When Missouri parents Tiffany and Anthony Swearengin saw their children weren’t making progress in school, they followed the lead of millions of American families: They notified the school, took their kids out of class and started homeschooling.
Then the Swearengins received a letter 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 letter threatens the parents with the “above named juvenile be[ing] placed in the legal custody of the Missouri Children’s Division.”
But no such court legally exists, and now the judge, R. Craig Carter, who’s behind an effort described by the Home School Legal Defense Association as “improper intimidation and retaliation against any parent who withdraws a child from public school to lawfully homeschool,” is finding himself on the defense in a lawsuit.
Carter declined to respond to a WND request left with his office for comment.
But the Home School Legal Defense Association, HSLDA, has asked the Missouri Court of Appeals to order Carter, of Ava, Missouri, to stop.
HSLDA was notified when the family received the letter, which styled itself as a “Notice to appear before the truancy court of Douglas County, Missouri.”
“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,” it threatened.
“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.”
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.”
In a filing with the Court of Appeals for the Southern District of Missouri, HSLDA laid out the facts in seeking a “Writ of Prohibition” against the judge.
The filing 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.
Shortly later, 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 Swarengins 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 tells the appeals court. “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 legitimately believed was a 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.”
At the higher court, they “seek a preliminary (or peremptory) writ of prohibition and subsequent writ of prohibition to prohibit the respondent [Carter] from mandating relators attendance in ‘truancy court.'”
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, explaining, “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 notice that was sent to the parents left them “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.”
That created apparent violations of the Missouri Code of Judicial Conduct, which requires judges to “uphold and promote the independence, integrity and impartiality of the judiciary,” and “shall 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 warned. “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 notes that state law is clear: “A declaration of enrollment to provide a home school shall not be cause to investigate violations of [compulsory attendance].”