The Missouri state Supreme Court is weighing in on a case alleging a judge set up a “fake” truancy court and then threatened homeschooling parents with the removal of their children if they didn’t appear before him.
All because they were homeschooling.
The Home School Legal Defense Association has been representing the parents, Tiffany and Anthony Swearengin, who received an apparent legal notice ordering them to appear in “truancy court” R. Craig Carter after they removed their two children, ages 6 and 8, from the Ava, Missouri, public school.
The notice, styled as a legitimate legal document, threatened the parents with the “above named juvenile be[ing] placed in the legal custody of the Missouri Children’s Division.”
HSLDA has confirmed that the state Supreme Court has given Carter until 4:30 p.m. on April 11 to respond to the organization’s petition to rescind the order.
HSLDA had dispatched a lawyer to Missouri to appear on behalf of the family for a hearing Carter had ordered on Monday, but as Senior Counsel Scott Woodruff “waited outside the courtroom, Judge Carter came out and said that the Supreme Court had called him that morning and that the hearing was [postponed indefinitely].”
“On Tuesday afternoon, a Springfield law firm notified the Supreme Court that it represented Judge Carter. A few hours later, the Supreme Court requested Judge Carter’s lawyer to respond to the petition by next Monday,” HSLDA said.
Jim Mason, the group’s vice president for litigation and development, said the petition challenges the notice and threats delivered by the court to the Swearengins.
“We learned that so-called ‘truancy courts’ are not really courts at all; it is a term used around the state for voluntary diversion programs designed to keep kids in school without formally prosecuting them,” he explained. “But this family received a formal-looking ‘summons’ that even I, an experienced homeschool lawyer, originally believed to be legitimate. The ‘summons’ threatened to take legal custody of the children if the parents didn’t show up.”
Additionally, the voluntary “truancy courts” are intended for legitimate attendance problems, not families legally homeschooling in the state, HSLDA said.
WND previously reported the letter to the Swearengins was from Rose Pursell, the chief deputy juvenile officer in the Douglas County, Missouri, court system, notifying them “to appear before the Truancy Court of 44th Judicial Circuit, at the Juvenile Court Center.”
The Swearengins responded with the legal action against Carter, who was accused of “improper intimidation and retaliation against any parent who withdraws a child from public school to be lawfully homeschool.”
Carter didn’t respond to a WND request left with his office for comment.
HSLDA first asked the Missouri Court of Appeals to intervene, and then when the court refused, appealed to the state Supreme Court.
The letter to the Swearengins said: “The truancy court will discuss the above named juvenile (sic) attendance of (sic) school, which brings the juvenile within the jurisdiction of the juvenile division of the circuit court.
“Attendance in truancy court is mandatory and failure to comply with this notice can result in the judge ordering the juvenile office to file a petition requesting that the above named juvenile be placed in the legal custody of the Missouri Children’s Division,” the notice said.
HSLDA points out that other jurisdictions run “informal” programs that they sometimes call a “truancy court” to encourage regular school attendance.
“Those programs, however, don’t try to trick people or scare them into thinking they are in a real court. They are honest and transparent,” HSLDA says. “Encouraging students to obey the attendance laws is an honorable goal. But those who pursue that goal must themselves obey the law.”
‘Treating homeschoolers like criminals’
The organization’s request for a writ of prohibition to stop the litigation explains the boy’s first grade teacher had wanted the parents to medicate their son because he was “hyper” in class, even though the boy’s physician had said no such action was needed.
The family decided enough was enough and started homeschooling.
Almost immediately, the mother was summoned to Assistant Superintendent Mike Henry’s office, and he “asked if there was anything the public school could have done to keep them from withdrawing their children to homeschool, since now the school would be receiving less money from the state.”
Henry warned that Carter’s “policy” would require an investigation and a caseworker visit.
“Mrs. Swearengin stated, ‘it was not illegal to withdraw her children from public school to homeschool them and that it seemed like he and Judge Carter were treating the Swearengins like criminals,’” the filing states.
No caseworker ever came, but the “notice” did.
“This ‘Notice’ was issued without any legal grounds to believe that the Swearengins were violating the compulsory attendance law,” HSLDA says. “The only possible reason Mr. and Mrs. Swearengin were summoned to bring their young children to the ‘truancy court’ was because they withdrew their children from public school to homeschool three days earlier.”
The statements, the “policy,” the timing, the official-looking “notice,” “all suggest improper intimidation and retaliation against any parent who withdraws a child from public school to lawfully homeschool them,” the brief states.
“The notice to appear in this case is not a lawfully issued notice to appear in a lawfully established court in spite of its appearance and ‘mandatory’ nature,” HSLDA writes. “The Missouri Code establishing the court system of Missouri does not establish ‘truancy’ courts.’”
The couple was “frightened by the notice, which they believed was a legitimate summons to appear in juvenile court.”
“Their daughter read the notice and asked her parents if it meant that she would be taken away from her parents.”
The judge’s court, the filing explains, “is not a duly constituted court of Missouri. It has no lawful authority to summon anyone or mandate participation in a voluntary diversion program. Moreover, referring parents to ‘truancy court’ because they have withdrawn their children from public school to lawfully homeschool them is an improper act of intimidation and retaliation and is a usurpation of judicial power.”
The filing blasts Carter, asserting a circuit court judge “is acting in an extra-legal manner attempting to coerce parents and children into a mandatory process that is utterly outside the law, before a court that does not exist.”
The case became egregious because the parents were “threatened with the loss of custody of their child – not for continued failure to comply with state law regarding compulsory attendance, but for failure to attend this mandatory hearing.”
The complaint alleges violations of the Missouri Code of Judicial Conduct, which requires judges to “uphold and promote the independence, integrity and impartiality of the judiciary” and “comply with the law.”
“This judge is engaging in both impropriety and the appearance of impropriety by fashioning fake court papers designed to scare people. His violation of the Canons of Judicial Ethics are facially apparent,” HSLDA warns. “A judge who attempts to scare a young person by using an illicit process teaches the exact opposite of the lesson desired in a nation that believes in the rule of law. The law is optional, the young person learns – officials who act outside of the law are the real power in this nation. Every detail of the ‘summons’ is calculated to deceive the recipient into believing that a judicial process is pending against him.”
The filing also argues state law is clear: “A declaration of enrollment to provide a home school shall not be cause to investigate violations of [compulsory attendance].”
HSLDA noted that in making that statement, lawmakers “anticipated” the conflict and “expressly” sought to prevent it from happening.