and neglect is atrocious,” said Jamie Buckland, a homeschooling mother and legislative liaison for Raleigh Educational Association of Christian Homeschoolers (REACH). “Read it to a veteran home educator, and you’re going to get more than an eyebrow raised.”
“At what point should a parent have their rights and freedoms taken away by the government for the betterment of the child?” Buckland asked, adding that she feels that’s the real question many are trying to answer, including actual homeschoolers.
Buckland now lives on a 6-acre hobby farm with a lot of space for her children to explore and play, but that hasn’t always been the case.
“Before this, when my eldest was 12 years old, we lived in a neighborhood. On any given morning, you could have found him out on a four-wheeler in the one patch of woods he could find, armed with a pellet gun shooting at tin cans,” she explained. “One call from a concerned neighbor could have opened an investigation.”
“Then, under this amendment, he and his younger siblings would be legally forced to enroll into the local public school until the investigation is complete,” she said. “Think about that—they wouldn’t be removed from my home, there wouldn’t be grounds for that, they would just have to go to school.”
Buckland also felt that the school board failed to take their concerns to the judge to deny Raylee’s guardians the right to homeschool: “That’s already the law. The board has the authority to go to the circuit court and ask the law to do what the law should do—keep a suspected abuser with an open case from pulling a kid out of school to further hide their abuse.”
“I’m all for effective measures to expose behaviors which should begin the process of a parent losing their rights,” Buckland said, noting that she’d support legislation in Raylee’s honor if it actually addressed the issues that led to her death. “This just isn’t one. This is wasting time and resources when we could be discussing effective measures at the county level which would support the work to protect children at risk of being harmed by ill-intentioned parents,” Buckland said. “I’m doing that. I’ve met with staff at both Raleigh County and Mercer County board offices and have taken time to discuss concerns with staff at the state Department of Education. I’ll be emailing the delegates serving on the Education Committee to discuss my concerns. I suggest others do the same.”
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