Indiana is one of 10 states with minimal regulations for students who are home-schooled, according to the nationally recognized Homeschool Legal Defense Association.
There are no teacher qualification requirements. No standardized tests are required. In fact, home-educated children may not take the ISTEP-Plus achievement test unless they also are enrolled in a public school for at least one period per day. Though parents are encouraged to register with the state for home schooling, they are not required to by law; therefore, some may not register.
The lack of laws regarding state oversight can easily allow a youngster to slip through the bureaucratic cracks and get lost in the system. Such may have been the case with 13-year-old Christian Choate, whose body was believed to have been unearthed May 4 in a shallow grave in the Black Oak section of Gary.
When a parent notifies a school of the decision to home-school a child, oversight at the local and state levels effectively ends, said Alex Damron, Indiana Department of Education deputy press secretary.
"There is not any point in which IDOE would become involved with a home school investigation," he said.
Christian Choate was withdrawn Feb. 12, 2007, from Iddings Elementary School in Merrillville Community School Corp. as a fourth-grader. His stepmother, Kimberly Kubina Choate, said he would be home-schooled.
Indiana's education department recommends a school district ask a parent to sign a withdrawal form if pulling a student from public school, in much the same way a parent would be asked to sign such a form to transfer to another public school or to an out-of-state school. The registration form to start a home school asks for a parent's name and the number of children to be home-schooled, but it doesn't ask for the children's names.
The IDOE confirmed that Kimberly Choate registered a home school online April 23, 2007, with the department. Through her online registration, she noted she would home-school three children -- a third-grader, a fourth-grader and a 10th-grader.
In turn, the department sent Choate a letter dated April 27, 2007, acknowledging the registration, assigning a school number and telling her the state's minimum requirements for home schooling.
IDOE requires home-schooled students to receive 180 days of instruction and that parents keep attendance records and provide an instruction equivalent to that given in the public schools. Home schools are treated like private schools; the state provides no oversight for home schools.
Christian had a history of being in public school; he and his sister Christina Choate, who was several years older, were students in Lake Ridge Schools.
Lake Ridge Superintendent Sharon Johnson-Shirley confirmed Christian was enrolled in Lake Ridge schools from Aug. 22, 2001, to March 1, 2005. The youngster attended kindergarten, first grade and began his second-grade year at Hosford Park Elementary. He was held back in first grade and spent two years at that level. One teacher remembered him as a happy, energetic first-grader. Teachers also remember he was living with his mother Aimee Eriks (now Aimee Estrada) and her boyfriend.
Christina was enrolled in Lake Ridge from Aug. 26, 1999, to March 1, 2005. Christian and Christina are the children of Aimee Eriks Estrada and Riley Choate, though their mother never married their father.
Family members said Christian and Christina moved in with their father, Riley Choate, who was living in Merrillville at the time with his partner, Kimberly Kubina-Choate. The children were enrolled in Merrillville Community School Corp. on March 4, 2005.
Christian was in Merrillville schools until Feb. 12, 2007. Christina attended Merrillville schools more than a year longer, until April 14, 2008.
From the period of 2007 when Christian began a home school program to his death, believed to be in April 2009, family and friends said they rarely saw the boy. They said he didn't participate in family parties and seldom was seen outside with the other children in Riley Choate's household. Some say Riley Choate told them Christian had run away.
At some point, the Choate family moved to Kentucky. It wasn't until last month that Christina Choate called her biological mother Aimee Estrada and said Christian had been killed in early April 2009 and was buried in a mobile home park in Gary. Estrada, in turn, called police. Police unearthed a body two week ago but are awaiting DNA confirmation.
Lake County police ruled Christian's death a homicide. According to the probable cause affidavit, Christian died of blunt force trauma, internal bleeding and a fractured skull. Christina told police Christian was caged for the last year of his life.
Charges have been filed against Christian's father, Riley Choate, and his stepmother, Kimberly Kubina-Choate. Additional charges are expected against others in the household.
No rules, no regulations
Rob Kunzman, an Indiana University professor who has written books and papers on the issue of home schooling says, "My understanding of Indiana's regulation is that a parent has only to inform the school/principal that they are leaving," so they will not be marked truant.
"I can tell you that having interviewed a number of home schooling parents, what they will say is that a lot of child abuse takes place before school age," Kunzman said. "Saying schools are the way to protect from child abuse is not necessarily true. Social service agencies should play the same role whether it's a home school or a public school. Home-schoolers will say there is no more evidence that abuse happens in a home school, than in a public school."
In his most recent book, released in 2009, Kunzman acknowledged that stories of horrific abuse by parents who claimed to be home schooling surface periodically. But home school defenders respond these are isolated incidents and say there's no evidence demonstrating that abuse occurs more frequently in the home school setting than anywhere else -- "a fair point, given the lack of reliable data about both home schooling and child abuse," Kunzman said.
He also said some critics worry that since some home-schooled children do not come into contact with adults outside the home on a daily basis, the opportunity to detect signs of physical abuse are diminished. But home-schoolers point out that it's children younger than school age who are most likely to be abused, and increased scrutiny of home schooling will do nothing to address this.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says about 16 percent of reports of suspicion of child abuse are filed by teachers, whereas almost half come from parents, relatives, friends and neighbors.
The Department of Child Services is the authority that investigates education neglect, IDOE's Damron said. Local prosecutors often are involved in the process as well. If a neighbor were to call either the local school corporation or the IDOE and complain about the education a home-schooled student is receiving, it would be referred to DCS.
Kunzman wrote a policy brief in 2005 on home schooling for the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University-Bloomington, which concluded there is not enough comprehensive, reliable data on home-schoolers' demographics, philosophies or practices.
"Without this insight, it is difficult to craft policies that respect the interests of parents, children and our democracy," he said.
At least minimal oversight a better policy?
Kunzman argues the appropriate home school regulation should involve registering with the state and periodic basic skills testing for students.
The Home School Legal Defense Association said six states have high regulation -- Pennsylvania, Vermont, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New York. Laws vary, but generally they require student test scores, curriculum approval, teacher qualification of parents and home visits by state officials.
Attorney T.J. Schmidt, with the Virginia-based association, said his role is to assist home-schooling families understand their legal rights.
Lake County resident Kelly McManus, who represents the Indiana Association of Home Educators, said she and her husband have five children whom they have home-schooled for 12 years. They are planning to adopt a sixth child through the Indiana Department of Child Services.
"This (Choate) case is heartbreaking," she said. "It's a story that represents a society that devalues children and life. I'm sure this kind of situation could happen anywhere. However, it heightens attention to the issue of home schooling."
As a representative of the association in northern Indiana, McManus said she often gets calls from parents who have withdrawn their children from traditional schools under the guise of home schooling so they won't be considered truant. She said many have no idea what home education is about and don't have the commitment and vision it takes to be successful.
"I think the real question is: What does the state offer people who don't want to keep their child in traditional public school, don't home-school and can't afford private school? I think parents in general want to keep every freedom and liberty we enjoy intact," McManus said.
"Punishing every home educator in the state with regulation because one parent claimed to home educate and chose to murder their child doesn't make sense."