Taught at home, kids out of sight

Date: 2005-02-09

JIM ROSS
St. Petersburg Times

The investigation of a Citrus County couple accused of torturing five children is beginning to reveal a large family that managed for years to avoid the scrutiny of state and school officials.

Authorities say John and Linda Dollar used a cattle prod, a hammer, pliers, a vise and starvation to punish five of the eight children in their care.

But why did no one notice?

Neighbors say they hardly ever saw the children. The Department of Children and Families received no abuse or neglect complaints during the couple's many years in Florida.

School would be a logical place for someone to raise a concern. But the Dollars educated their children at home.

State law requires that an adult - a certified teacher or psychologist, most likely - evaluate homeschool students once a year.

But the Dollars, who lived in Citrus and Hillsborough the past decade, did not register as homeschool parents in the public school systems, officials in both counties said Tuesday.

The Dollars homeschooled under the guidance of a private school while they lived in Hillsborough County, the Citrus County Sheriff's Office said Tuesday. Thus, the state-required checks did not apply. The name of the school was not available Tuesday.

John Dollar, 58, and his 51-year-old wife were found in southeastern Utah on Friday and taken into custody on charges of aggravated child abuse and torture. They have waived extradition, giving local authorities permission to return them to Florida.

Law officers say they think the abuse went on for years.

But authorities didn't get involved until after Jan. 21, when the Dollars' 16-year-old boy was taken to a hospital outside Crystal River.

Mrs. Dollar called 911 on that date, saying blood was gushing from the boy's head after he tripped on a shoestring and hit something, according to a recording of the 911 call made available Tuesday.

She misstated the boy's age during the call, saying he was 17.

An ambulance took him to Seven Rivers Regional Medical Center near Crystal River, where his low weight (59 pounds), red marks around his neck and a cut on his head attracted notice.

The Sheriff's Office and DCF began interviewing the children. DCF removed the children from the Dollars' home on Jan. 27.

When the couple failed to appear at a Jan. 31 hearing in family court, sheriff's officials began the search that eventually led to Utah.

From the start, investigators, neighbors and acquaintances said the abuse could have have slipped by unnoticed for years because the children were homeschooled and kept out of sight.

Under Florida law, homeschoolers must register their children with the local district and submit annually to a review, either by a certified teacher, a licensed psychologist or through a test administered by a certified teacher.

But another way to legally homeschool is for families to register with a private umbrella school - known as a "600" school - serving families that want to maintain the homeschool structure without the task of complying with state reporting requirements.

Before homeschooling was legalized in the mid 1980s, families depended on such schools to stay within the law. As such, "600" schools need only report to the state Department of Education the number of students they have enrolled.

The schools have no state requirements for the testing or reviews, although the Sheriff's Office said the Dollar children did undergo some sort of annual test. It was not known late Tuesday whether that review involved a visit with someone representing the school.

Florida has 47,151 homeschooled students registered with local public school districts. That includes 7,421 in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Hernando, Pasco and Citrus counties, according to the most recent statistics from the state Department of Education.

A state education spokeswoman said it was unclear late Tuesday how many others are homeschooled through private schools.

If the Hillsborough school system gets a complaint that a child is not enrolled in the school system, "we'll investigate that either through our own means or through law enforcement if need be," spokesman Mark Hart said.

That's also the case in Citrus. The school system never received a complaint about the family, which moved to the county in August.

Any such complaint would have prompted school officials to visit the home and try to enroll the children or at least check out the situation, said Rich Hilgert, the county's coordinator of student services.

"It (this case) is not a black eye on the home schools and it's not a black eye on the school district," school superintendent Sandra "Sam" Himmel said Tuesday before a School Board meeting.

Times staff writers Rebecca Catalanello, Curtis Krueger, Barbara Behrendt and Eddy Ramirez contributed to this report.

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