Arrested for Homeschooling
On January 4, 2010, the news broke: homeschooling parents Richard and Margie Cressy had been arrested on criminal charges of child endangerment and their mug shots were splashed across local newspaper and television reports. If convicted, they could face jail and a fine.
© Jessica George
HSLDA came to the aid of Richard and Margie Cressy after they were arrested in connection with homeschooling.
What had the Cressys done to “endanger” their four sons? They had failed to notify their local school district that they were homeschooling.
A Typical Homeschooling Family
Richard and Margie Cressy began
homeschooling in Gloversville, New York, in 2000, when their oldest son, Levi,
turned 5. Their reasons were both religious and academic. “We’re Christians; we believe it’s our duty to school our children, to train them,” says Margie. “We truly enjoy our children, so we enjoy having them home with us. We believe that we can give them the best education.”
Two years later, the family moved to a small dairy farm in Glen, west of Albany. They didn’t know many other homeschooling families, nor did they realize that support organizations existed to connect them with homeschoolers around the state and to provide important information and resources.
“We were not members of New York State Loving Education at Home; we weren’t really members of anything other than our own church, so we knew nothing about Home School Legal Defense Association at all,” explains Margie. “It’s not good to not be involved in groups; we’ve learned that. You need the support groups.”
However, they took their homeschooling seriously. They set up a schoolroom in their home and kept careful records of what Levi, Jesse, Jacob, and John were studying. The boys were evaluated through standardized tests administered at their church’s private school. Margie used the family’s immersion in 4-H as an integral part of her homeschooling, and her sister, a certified teacher, provided help along the way. In short, the Cressys were a pretty typical, committed homeschooling family.
But in 2009, the day before Thanksgiving, a social worker from Montgomery County Child Protective Services (CPS) visited the Cressys. She said that there had been a report that the Cressy children were not being schooled, since they had been seen playing outside during school hours. And the Fonda-Fultonville Central School District had no record that the family was homeschooling.
Under New York State homeschooling regulations, homeschooling families are required to submit an annual notice of intent to homeschool (sometimes mistakenly referred to as “registering”), an annual Individualized Home Instruction Plan (IHIP) for each child, quarterly reports, and annual evaluations. But the Cressys had not done so since they had moved to the Fonda-Fultonville district.
“When we had lived in Gloversville, we had sent in a notice of intent, but never heard anything more from the school there,” explains Margie. “So we never even did quarterly reports there—they never told us we needed to do anything.... Then we moved down to Glen and we never submitted any paperwork—which we should have, but we did not. We figured we were in the system.”
© Jessica George
The Cressy boys
(L to R): Johnny (9), Levi (15), Jacob (11), and Jesse (13).
The social worker explained what the Cressys would need to do to bring themselves into compliance with the homeschool regulation. Rick and Margie were eager to cooperate and immediately started the process of submitting a notice of intent.
A week later, on December 2, the social worker returned, accompanied by her assistant and a man wearing a black trench coat. This time, what Margie thought would be another friendly meeting turned frightening. The man turned out to be a sheriff’s investigator, who grilled Margie about the family’s homeschool program and then demanded to see the children’s birth certificates.
“He scolded me harshly and told me that if I wasn’t willing to cooperate with him, he would put me in cuffs and take me downtown now,” Margie remembers. In tears, she called Rick at the trucking company where he works as a diesel mechanic.
Arriving home a few minutes later, Rick found the investigator and social workers still in the kitchen with Margie. “Your kids are going to end up being social idiots,” the investigator told them. “Aren’t you worried about how they’re going to be able to function socially? You might as well keep them locked up in the house, because they’re never going to be able to get a job; they’re just going to end up on welfare.”
Thoroughly frightened by the time the authorities left, Rick and Margie finished submitting their IHIPs to the Fonda-Fultonville superintendent, Dr. Richard Hoffman. Then they personally delivered copies of their paperwork to CPS. The sheriff’s investigator was also present when the Cressys brought their paperwork to social services, and the brief meeting turned into a two-and-a-half-hour ordeal as the Cressys were again grilled about their homeschool.
Cressy Litigation Team
HSLDA General Counsel
HSLDA Deputy General Counsel
HSLDA Staff Litigation Attorney
HSLDA Staff Attorney for New York
However, the Cressys’ outlook was optimistic after receiving a letter from the superintendent saying that their homeschool was in compliance with the law. Margie says that in a meeting with Dr. Hoffman, he told them, “The curriculum looks great. Your children are obviously well-educated,” and said that he would notify CPS that the family was in compliance.
On December 29, the Cressys received a phone call from the social worker, who invited them to a meeting at the sheriff’s department the following morning. Thinking that the CPS investigation was finally being wrapped up, Rick took time off work to accompany Margie to the police station, where they waited for an hour before being brought into a back room. “They told us we were being arrested,” says Margie.
Over the next four and a half hours the shaken couple were fingerprinted, photographed, and criminally charged with four counts each of endangering the welfare of a child—all for failing to file homeschool paperwork with the local school district. They were then released, after being issued appearance tickets to appear in town court on January 26.
“I wanted to protect my family, but how do you protect them against the government?” says Rick. “Because they just come in and plow you over.”
The Turning Point
In the Cressys’ rural community, their arrest was big news—and when the story broke the following Monday, it took on a life of its own. “Montgomery County couple allegedly home-schooling children without approval,” read the headline in Schenectady’s Daily Gazette. The local CBS television station ran a report, “Homeschooled or Forgotten?,” in which Superintendent Hoffman was asked how a family could have homeschooled under the radar for so long without being caught. On the six o’clock evening news, the Cressys’ arrest shared top billing with a murder.
“I went to the grocery store right after it hit the news, and I had people pointing at me,” remembers Rick. “It was just horrible. Everywhere you went, people were talking about you.”
At work on Tuesday, Rick heard from a coworker that a local radio personality, Al Roney, was doing an hour-long program on the case. Seeing an opportunity to possibly vindicate his family, Rick called in. After sharing his side of the story for about 20 minutes, Rick was asked to call in again the following day.
The couple and their four sons were now at the center of local media attention. “Every local paper was calling us,” Margie says. “The phone rang nonstop every day. The local media came for a week straight. The three television stations kept coming to our home.”
Unexpectedly, the story had been picked up by the Drudge Report. On Tuesday, the story went viral as bloggers around the country caught wind of it. While the facts of the case were clear—the Cressys had not filed their paperwork—many commentators questioned the extreme charges. With no evidence of any kind of abuse or neglect, it made no sense to charge this couple with child endangerment.
Meanwhile, someone at the radio station that had aired Rick’s interview notified HSLDA of the Cressys’ situation. Although the Cressys were not members, HSLDA wanted to help, and staff attorney Thomas J. (Tj) Schmidt told the caller that the organization would consider taking the Cressys’ case if the family expressed interest.
“Typically in New York, when you have somebody who doesn’t report, the school may contact the family or even turn the situation over to social services,” says Schmidt, HSLDA’s contact attorney for New York member families. “But it’s unheard of for them to actually arrest a parent for not reporting.”
Rick and Margie immediately responded to HSLDA’s offer of help. In a phone call with Schmidt, Rick explained the details of their situation and arranged to fax all the relevant paperwork so that HSLDA could make a final decision about taking the case.
“We waited a while, biting our nails,” recalls Margie. “By this time we had talked to somebody else who told us what HSLDA was, so now we’re thinking, ‘Wow, there’s actually somebody out there that specializes in this!’ That was exciting to us, very much a glimmer of hope.... When Tj called my husband back and said, ‘Everything looks great; we would like to represent you,’ you can’t imagine the relief. That was a really incredible moment in our lives, to see God come through.”
HSLDA Steps In
“It was completely unnecessary to arrest these parents, and we believe this is outrageous,” said HSLDA Senior Counsel James Mason in a statement made at the time HSLDA took the case. He later told LifeSiteNews.com that the Cressys’ arrest was “highly unusual,” pointing out that ‘this is basically a paperwork issue, not a [child] endangerment issue.”
© Jessica George
The Cressy family.
Because there is no criminal charge for truancy in New York State, in the rare instances when a paperwork issue does go to court, it is normally dealt with confidentially in family court and then dismissed once the paperwork is in order. To prosecute the Cressys, the sheriff’s department and the district attorney had had to resort to a criminal charge vastly out of proportion to the issue. “Child endangerment is for serious offenses like leaving young children alone in a locked car on a hot day,” explains Mason.
“HSLDA took the case of this nonmember family to help defeat an overreaching prosecution,” says HSLDA President Mike Smith. “If the Cressys could be convicted of child endangerment over nothing more than paperwork, it would set a precedent in New York with dangerous implications for all homeschoolers statewide, including HSLDA’s thousands of member families there.”
HSLDA hired New York attorney William Lorman as the Cressys’ local counsel. Relying on HSLDA’s expertise in the area of homeschool law and Lorman’s knowledge of the local scene, HSLDA formulated a defense.
On January 26, the criminal case got underway with the Cressys pleading not guilty to the charge of child endangerment. Then the other shoe dropped. Although the social workers had appeared to be satisfied with the superintendent’s assessment that the Cressys’ paperwork demonstrated complete compliance, CPS filed a petition in family court. (In New York, when there are criminal charges for child abuse or neglect, social workers often bring a parallel case in family court.) This meant that the Cressys were now involved in two separate court proceedings.
In family court, on February 10, the judge agreed that the case should be dismissed since the paperwork had already been caught up. The family court case was “adjourned in contemplation of dismissal,” which meant that the case was set for automatic dismissal in six months, as long as all of the year-end paperwork was submitted on time. The next step was to mount a strong defense in criminal court.
Meanwhile, the Cressys juggled daily life with the added challenges of being in the public eye. The case had stirred up local politics. Local newspapers that started digging deeper into the story realized that there was no reason to prosecute this family. In an editorial printed on January 15, the Daily Gazette wrote:
If Richard and Margie Cressy, of Glen, had kept their four kids chained in the basement for seven years, or otherwise subjected them to serious harm, then they would have deserved to be arrested and charged with endangering the welfare of children, as they were by the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department in late December. But it looks as if all they did was fail to comply with the state’s paperwork requirements for homeschooling.
Criminal charges should never have been brought....
Law enforcement officials have discretion and the Sheriff’s Department should have exercised it in this case. Prosecutors also have it, and [the district attorney] should do the same.... Drop this foolish case.
The media attention brought strong support from other homeschoolers. Phone calls poured in from all over the country and even overseas, as families expressed concern and encouragement. For the first time, the Cressys experienced what it meant to homeschool as part of a larger community.
Rudy Hugo, the president of statewide homeschool organization Loving Education at Home (LEAH), was especially concerned for the Cressys. He contacted them as soon as their case became known and stayed in touch via regular phone calls and visits.
“When I saw the family, I was outraged, because they’re just the finest family that I’ve ever seen,” Hugo remembers. “The boys were polite, well-groomed, well-mannered, well-spoken. They were under such a media barrage.” Hugo set up a prayer chain for the Cressys and put them in touch with two local homeschool groups. “There was an incredible amount of support; I’m proud of our organization for that.”
CPS also stayed in touch with the Cressys. Although this was to be expected since the Cressys were still under investigation, HSLDA’s Jim Mason and local counsel Bill Lorman told Rick and Margie what they hadn’t known before: they did not have to allow any social workers into their home.
On a final visit to the Cressys, their social worker attempted to enter the home as usual when Margie came to the door. This time, Margie said firmly, “My lawyer says that I don't have to let you in.”
When the social worker became upset, Margie offered to call her lawyer—but first she shut the door, leaving the social worker standing outside. “It was very hard, but I kept hearing the lawyer say, ‘Don’t let her in; she’s not your friend.’ ” With the lawyer on the phone, Margie opened the door again and offered to let the social worker speak with him. Instead, the social worker walked away.
“You don’t know how good that felt!” says Margie of being able to protect the privacy of her own home. Nonetheless, Margie’s various encounters with local authorities had made her nervous. After the social worker left, Margie and the boys went to her mother’s house, not returning home until Margie had spoken with each of her attorneys and been reassured that she had done nothing wrong.
Even though the superintendent was satisfied, the family court judge was satisfied, and the local paper had called for the criminal case to be dropped, the prosecution went forward. The Cressys’ case would have continued on through the motions stage and a trial in town court, but for a New York statute that Jim Mason ran across while researching a possible motion to dismiss the charges.
“It’s not a statute that’s used all that much,” says HSLDA Litigation Attorney Darren Jones, who assisted Mason with the case. “In fact, none of the judges or local lawyers were familiar with it until we brought it to their attention.”
The statute Mason discovered applies only to criminal charges of child endangerment that could have been brought as neglect cases in the family court in the first place. It allows the judge in the criminal case to transfer the entire case to family court. For the Cressys, this would mean taking the case away from the prosecutor and transferring it to the same family court judge who had already reviewed the situation and dismissed it.
On March 6, 2010, the town court judge was asked to transfer the endangerment case to family court. The motion was granted, and on May 26, Richard and Margie Cressy appeared again before the family court judge, this time regarding the transferred criminal case. After satisfying himself that the issues were identical to the family court case he had already disposed of, the judge dismissed the criminal charges.
“After he made his judgment, he said, ‘Now, let me just take a minute and ask, are we all in agreement that everyone has the right to homeschool?’ ” recounts Margie. “And everybody agreed yes. And then he turned to me and he said, ‘How are the children doing?’ I told him they were doing well. He said, ‘Good—keep up the good work.’ ”
On June 1, when the six months had passed without further incident, the family court case was formally dismissed.
The knock on the door ... arrested and booked ... mug shots on the news. All just for homeschooling their children? These things don’t happen in America anymore, do they?
“Arresting parents reminds me of the ‘old days’ of HSLDA,” says HSLDA Chairman Michael Farris. “Today, these kinds of tactics are rare. Most officials use the more insidious method of sending social workers who threaten to remove children.”
But just because this story is unusual doesn’t make it any less relevant to other homeschoolers. There are lessons we all can learn from the Cressys’ harrowing experience.
Like most American citizens, the Cressys trusted the local authorities who came to their door in November 2009. They assumed that if they were cooperative and open, able to clearly show that their children were being well-educated, CPS would quickly wrap up the investigation. Rick and Margie were unprepared for what actually happened.
“You need to be members of HSLDA,” says Rick. “This wouldn’t have gotten rolling had we been members, because when the authorities came to the door we would have dialed HSLDA and handed the phone to them at the door.”
Homeschooling is still a movement—we still need each other. We need to be in community, to stand together, because while general acceptance of homeschooling is high, it is not universal. As the Cressys discovered, it’s through staying connected with support groups and state organizations that we can be informed and strengthened when challenges come our way.
Another lesson is that, like it or not, homeschooling is a highly regulated activity for many families. It is each family’s responsibility to know what regulations affect them and to abide by those regulations to the best of their ability and as far as their consciences allow. Together, we can work to improve the law.
Finally, while no one likes to think so, sometimes homeschoolers find themselves in need of a lawyer. By standing with us, HSLDA members make it possible for our attorneys to help good homeschooling families like the Cressys in their time of need.