Erica Parsons, for those who have not been following the story, was a little girl from North Carolina who has been missing since 2011. In September, her body was finally found when her adoptive father, Sandy Parsons, led investigators to the site of her shallow grave on his family’s South Carolina farm.
Erica Lynn Parsons was born on February 24, 1998 in Moorseville, North Carolina, to Carolyn Parsons and Billy Dean Goodman. Carolyn did not feel she could adequately care for Erica, along with her three other children, and Billy Dean Goodman had serious problems with substance abuse and was regularly in trouble with the law up to his recent death in January 2016 from natural causes.Wary of putting Erica in foster care, Carolyn instead agreed to have her ex-husband Steve Parsons’ brother Sandy, and his wife Casey, adopt Erika in 2000. Erica was born with disabilities, including hearing loss, which was discovered when she briefly attended public school. Based on her features and reports of intellectual disability, it is likely that Erica also had Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. According to the Charlotte Observer, Sandy and Casey Parsons received federal money to assist with Erica’s disabilities. They also received money from the state to care for her due to her status as adopted. For unknown reasons, Casey, Erica’s adoptive mother, pulled the child from public school when she was little and registered her home as a “Christian Homeschool”. Due to the limited laws in North Carolina that govern homeschool regulations, it was not difficult for Casey to establish a homeschool at her rural home outside of Salisbury.
Erica was likely not educated at this homeschool, and certainly was not accommodated for her disabilities. Instead, she was routinely abused, starved and neglected up to her disappearance, often kept in a closet and fed dog food. Federal testimony from family members and those who knew the Parsons indicate that Erica was left out of family activities, and that her adoptive mother hated her and said she wanted to kill her. Casey Parsons’ sister, Robin Ashley, testified in court that Casey “couldn’t stand the sight” of Erica’s face, refused to let Erica call her “Mom”, and admitted to assaulting her. According to Robin, Erica reminded Casey of Carolyn Parsons, whom she did not like, and told Robin she was afraid she might lose control and kill her.
It is not uncommon in child abuse cases for one child in a family to be singled out for abuse, and often the reason is due to the child reminding the abusive parent of someone or something they do not like. Disability is a reason, as well, and can intersect with other reasons for abuse, neglect and homicide, or in some cases, be the sole reason for the abuse. In abusive families, the parents on occasion encourage everyone else to abuse the singled out child, which is what happened to Erica. Erica’s adoptive older brother Jamie testified that he had participated in abusing Erica from the time he was five years old to when he was sixteen and “could no longer stand it”. At one point, he said, he even broke her arm.
The abuse inflicted on Erica by her parents escalated to homicide, as we now know, but for years, no one outside the family was aware that Erica was missing, including her biological mother. After she was finally reported missing by her brother Jamie in 2013, law enforcement looked into her disappearance. Jamie reported to police that he had not seen Erica since 2011. Casey and Sandy maintained that Erica’s biological Grandmother Irene “Nan” Goodman had taken Erica to live with her in Asheville, and all was well. The FBI were not able to find evidence that Nan existed. There was no Irene in the Goodman family, as relatives from that side reported.
Since Erica was homeschooled, that was one way in which her disappearance was kept hidden. North Carolina homeschool law does not require the state to make sure that children in homeschools are necessarily being educated, treated well, or accommodated for their disability.
Homeschool and Disability
According to the North Carolina state government’s website, where one can begin the process of registering a homeschool, what is needed is proof that the parent, called the educational administrator, has a high school diploma or equivalent, an email address, intent to start the school, and a decision about whether it is religious or not. Attendance sheet templates are provided on the website, as are links to standardized testing which children are required to take every year. However, there is no minimum grade required to pass it. As far as receiving disability accommodations and therapies, that is up to the parent.
This is not to disparage homeschool, which, in optimal situations, can be very good, and in some states, there are options for parents to receive disability accommodations from their local public school. Homeschool law varies from state to state, but the type of lax homeschool regulations seen in North Carolina are not uncommon.
If Erica had continued in a North Carolina public school, state and federal disability laws would have covered her there, and the school would have to provide her with Special Education classes, speech pathology and other related disability accommodations. Instead, since she was homeschooled, the laws in North Carolina are not the same. It is entirely up to a parent whether or not they will provide disability related education, therapy and accommodations to a child. For Casey and Sandy Parsons, this was not a priority, in fact, it would have enabled Erica to potentially report the abuse and communicate with other adults about her life at home. Keeping Erica unaccommodated for her disabilities was a crucial factor to facilitating the ongoing abuse, as it often is in cases of abuse of disabled children.
I have a hearing loss like Erica’s, and I received speech pathology in school. I also received free audiology appointments and hearing aids, which were covered by the state, and my teachers were aware of my hearing loss and involved in making sure I received a good education, which is also important for someone with intellectual disability, as Erica had. Erica’s parents did not use the state money given to them to take Erica to an audiologist or a speech pathologist, and there was no one around to make sure it happened. They were eventually convicted of fraud for this, but by then it was too late. Erica was already dead.
According to the US Department of Education, there are over one million homeschooled children in the United States, a number which has been increasing since 1999. Disability has been cited as a reason for parents to homeschool their children. In 2011, 17% of homeschooling parents said that their child having special needs was the reason for homeschooling, and 15% said the child having a “physical or mental health problem” caused them to homeschool. Incidences of parents citing disability as their reason for homeschooling have increased in the last decade.
Homeschool and Homicide
Along with rising numbers of homeschooled children have been reports of high numbers of homicides occurring within United States homeschools. Further research needs to be done on this area, but according to Homeschooling’s Invisible Children:
Our preliminary research suggests that homeschooled children are at a greater risk of dying from child abuse than are traditionally schooled children. This preliminary finding is based on an analysis of the cases in our Homeschooling’s Invisible Children (HIC) database and on national government reports on child maltreatment.
If disability is one of the major reasons cited for homeschooling children, this is an issue, since disabled children are susceptible to abuse at higher numbers than able-bodied children. Deaf and hard of hearing children experience abuse at higher rates than hearing children, and intellectually disabled children are also victims of crime in high numbers. The combination of a vulnerable population (disabled children) with an area not subject to enforcement of their rights and protection (homeschool) is cause for serious alarm, and may be a reason behind the high numbers of homeschooled children being killed.Having a disabled child can cause parents to become stressed, overwhelmed, and to resort to violence, according to the CDC.
If we are going to try and reduce the number of homicides of disabled children, we have to look at homeschools. Erica was not just murdered, she was subjected to years of torture. She was starved, beaten, isolated, kept in a closet and neglected. Not accommodating a disability is also abuse. Erica was not taught sign language, she was not given hearing aids, she did not see a speech therapist, and she was not accommodated for her intellectual disability. This adds another level to her suffering and isolation.
Currently, an autopsy is being performed on Erica’s body, and Sandy and Casey Parsons, who are both in prison on fraud charges, are awaiting further sentencing for their roles in the homicide.