Natalie Finn’s Death Points to Lack of Homeschool Oversight in Iowa

For Immediate Release: Recent Iowa child abuse fatality is not the first to implicate homeschooling and abuse

Canton, Ma., 01/03/2017—On October 24, 2016, sixteen-year-old Natalie Jasmine Finn died after suffering years of starvation and abuse. Natalie, who lived in West Des Moines, Iowa, was homeschooled by her parents, Nicole Marie Finn and Joseph Michael Finn II. “This is far from the first case where homeschooling has contributed to the concealment of child abuse,” said Rachel Coleman, executive director of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education (CRHE). “Natalie’s death is part of a larger pattern.” CRHE was founded in 2013 by homeschool alumni in order to advocate for homeschooled children..

State Senator Matt McCoy, who represents the district where Natalie lived, called Natalie’s abuse “one of the most torturous forms of death I could think of” and “absolutely tragic.” Some researchers have identified a correlation between homeschooling and severe child abuse or child torture. In a 2014 study of child torture, Barbara Knox of the University of Wisconsin found that 47% of the school-aged child torture cases she examined involved children who had been enrolled in school and were later removed to be homeschooled. According to Knox, this homeschooling “appears to have been designed to further isolate the child” and “typically occurred after closure of a previously opened CPS case.” As Knox noted, this isolation “was accompanied by an escalation of physically abusive events.”

Natalie attended an alternative school during the 2014-2015 school year, but was subsequently homeschooled. While few details have yet been released, Natalie’s parents were reported to child protective services on a number of occasions. However, Iowa allows parents to homeschool even when they have been repeatedly reported to child protective services. Because there are no background checks for homeschool parents, even those previously convicted of violent crimes, sexual assault, or child abuse are permitted to homeschool. Since 2000, over 100 homeschooled children have died of abuse or neglect in the United States. “Homeschooling works best in stable, healthy home environments,” said Coleman. “Homeschooling offers abusive parents a way to isolate their children and may lead to an escalation of abuse.”  

Five years ago, Iowa had some of the most thorough oversight of homeschooling in the country. Then, in 2013, the state’s legislature passed a law repealing the state’s homeschool requirements; today, homeschooling takes place with no accountability. Previously, parents were required to homeschool under the supervision of a certified teacher or to submit an annual assessment providing evidence that the child had made adequate academic progress. Iowa’s defunct homeschooling requirements may have saved 11-year-old Sarah Neely’s life a decade ago; when Neely’s father began canceling their meetings, her supervising teacher made a report to the police. Neely was found locked in an empty room, thirty pounds underweight.

“It is time to say enough is enough,” said Coleman. “When the legislature gutted its protections for homeschooled children four years ago, it created conditions that contributed to Natalie’s death.” Two states, Pennsylvania and Arkansas, require background checks for homeschooling parents, and legislators in several other states, including Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, have sought to create protections for at-risk homeschooled children in recent years. “Homeschooling should be used to provide children with a solid education in a loving home environment,” said Coleman, “not to isolate children and hide child torture.”

The Coalition for Responsible Home Education is a national organization founded by homeschool alumni and dedicated to raising awareness of the need for homeschooling reform, providing public policy guidance, and advocating for responsible home education practices.

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