Kids in freezer case prompts home-school registry idea

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — A Detroit lawmaker wants to create a statewide registry of home-schooled children after a mother accused of killing two of her kids claimed she was educating them at home while their dead bodies were being stored in a deep freezer.

State Rep. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, plans to introduce legislation requiring all parents who home-school their children to register their names, ages and addresses with a local school district.

Chang is sponsoring the legislation in response to the March 24 discovery of the bodies of 13-year-old Stoni Blair and her 9-year-old brother Stephen Berry inside a freezer of a townhouse in the Martin Luther King apartments on Detroit's east side.

The daughter had been dead since May 25, 2013, while the boy died Aug. 30, 2012. Their mother, 35-year-old Mitchelle Blair, had reportedly told neighbors and people who asked about the children that they were home-schooled along with two other siblings.

"I think if we had some further checks in place as she was keeping her children at home, we could have prevented further abuse from occurring," said Chang, whose 6th House District includes the apartment complex where the children were killed. "This is one thing we can do to address what happened."

Mitchelle Blair, who faces charges of felony murder, premeditated murder and torture, is not on a state-provided list of registered home-schooling parents for the 2014-15 school year, according to the Wayne County Regional Educational Service Agency.

Michigan is one of 11 states that does not require parents to register for home schooling, Chang said.

But the state does provide a form for voluntary registration that is due by Oct. 1 each year. There were 646 children registered in 2013-14 with the Michigan Department of Education.

"We don't have any way of having an accurate number or list of those being home-schooled in Michigan," Chang told The Detroit News.

Chang's proposed home-school reporting requirement came under fire Friday by a conservative political group that lambasted it as an intrusive big government scheme.

"Democrats' eagerness to send the police after parents who choose not to enroll their kids in traditional public schools is both chilling and appalling," Michigan Freedom Fund President Greg McNeilly said in a statement. "Parents who choose to home-school their children deserve Lansing's support and admiration, not bullying from lawmakers and threats to send the police to their front doors twice a year."

Gov. Rick Snyder said Friday parents who teach their children at home "may have concerns about having to register" with a government agency.

"I wouldn't want to necessarily jump to that conclusion," Snyder told reporters after an event in Lansing. "That was a terrible tragedy that merits reviewing the situation and what could have been done to prevent it."

According to a juvenile court report, state Child Protective Services workers had contact with Blair in September 2002 and February 2005 after allegations of abuse surfaced. The petition said the abuse was "substantiated."

Blair was referred for services including counseling in 2005 but the case was subsequently closed. A state Department of Human Services spokesman said the agency has no legal authority to continue monitoring families after cases are closed.

Home-schooling registration is required only if parents seek special education services from the local school or intermediate school district.

Home-schooling parents are required to have a teaching certificate or a college bachelor's degree, but can waive the mandate if they object based on a "sincerely held religious belief."

Chang also wants to require parents of home-schooled children to have their kids make in-person contact twice annually with a doctor, police officer, social worker or other professional.

"The idea is to make sure there are eyes on the kid a couple times a year," Chang said.

Chang held a press conference Friday in Detroit to announce the legislation and said she was joined by grandparents and uncles of Stoni and Stephen, who were laid to rest Tuesday.

"I think their family knows that we want to be able to prevent these future tragedies from occurring," Chang said.

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