Child advocates warn against unmonitored homeschooling

Less visibility often hides cases of abuse

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In a classroom, or the hallways of a school, it might have been strange for no one to notice a 7-year-old dropping in weight, to the point where a Mercer County detective said he weighed just 24 pounds and was described as looking like a skeleton.

But Antonio Rader, now 8, was not sitting in a school classroom, nor was he walking through school hallways. Instead, he was enrolled in cyberschool, apparently attending classes through the Internet from his Greenville home.

Antonio now is with a foster family, recovering. His mother, his maternal grandmother and her husband are facing charges related to child abuse, awaiting a preliminary hearing Wednesday. Much remains unknown about the case, including whether his family had any contact with the child and youth agency prior to June, when concerns about Antonio's welfare were reported by a passer-by who spotted him.

According to the state Department of Public Welfare, Antonio -- whom they identified as Anthony -- was not receiving services from Mercer County's Children & Youth Services agency at the time his condition was reported to authorities last month. A report will be issued in 90 days.

But some health and education advocates for children say Pennsylvania has had cases where children are educated at home so they are hidden from society's eyes. And they fear the Rader case could be another example.

"This is not the first time in Pennsylvania, and it won't be the last time, either," said Cindy Christian, a medical doctor who is chair of Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

Most families who choose to educate their children at home take good care of them, she said. But for high-risk families -- such as those known to social agencies -- there should be a procedure to make sure the child is checked on periodically, she said.

"One of the most important ways that cycles of abuse stop, that kids get connected to investigations, is because someone makes a report," said Cathleen Palm, founder of The Center for Children's Justice in Bernville, Bucks County. For children who are educated at home, "you have fewer opportunities for someone to lay eyes on them, for someone outside the home to say, 'Something doesn't feel right,' and make a report," she said.

In December 2011, after the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse charges shook Penn State University, the state General Assembly convened a task force to discuss child protection issues. In a November 2012 report, the task force made several recommendations, many of which have been translated into legislation.

One of the recommendations addressed the more than 36,000 Pennsylvania children who attend cyberschool, and the more than 22,000 who are homeschooled, recommending that monitoring be done if the family has a history of contact with a protective services agency and the child stops attending a typical school.

So far, the task force's recommendation remains just that: a recommendation.

Senate Bill 32, with Sen. Andrew Dinniman, D-Chester County, as its prime sponsor, sits still in the state Senate education committee. The proposed bill requires school districts to notify the county child and youth agency "if and only if" the family was the subject of a child abuse report in the 18 months before leaving the school.

Mr. Dinniman, in an interview, described his proposed bill as filling a void in protection. But Fred Sembach, chief of staff for Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon County, chair of the education committee, said there are no plans to move Mr. Dinniman's bill forward, due to concerns about government reach into the lives of families whose children receive their education at home.

"It's a balance between child protection and what the government does," he said.

Pennsylvania already requires families of children in all school arrangements to submit vaccine and medical records at certain ages, or cite a religious exemption.

Families who choose to homeschool their children must file an affidavit with the school district, which includes attesting that no one in the family has been prosecuted for a felony in the past five years. Each spring, families must meet face-to-face with an evaluator, said Susan Richman, who sits on the board of the Pennsylvania Homeschoolers Accreditation Agency in Kittanning and who is herself an evaluator, seeing 160 children each spring.

Cyber charter schools must monitor enrolled student's attendance and their progress, said Tim Eller, spokesman for the state Department of Education. But there is no requirement that a cyber charter school check progress in person, he said.

As for how individual cyber charter schools track progress and attendance, that varies widely. The Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools has a code of accountability for each of its member schools, but the codes do not have specific guidelines about visual contact between teachers and students, according to executive director Robert Fayfich.

The Pittsburgh Public Schools' cyberschool, Pittsburgh Online Academy, has a drop-in center on the South Side where students can come four days a week, if they prefer to have face-to-face contact with instructors, according to spokeswoman Ebony Pugh. The program's 126 students also receive at least four home visits a year, she said.

"We have multiple ways where we see our students," she said.

For the more than 11,000 students enrolled in PA Cyber Charter School, the details of contact between student and teacher varies from student to student, said Christina Zarek, spokeswoman for the National Network of Digital Schools.

There is a face-to-face meeting, involving the child and his guardians, before enrollment, she said. Instructional supervisors are in touch via phone with families on a biweekly basis, she said. "Technology-driven" mechanisms help instructors to track how much time the student is spending on coursework, and the home school district is notified if there is a truancy problem.

Maurice Flurie, CEO of Commonwealth Connections, the 8,300-student, Harrisburg-based cyber charter school in which Antonio has enrolled, has declined to discuss the specific case due to privacy concerns.

But he has spoken generally about the school's policies, and said that students see their teachers -- though teachers cannot see students -- via a live video conference twice daily. Phone calls are scheduled for every two weeks between the teacher and the student, a parent or both.

He also said that the school routinely works with children and youth services about detecting possible abuse.

"Our teachers have pretty extensive training in recognizing abuse," he said, adding he would be open to considering additional measures to "keep eyes on children."

"Anything we can do to keep kids safer is beneficial," he said.

Encouraging more eyes on children who are too young to attend school, or are attending school at home, has been Phyllis Matthey-Johnson's pursuit for more than a decade.

Ms. Matthey-Johnson, of Dillsburg, Pa., was the grandmother of Viktor Matthey, who was adopted from Russia by her son and daughter-in-law, who lived in New Jersey. Viktor, who was not attending school, died after suffering from cardiac arrest in 2000 at age 7, when he weighed 33 pounds, she said. His parents, who Ms. Matthey-Johnson said were not feeding him, were both charged in connection with his death. Both served time in prison but have since been released, she said.

Ms. Matthey-Johnson, who testified at a meeting of Pennsylvania's child protection task force, said her opinion is that children not attending brick-and-mortar schools should be required to receive at least one to three medical exams a year, a proposal that goes beyond what the task force ultimately recommended.

"I do think that children need to be monitored," she said.

But, she said, even she missed the signs. She saw Viktor weeks before his death, and was shocked by his thin appearance. But her son told her that Viktor wasn't eating, she said, and she couldn't believe that her son and daughter-in-law were not feeding him.

"I think about it still every day, if I had taken him" to an emergency room, she said.

Kaitlynn Riely: or 412-263-1707. Molly Born contributed.

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