A homeschooler's right to divorce
I want to keep her from changing the lives of other parents too. I want to give every parent in Oregon the right to choose their children's schooling -- as Federal law allows -- and still retain parenting rights.
I want to keep her from taking away legal custody, parenting time, even property, because she doesn't agree with the choice a parent makes to home school one or more of their children.
That's exactly what happened to me. I appealed the decision and the local appeals court affirmed without opinion -- in other words, "pass."
I have to take this further. My attorneys, homeschoolers themselves, have only a few weeks to research dozens of decisions all over the country and submit the brief that will sway the state's highest court to reverse the decision, and in doing so make sure that parents like me can feel free to leave unhappy or abusive marriages without being penalized for making the educational decisions they know are right for their children.
I went into my divorce trial in January 2014 in reasonably good spirits. My divorce attorney, whose trial presence I couldn't afford, was sure I could represent myself "if anyone could, it's you." Our court-ordered custody evaluator had delivered a recommendation in my favor: I should get legal custody, majority parenting time, and stay in the house I had purchased prior to our marriage. He wrote that our children were well-adjusted; I'd been the primary caretaker for most of 12-plus years of my children's lives, often without my husband present. I had delivered a brief to the judge's door the previous day, with the evaluator's report attached, detailing my requests that she follow his recommendations.
I didn't stay in good spirits for long. The judge took a disliking to me, especially when I began describing the children's schooling. My oldest had struggled his whole life with anxiety and what was diagnosed as "oppositional defiant disorder." When his school therapist and best advocate told me one day, "it's amazing your son's staying on grade level, getting zero instruction" because of the constant battle with his teachers over increasingly minor behavioral issues, I threw up my hands. He was suspended for throwing a paper airplane and hitting a teacher by accident: "assault." He was suspended for throwing some books out of a bookcase in anger over a dispute with another child: "destruction of property." The descriptions were in criminal terminology and I was afraid that, in addition to going to school and learning nothing, I would show up one day to see my nine-year-old in handcuffs.
"That's not an exaggeration," I've been told by so many people who work for the schools or as advocates for parents and have seen just this scenario.
I took him out of public school and started spending a lot of time with him. Instead of facing a school environment where he was constantly battling teachers or other students in the behavioral classroom he had been placed within, he could follow his interests, reading or researching online anything he wanted. It's an educational philosophy that many highly educated genuises espouse passionately. I think it was working well for my son; he was getting along with the other children in his life, especially his brothers, much better. His health improved. He seemed happy more of the time. He and I had fascinating conversations about politics, literary devices, psychology, science. I loved parenting him again; I loved the time he spent at home.
With two questions Judge Allen eviscerated my soliliquy about my son. "Can he write?" she asked. I said he could. "What evidence do you have?" I said he wrote me all the time on Skype, the messaging platform. It was a mistake. Writing, to her, was very narrow and there was only one way to assess it. "Do you assign him papers?" she asked. I don't; that's not exactly the educational philosophy I follow; my stomach sunk. She was livid.
This isn't about my ex-husband. But during the trial he admitted to battling alcoholism and depression; he described his three years overseas military duty as a "forced detox." He was in bad financial shape that day; he had to leave the trial to appear in another courtroom where he lost the eviction proceeding against him.
The thing is that my husband was also part of educational decisions about my son -- about all of the children -- prior to a divorce filing, legally, all decisions that are made about the children are considered to have been made by both parents unless significant evidence exists to the contrary. Abdicating a part in the decision, whether that be by physical absence, emotional absence, or simply letting the other parent make the call, is the same as affirming it. My ex-husband's behavior, legally, was the same as the appeals court who affirmed Judge Allen's decision without an opinion.
The judge gave me all the credit for this decision; however accurate that might have been, still, she had no legal basis for punishing me for it. For judging my parenting as "neglectful" because I took my oldest son out of public school, despite expert testimony from the custody evaluator to the contrary.
I was making a legal educational choice for my oldest son and the judge called me neglectful. What's more, she punished me by taking all of my children away: by awarding my ex-husband legal custody, majority parenting time, possession of the house I owned, even the ability to claim them as dependents on his taxes.
The judge punished me for a decision federal law says is my legal right; and the appeals court said "OK."
Letting this stand isn't really about me. I'm sad, I'm financially debilitated, I think my kids are suffering. I know my oldest is. (I know his teachers and his peers; I see them more than I see him; they tell me things.) But I know it will be a long time before the decision can or will be changed. I'll have to find my peace with the decision as it is for many months, probably years.
Even my ex-husband says the judge decided wrongly. She was unfair. And it's not ok.
I have had so many other parents come to me; mostly women; to say, "please give me advice. I'm afraid to leave my spouse."
"I saw what happened to you and I'm afraid I will lose my kids too."
I don't think family court judges should have a say in how a parent chooses to educate a child, as long as that education is legal. Not only is it likely to be arbitrary and biased, but letting this decision stand will trap parents in marriages, unless they're willing to educate their children in the most mainstream way available.
I don't want the fear of retaliation for parenting choices to be a factor in whether people stay in marriages that aren't working for them.
I don't want what happened to me to happen to anyone else.
I'm setting my goal high because the more money I raise, the more time my attorneys can devote to making this brief shine. I only have a few weeks to raise the funds; I'll need to write a check for at least a quarter of this by May 16. My bank account is, quite literally, bare, thanks in most part to the ravages of the judge's decision.
I'd love it if you did this for me and my children; my oldest will likely be a freshman in high school by the time the supreme court hears this case. But they'll never hear it, and hundreds or thousands of other parents will suffer, if I can't raise the money. Don't do it for me; do it for the other parents who have made choices they believe are in their children's best interests.
I'm not interested in fighting my ex-husband any more. I'm interested in fighting the system to uphold my right, and other parents' rights, to homeschool their children and to get divorced without punishment.
I'm interested in fighting for mothers and fathers to make decisions for the children they raised, they carried in their bodies or watched come into this world, they worried over as babies and struggled over as toddlers and loved, loved, loved. A judge who sees a parent for a few hours and who only knows a child by name and birth date should not get to decide how the rest of their childhood should progress. This is too much power, wielded too unevenly.
Let's change this.