Home schooling may have helped hide Denver boy’s death for months

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DENVER -- The death of a 7-year-old boy is the reason some child advocacy experts say Colorado needs to further regulate home schooling.

Caden McWilliams was last seen at his Denver elementary school on May 31, 2018, according to the former assistant principal at his school. School leaders told the Problem Solvers that in August, they received word that McWilliams would be home-schooled for the 2018-2019 school year. However, FOX31 has learned Denver police now believe McWilliams was already dead in August. The department estimated his death date as May 24.

A body believed to be that of Caden was found by Denver police in a storage unit Dec. 23. Based on the body's decomposition, detectives believe the boy had been dead for nearly seven months.

"It’s unfortunate we need a poster child, but Caden, unfortunately, will now be the example that hopefully leads to changes in legislation and changes in action," said Ned Breslin, the president and chief executive officer for the Tennyson Center for Children. The Tennyson Center provides residential and non-residential treatment for kids who have been abused.

"There’s increasing evidence now that that is one of the techniques that parents who do abuse and neglect their children will do: they will pull their kid out of school and home-school them," said Breslin.

43-year-old Elisha Pankey has been charged with child abuse resulting in death after turning  herself into police on Jan 2. Police haven't released how they think her son Caden died, but there is a strong suspicion Pankey never home-shooled her son.

In Colorado, parents who home-school their children are required to provide 172 days of education a year, but there is no real enforcement to prove that is taking place.

In order to home-school a child, a parent merely has to notify a school district in writing 14 days prior to home schooling, but it doesn't even have to be the district the family lives in. For instance, a Denver parent can notify a school district in Grand Junction to satisfy Colorado requirements.

"Most states don't do a lot of regulation for non-public home schooling or non-public school options," said Micah Ann Wixom, a policy analyst for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. Many states have been reluctant to regulate home schooling because autonomy is why many parents chose to home-school in the first place.

"They're always trying to find that balance between how much regulation to provide for this non-public school option and protecting students. And I don't know that any state has come up with a perfect answer," said Wixom.

But doing next to nothing is not the answer, according to Breslin, who feels Colorado needs to provide stronger oversight so kids like Caden don't fall through the cracks and simply vanish.

"If you're going to home-school your kid, we need to be able to see that kid. And that's good for you as a parent, that's good for the child," said Breslin, adding, "What that will do is separate the good home schooling from home schooling that is hiding abuse."

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