Isolation, Deprivation, Torture, and Disability in Homeschools

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The Turpin parents, shown in the courtroom.

Homeschool can play a vital role in one of the key elements of child torture: isolation. Isolation is necessary to sustain the type of environment where child abuse can escalate to the level of torture.

A uniform definition of child abuse torture has not been officially established, and torture previously has been defined largely in a political or state context, such as by the United Nations. Torture is consistently stated by researchers to be prolonged suffering inflicted on a victim or victims in order to for the perpetrator(s) to meet some kind of need. This need can be political; it can also be emotional. Torture in any context is long-term, severe abuse that can include several elements, such as deprivation, starvation, psychological manipulation, and neglect of medical problems. A major component necessary to continue torturing someone is the total isolation and confinement of that victim. Only in isolation can a perpetrator continue to get away with this level of mistreatment.

Without total isolation, a child or children undergoing severe abuse and maltreatment would certainly arouse suspicion from people outside the home who could potentially put an end to it, such as teachers and doctors. Homeschool is a way for a perpetrator to remove themselves and their victims from environments where the suspicion of authorities might be incurred. Homeschool also allows a victimizer to keep a child confined in a home all of the time. In many of these cases, very little education is really happening, and homeschool is being used as a cover for abuse. The abuse has primacy; everything else is situational, and an unregulated area of the law is being used to provide a cover. It can be quite easy to start a homeschool in many U.S. states, and there is no oversight or regulation involved, something which has been consistently pushed for by organizations like the Homeschool Legal Defense Association, a well-funded arm of the Republican Christian Right.

In every homeschool story I have written about in this blog, isolation is an important detail. The Naugler children were isolated in the woods. Erica Parsons was kept away from society in her rural home, Hana and Immanuel Williams lived in a rural, gated, insular religious community, and before that, they were kept segregated from society in an orphanage, and now, the thirteen Turpin children, who were chained in their house and “homeschooled” shows how it is possible to isolate, torture and deprive 13 humans even in a suburban neighborhood with neighbors close by. Many people have responded to the Turpin story by asking incredulously how it is that neighbors did not notice anything was wrong, and never called police. Neighbors should not be the ones relied upon to make these kinds of reports, and child abuse cases regularly indicate that neighbors do not really know what is happening inside another home in their neighborhood, even if they have suspicions that something is off. It is important to remember that victimizers of children will go to great lengths to not be found out, and it can be difficult to tell just by looking at a child from across the street or driveway that a severe level of abuse is occurring within their home. The optimal type of person to identify and report child maltreatment is found in a professional environment, such as a doctor, teacher, or disability support professional.

Disability and Torture

There is a further element of isolation and deprivation which occurs in a torture case when the child has a disability. Erica Parsons had hearing loss and intellectual disability, Hana Williams had PTSD, Immanuel was Deaf. When a person is Deaf, it can be tremendously isolating in and of itself if there is no sign language, closed-captioning, or capable people around to facilitate communication, let alone in an abuse situation, which compounds the isolation and deprivation that can come with deafness. Not providing access to deaf and disabled children is a form of neglect already.

Deaf children may not be able to speak clearly enough for hearing adults to understand, sometimes because they are too young, sometimes because those children were purposely prevented from receiving speech therapy or any instruction or support around communicating with the outside world. Adults who victimize deaf children are aware of this fact, and it actually benefits the abusers, as this story about a school for the Deaf in England, where many children were abused for decades, demonstrates. Not providing disability accommodations or language to a child keeps them isolated, deprived and unable to ask for help. This is consciously done on the part of an abuser, and needs to be understood within the criminal justice system as being particularly reprehensible, and a further level of victimization.

Another element of torture is neglect. Parents who commit child torture do not take their children to the doctor regularly, if ever; they do not get them disability related services or ongoing accommodations, they do not keep them in public school consistently or at all. The Turpin children rarely saw doctors, with some of the children reportedly not knowing what medications or doctors even were. Some may say this was a religious preference, others may say keeping the children from medical professionals, teachers, and other services was vital to maintaining an environment where torture could continue. Total deprivation, isolation, neglect and confinement are of substantial benefit to someone who is committing child torture. It is important to recognize how isolating children in a homeschool can allow all of these elements to occur, and to occur for a prolonged time until the victim dies or is close to death.

In many homeschool cases, the only time anyone found out what had been going on was after a homicide had happened, sometimes years after the homicide occurred. Erica Parsons was missing for three years before law enforcement had been contacted, and no one in the community was aware that she was missing. Keeping Erica isolated in a rural home, registered as a homeschool in name only, allowed Casey and Sandy Parsons to torture the child for many years.

The Role of Disability Law and Criminal Justice

If disability law is extended to cover homeschools in every state, homeschool abuse cases can be potentially found out and prevented. It is not acceptable to allow a disabled child to go without accommodations and access, no matter what your religious beliefs may be. It is neglect, plain and simple, and can cause physical pain and suffering to the child, and allow them to be vulnerable to victimization not just by their parents, but by many people, and keep them from gaining independence.

In the case of abuse, the presence of disability elevates and heightens the terror and pain felt by the victim.

The rights of disabled children to have disability access trumps the desire by parents to isolate, neglect, deprive, and abuse them. This means that the rights of children are more important than a religious philosophy, more important than any “off the grid living” mentality, and more important than upholding lax homeschool regulations. Disability rights are a fundamental human right. And ensuring that human rights are adequately enforced provides a way to potentially crack down on an area where many homicides of children, both able bodied and disabled occur: homeschools.

If a disabled child has the appropriate therapies, access, and medical treatment, this can alleviate stress on the parent or parents of the child. Parents of disabled children need support, and a disabled child needs to learn independence. Mobility aids, hearing aids, sign language, and a disability-rights based education can allow this to happen.

Of course, in the case of severe abuse, control, and deprivation, it is not part of the plan to provide a child or children with any support or assistance. The abused child is being used in a way that benefits the parents. It is not about the child’s rights or access at all. Requiring and enforcing disability access in all schools, not just public schools, is a potential way to catch perpetrators, and it is also a way to catch the absolute worst perpetrators, the ones who torture children.

Disabled children are often selected on purpose to enter into situations of abuse due to a variety of ableist and complex factors, and once in any number of situations, like a home or a school, they are more likely than able-bodied children to be abused. Hana and Immanuel were selected by the Williamses for adoption because they were disabled and it was considered more “Godly” and self-sacrificing on the part of the parents to adopt such children. Once in the home, the reality of having disabled children paired with parents who were already volatile and problematic contributed to the situation escalating to homicide. In the case of Erica Parsons, she was born with disability, and this most likely was a deciding factor in her being placed for adoption with her relatives, Sandy and Casey Parsons.

In the case of the Turpins, it is also likely that the deprivation, starvation and neglect the children endured caused psychiatric, emotional and physical disabilities, even if there were no disabilities present before the onset of the severe abuse. The timeline so far of the case is not entirely clear.

Disability needs to be understood as an element of child torture; something that is used by a perpetrator to further victimize, isolate, and deprive a child, and also as a characteristic that makes a child vulnerable to becoming ensnared in a case of severe abuse in the first place.

Both of these factors necessitate further regulation and law around homeschools, and better understanding of the role that disability plays in child torture and mistreatment.

 

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The Turpin family’s California home, and [inset] a photo of the parents and their children. [image description: photo of taupe colored suburban home with van parked out front, in dry desert climate. Inset shows 13 children in matching t-shirts from Dr. Seuss’s “Cat in the Hat”, each designating a child as “Thing 1”, “Thing 2”, going up to higher numbers. They are smiling and posing together in a group. Faces of the children are blurred for anonymity.]

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