Jo just wants to read. For years, no one in Michigan helped this 12-year-old go to school.
Jo can write her first and last name, but she does not know which letters to capitalize, according to her aunt.
She cannot construct a paragraph.
She struggles to add or subtract two-digit numbers, her grandmother said.
Jo is 12 years old.
Her peers are in seventh grade. But in Jo's whole life in Michigan, she has spent only about a week and a half in a classroom.
Jo’s parents, Kally and Sean, have refused to send Jo to school over the years, according to Kara Stamiris, Kally’s half sister and an aunt to the children. Kally and Sean said they have home-schooled and that their kids are not far behind academically. They dispute the accusation that their oldest daughter cannot read.
The Detroit Free Press is identifying the children in this story by their middle names, and their parents by their first names, to protect the privacy of the children.
Under Michigan law, children ages 6 to 18 must be educated. But there are few mechanisms or state agencies tasked to enforce that law: Neither the Michigan Department of Education nor Children's Protective Services plays that role. Local school districts can track absent children, but only if they are enrolled. Once, Stamiris said, she walked with Jo to a police station and shared her story. Officers were sympathetic, but told Stamiris and a tearful Jo that there was nothing they could do.
There is “literally no one to call” in Michigan in instances of educational neglect, said Jeremy Young, former executive director of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education.
“There is no state agency tasked with dealing with this,” Young said. “In fact, no one is empowered to do so. So it is completely within the right of the parent to educate or not educate their children as they see fit.”
The battle over Jo and her younger siblings' education intersects with long-running national debates around school choice and the control parents wield. Home-school advocates have lobbied for as little oversight as possible over home-school parents.
But Young and Stamiris argue that Michigan has an obligation to ensure kids are being educated, particularly now, when home-schooling is more popular because of the pandemic.
It’s hard to pinpoint how many children in Michigan are experiencing educational neglect, or even what rises to the definition: Children's Protective Services, which is a division of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, does not keep data on how many children its agents encounter who are not receiving an education.
The helplessness is maddening for Stamiris and Kathy Reeder, the children’s maternal grandmother and a retired Saginaw educator with more than three decades of teaching experience.
“She looks to us for help but I can’t help her,” Reeder said about Jo recently, through tears.
First — and last — days of school
Last spring, Jo attended public school for the very first time in a Saginaw school district during a brief window when her grandmother temporarily was appointed guardian for the children.
Educators placed the preteen in the fourth grade — where most kids are age 9 — though Jo tested at the level of a second-grader in both reading and math, according to Swan Valley School District records. Administrators placed her in the higher grade so she would have an easier time socializing, Stamiris said.
Jo wore a blue-and-white striped shirt on her first day of school.
In one photo from that day, she’s pictured sitting on a small square rug on her grandmother’s living room floor in Saginaw, eyes wide at the camera as she pulls a shoe onto her right foot, a massive smile spread across her face.
Two weeks after that first day, on the evening of May 26, Jo was in an emergency room in Saginaw, tearful and anxious. Her blood pressure was elevated, according to medical records. Her grandmother had brought her in for a mental health evaluation.
The day before, the girl had learned her time in school would be short-lived: A judge ruled in favor of Jo's parents. The decision overturned Reeder's guardianship and removed the girl and her siblings from their grandmother's custody — and out of school.
Jo told ER officials she wanted to stay with her grandmother. She felt helpless about the prospect of returning to her parents' custody, medical officials noted in documents reviewed by the Free Press. With her grandmother, she was “finally feeling happy,” she said, according to a record of her ER visit.
Doctors did not recommend hospitalization and sent Jo on her way.
The parents long told family members and others in their orbit that they home-schooled the children, but family members and a former roommate say that was not the case. The absence of education has become too evident to ignore for some members of Jo’s family: She has begged her parents, aunt and grandmother to go to school.
Jo's father responded to Free Press questions through text messages after multiple calls, emails and texts over several weeks. The father wrote that his wife has home-schooled their children for several years, but acknowledged that their oldest daughter fell behind academically through the "chaos of the pandemic."
"We have kind of been in crisis mode since the start of the pandemic," he wrote.
Stamiris spends her nights and weekends contacting state agencies, school districts and advocacy organizations to look for help for Jo. She carries a thick stack of documents in a blue binder and has saved dozens of videos and photos of the children to argue for their right to an education.
Every avenue turned up a dead end.
Bob Wheaton, a spokesperson for the state health department, wrote in an email that CPS has authority over educational neglect only when paired with other allegations of abuse.
A CPS investigator testified in May during a guardianship hearing that she was aware the children were not in school.
“The system that is supposed to be protecting her is so broken,” Stamiris, the aunt, said. “CPS doesn’t help; all of the people I ask can't help.”
Stamiris is worried about what happens to the kids in the present, but she also worries about the future — about grown-up Jo who can’t count change for a job as a cashier, who can’t read the menu at a restaurant. She’s worried her niece loses out on options every year she is not in school.
“I said to my sister a couple of years ago, ‘What are you going to do when (Jo) is 16 years old, and she can't read?' And the response was, ‘I guess we'll see.’ ”
'There was never a set plan'
In high school, Kally, now 36, once had the third-best average in her junior bowling league, Reeder said. She was the kind of high school friend who didn't hesitate to offer support, once helping a friend get to and from school when there was no other way.
But her eldest daughter has also always been a contrarian, Reeder said: “If I said it was blue, she said it was pink.” And she’s struggled with mental health issues, according to court records, Reeder and Stamiris — issues they believe haven’t been properly treated and are clouding her abilities as a parent.
Jo was born in 2009, her sister Jean in 2015 and her brother Anthony in 2017. Up until 2021, Kally, Sean and their children lived on and off with Reeder in Saginaw, living other times in low-income housing and apartments in Detroit, Reeder and Stamiris said.
The last five years, in particular, have been marked by turbulence.
In June 2016, Sean’s mother called Livonia police to her home because of Sean's and Kally's behavior, according to a police report. An officer observed Sean “acting very strange” — specifics are blacked out in the report, as are the items officers found and confiscated, some of the evidence deposited into the department’s drug safe, the report notes.
Alyssa Harris, the CPS investigator, testified that on that day the agency substantiated a drug abuse complaint against the parents. She did not specify what happened after the investigation. It does not appear any criminal charges stemmed from that visit.
In March 2017, Anthony, the youngest child, spent 30 days in the intensive care unit at 9 days old, according to medical records. The newborn had severe hypothermia and a viral infection.
A few months later, Anthony was brought into the ER with mildly elevated carbon monoxide levels. The ER doctor then was alarmed by the parents’ behavior (they seemed intoxicated) and filed a report with Children's Protective Services, according to medical records and CPS testimony. The parents maintained custody of the three kids.
As the three children grew up, friends and family members around Kally and Sean became concerned that the children, particularly eldest Jo, weren’t receiving an education.
Kally looked up crafts for the kids on Pinterest, but never seemed to move beyond basic planning, said Lucinda Clark, a friend of Kally’s who lived with Reeder, Kally, Sean and the kids when Jo was younger. She kept in touch over the years.
“There was never a set plan of what to do to teach her,” Clark said. “It was winging it and they knew it.”
Clark said Kally sometimes talked about unschooling, a method of home-schooling where children are encouraged to explore their natural curiosities, dictating their path in education. The philosophy works for some parents and research has shown many students of the method felt satisfied with it as adults.
But Reeder, Clark, Stamiris and others noticed the parents did little to encourage basic literacy or math. Kally remained firm in their decision not to send Jo to school. Reeder said she often argued with her daughter about sending the kids to school.
“She once told me, ‘You'll never tell me what I can do with my kids,' ” Reeder said.
Sarah Karl is Stamiris' half sister who is not related to Kally. But Karl has long known Kally and the kids, and said she became concerned a few years ago when she bought Jo a set of My Little Pony books. Jo seemed embarrassed and resistant around the idea of reading, Karl said, and struggled writing her name with sidewalk chalk, even though she was far past the age kids usually learn to read.
A 'slap in the face'
The parents insist their home-schooling approach is under attack by Kally's family, in part, because Kally’s parents were both public school teachers.
"They view our home-schooling of (Jo) pre-pandemic as a 'slap in the face' and seem to think the decision was meant as an attack on them and their careers," Sean wrote.
The father wrote that the family was utilizing a home-school curriculum following the Waldorf School philosophy, which places an emphasis on creativity. Curricula based on the Waldorf approach can vary and also depends on how a parent approaches home-schooling.
He wrote that the family wanted to permanently live in metro Detroit, a "paradise" for home-school families, "because of all the museums and cultural institutions."
He could not describe what a day looked like while home-schooling. He said his wife would be able to — but illness prevented her from answering questions.
The pandemic, however, jettisoned the family into crisis mode, he wrote, along with the Edenville Dam collapse near Saginaw. The parents lost many of their possessions in Reeder's house because of the flooding, he wrote.
"Concerning us 'not schooling,' yes, things keep getting interrupted by events outside of our control, like the pandemic," he wrote.
But while Jo may be behind academically, Sean disputes the notion that she is as far behind as the Swan Valley School District assessment showed, particularly because home-schooling does not follow traditional grade level progressions.
Last spring, a series of events briefly gave Jo the opportunity to become a student.
In February 2021, while Sean, Kally and the children were still living with Reeder, the grandmother called the police. Sean and Kally were fighting, according to a Thomas Township police report. Reeder told an officer that while they were fighting, Sean demanded Reeder hand him his cellphone, even though the phone she was holding was her own.
Before she could respond that she didn’t have his phone, Sean pushed her with both hands and enough force for her to hit the wall before she crumpled to the ground, Reeder told police.
“I’m 69. I've never been assaulted before,” she told the Free Press.
Reeder secured a court order preventing Sean from contacting her. A domestic violence case against him was pending in Saginaw County District Court. The prosecutor on the case did not respond to a voicemail. Sean did not answer questions about this incident.
The family left Reeder’s, but it wasn’t long before the children returned. Stamiris, who lives in Ypsilanti, got a frantic call from Reeder in late March asking her to pick Jo, Jean and Anthony up from an emergency room in Detroit. Stamiris said Kally had a mental breakdown and a court document describes the mother being found in a pool of blood while her children were present. Stamiris went to the hospital and met Karl, who had brought two car seats for the younger kids.
None of the kids looked like they’d showered in many days, Karl said. Jean’s hair was matted at the back of her head. Anthony, 4, clung to Karl like an infant.
From there, the kids stayed at Reeder’s and the grandmother filed for guardianship in Saginaw County Probate Court.
Judge Patrick McGraw heard Reeder's guardianship request on May 4, in a video-conferenced hearing.
Harris, the CPS investigator, testified that the agency had instituted a safety plan for the children to stay with Reeder while the parents did not have stable housing, according to a transcript of the hearing. But Harris also said she had little jurisdiction over the kids because she worked out of Wayne County, where the case first arose.
If Reeder's request for guardianship were denied, and the parents were to move to Wayne County, CPS would substantiate accusations of physical neglect, Harris said, and remove the children from their parents.
McGraw granted Reeder's guardianship request, but said he wanted to see the family at another hearing to consider the matter further.
Stamiris and Reeder raced to get the kids in school and took them to see doctors, because Stamiris said the children had not been medically evaluated for years.
A doctor in Saginaw wrote in a May 12 report, “The three children have unusual fears, including fear of getting into a bathtub, fear of going outside, fear of strangers.”
Reeder taught physical education for more than 30 years in the Swan Valley district, which is where she enrolled the three kids, enrollment letters show.
Jo was 11 when she joined fourth grade, about the age of a typical sixth grader, despite those district tests that put her at the second grade level. Jean was enrolled in an early kindergarten program. The 6-year-old loved school so much she asked to sleep in her classroom.
Reeder lined up summer school for Jo, which she never ended up attending.
Everyone returned to court a few weeks later on May 25, still over Zoom. McGraw terminated the guardianship. Kally and Sean regained custody.
McGraw explained in the hearing that guardianship requests in Michigan must meet narrow criteria, including that the parents' rights must have been terminated already or the parents must have allowed the children to live with the guardian without giving the guardian the legal authority to do so.
"CPS is involved. They know where the parents are living. They know where the children are. This is a decision that should have been made long before it came to me, from what I've heard today," McGraw explained. "That the children haven't been in school, they haven't done anything, and there has been no placement of these children."
Afterward, Jo refused to go with her parents and begged to be back in a classroom in videos provided by Stamiris.
“I want to learn and I want to be a functional adult,” Jo said on video. “They won’t send me to school. … They’re not home-schooling me like they say they are.”
Sean wrote that his eldest can read better than she's being portrayed.
"She has been trying to pretend she can't ever since she was returned to our care," he wrote. "She definitely can read."
He wrote that when his children were returned to him, they suddenly hated their parents and home-schooling.
"We are all in family therapy trying to put my family back together again," he wrote.
In a video from the day of the second guardianship hearing, Jo is crying on the phone, begging to stay with Reeder, a tissue in her hand. On the other side of the call was Kally, Stamiris said.
“You’re not committed to making this work because that’s what you always say,” Jo said in the video, tearfully speaking into the phone. “All you’ve caused in my life is trouble and sadness. You never learn from your mistakes. … I’m finally in school, I’m finally happy.”
Jo ended up at Sean’s mother’s house in Livonia, Stamiris said. The paternal grandmother has not returned Free Press phone calls.
The parents reportedly started living in a motel with the two youngest children.
By fall, no one was attending school.
Lax home-school law
After the guardianship hearing, Stamiris contacted as many organizations and politicians as she could. She sent emails late at night and on the weekends.
Her free time is spent looking for rulings that back up her most fundamental argument in this fight: that children have a constitutional right to education.
She has repeatedly contacted CPS. Stamiris filed multiple complaints with the state Department of Education. She filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education. She has contacted state senators. She is in touch with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office.
Over and over again, she has received some variation of the same response.
An aide to state Sen. Ken Horn, R-Frankenmuth, who represents Reeder, wrote to Stamiris: “I know that this is not the answer that you want to hear and I also understand your frustration, but the parents or guardians of children get to decide how their children receive an education.”
Michigan law requires parents or guardians to educate their children from ages 6 to 18, but the law empowers few with enforcement. Under state law, local attendance officers can seek misdemeanor charges on parents who fail to send their kids to school.
But attendance officers typically track only children they know about — those who are enrolled.
Attendance officers have no power to investigate home-schooled children. Parents do not have to register their children anywhere if they choose to home-school, nor do they have to submit evidence that they’re home-schooling. Under the law, if a parent says they’re home-schooling, that’s enough.
Compared with other states, Michigan’s home-school laws are lax.
Pennsylvania’s home-schooled families are subject to some of the most stringent regulations: Parents of elementary school-age children must file an affidavit annually with their local district, must provide at least 180 days of schooling and must keep a log of the child’s learning.
Every year in Pennsylvania, a licensed psychologist, a certified teacher or a qualified private school teacher must evaluate the child’s progress, and local school superintendents can challenge home education if they suspect it’s not adequate.
In Ohio, a state with fewer regulations than Pennsylvania, parents must annually notify their public school district of plans to home-school, including an outline of the curriculum and a list of teaching materials the parent plans to use.
Young, then with the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, said Michigan’s home-school laws leave a lot of risk for children — particularly when they are kept from school where teachers can notice signs of abuse.
“There are just no guardrails when something goes wrong,” he said. “In many cases, parents conceal their children from Child Protective Services, or from mandatory reporters who would call Child Protective Services.”
State lawmakers briefly weighed more oversight in 2015, after a mother in Detroit brutally abused and killed her two children, 13-year-old Stoni Blair and 9-year-old Stephen Berry, stashing their bodies in a deep freezer. Before they died, their mother, Mitchelle Blair, removed them from a local school to home-school them.
State Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit and then a state representative, introduced legislation after the discovery of the bodies.
The proposal would have required parents and caregivers to register their children as home-schooled with their local school district and have the children meet twice a year with an adult outside the home, such as a pediatrician, licensed social worker, counselor or teacher.
The bill fizzled after meeting heated opposition from home-school parents who argued instances like the Blair case were rare.
“There are some amazing home-schooling parents,” Chang said in an interview. “But the fact of the matter is there are definitely parents who are not providing any education. … We have really no idea what's happening or if those children are safe so that's a huge, huge gap in the law.”
Nationally, the number of home-schooling families has grown. In Michigan, parents don’t have to register their kids as home-schooled, but they can. In the 2019-20 school year, 290 students were registered. In 2020-21, that number jumped to 794, likely a very small fraction of the actual number of home-schoolers, given there are no incentives to register with the state.
Michael Donnelly is an attorney with the Home School Legal Defense Association, a Virginia organization that opposes increased home-school regulations. The father of seven home-schooled children said guardrails to investigate abuse are already provided through Children's Protective Services.
“There are laws that exist to protect children from harm and abuse; they should be enforced,” he said. “We don't assume that parents who choose to home-school are abusing or neglecting their children.”
More oversight, he said, assumes there’s a problem among home-school parents.
“There isn't a need for that kind of intrusive intervention in families without a reason to believe there is a problem,” Donnelly said. “People are innocent until proven guilty in this country.”
Sean wrote that if the state were to tighten its home-schooling laws the family would "probably just move elsewhere."
There is no data that quantifies how many kids in Michigan are not attending school or not receiving an education.
Wheaton, with the state, said his agency will get involved in education issues only when paired with other allegations of abuse and neglect. If someone is suspicious solely of educational neglect, the law dictates that they should go to a school’s local attendance officer, Wheaton said.
Stamiris has done that. In Saginaw, truancy officers told her there was nothing they could do because of the home-schooling exception.
Even with CPS involved now, Stamiris said the agency has been sluggish in its response to education concerns, failing to ensure Jo and her siblings are enrolled in an education program.
Mat McRae, superintendent of the Swan Valley School District, wrote in an email that, in general, the lack of accountability is a problem.
“This is a big ‘monster’ that has spiraled out of control since the pandemic. In my opinion, accountability for parents who choose to home-school needs to be in the legislators' hands.”
At 11:30 p.m. Oct. 17, Stamiris emailed U.S. Reps. Debbie Dingell and Haley Stevens, and U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, outlining her nieces' and nephew's story in several long paragraphs.
“What a sad society we live in when all of the adults around her can’t make this happen,” she wrote of Jo. “It’s mind-boggling to me that it’s such a fight to help a kid go to school.”
The next morning, she wrote to the Free Press, “I feel like no one cares.”
'She just wants to be a kid'
With every week that passes, the problem feels more pressing for Reeder and Stamiris. Anthony will be school age next year. Jean already is the age of a kindergartner, when kids explore storybooks and learn the alphabet. Jo is six years past when many children enter school. Kids her age read chapter books and prepare to do algebra.
“She just wants to be a kid, just a normal kid in a safe home, where people love her and take care of her and go to school,” Stamiris said.
In February, a Wayne County family court judge granted a CPS petition to sever Kally's and Sean's custody of the three kids, because the parents' circumstances had become so dire.
In justifying the removal, a CPS official wrote in court documents that the parents had become homeless and were living out of their car, after placing their children with Sean's mother in Livonia.
Before then, the family lived in a "dirty motel room," according to CPS, which found that the children were not bathing, and one of the children had untreated ringworm. Jo also told a CPS investigator that Kally had texted her that the three children would "be better off without" her.
The kids still weren't in school, according to the petition, and CPS had never observed any "lesson plans, learning materials or computers to assist in home-schooling."
A judge granted the removal Feb. 15, putting the children under care of CPS. Stamiris and Reeder believe Jo and her siblings are all living as foster children with their paternal grandmother as the custody battle plays out.
The custody order is temporary, and the case is ongoing.
For Reeder and Stamiris, there is a glimmer of hope.
Foster children in Michigan are required to be enrolled in school.
Jean, the middle child, was nervous about telling her mother the news, Reeder wrote in a text message. Stamiris, excited, went shopping for supplies.
And on the last day of February, Jean and her big sister Jo once again stepped into a school.
Contact Lily Altavena: email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @LilyAlta.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan girl falls through cracks of home-school education system