Monday, June 06, 2011

The Invisible Children

Girl's death calls into question how DYFS investigates abuse

IRVINGTON — Four times between March 2006 and April 2008, anonymous tipsters called the state child abuse hotline to report that a woman in their Irvington neighborhood was screaming at her three children and beating them with a belt.

Each time, the Division of Youth and Family Services investigated, found no injuries or harm and deemed the abuse and neglect allegations against Venette Ovilde "unfounded," closing the family’s file for the last time on May 1, 2008.

Now Ovilde’s oldest child, 8-year-old Christiana Glenn, is dead from an untreated broken leg and malnutrition. Ovilde, 29, is sitting in jail. And child welfare veterans and advocates are questioning whether investigators missed any clues that could have foretold the family was headed for tragedy.
The mother had come under the influence of a crackpot Haitian "preacher."

  Like all government child/family agencies, DYFS has a mixed reputation. No one is sure how it operates. Caseworkers are overloaded.  It has been known to bring a heavy hand down on households that could, with better community resources, have been held together, while overlooking situations that turned tragic.

What puzzled me in this case was Ovilde's claim that she was home-schooling her children. It turns out New Jersey is one of 10 states that do not in any way track home-schooled children. There are no standards, none of the requirements public & private schools must meet.  In New Jersey, parents don't have to initiate any contact at all with the state or local school board. So, as far as Irvington, Essex County & the state were concerned, these three children just disappeared from the education system. They were invisible. They were not enrolled in any school.

Home schooling is not easy. To do it well, home schooling parents have to put as much effort, organization & discipline into it as any school teacher. There are abundant web resources, instructional materials, cooperative groups, & online courses. If Ovilde had been required to show some - even minimal - evidence that she was, in fact, home schooling her three children, I doubt very much  she could have complied.  She would then have been ordered to enroll the children in an approved public or private school until she could come up with a month's lesson plans, or teaching materials, or something. The horrible physical abuse given these three children -  starvation & beatings - would not have passed unnoticed in a school, nor would have long, unexplained absences.  A local Board of Education should know all the school age children residing in its district, & how these children are being educated as required by law.  I leave it to legislators to decide how much information local government needs to have. At the very least it needs to know children exist.

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"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be." Thomas Jefferson

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