Op-Ed: Did NC Judge Ned Mangum go too far in home-schooling case?

Posted Mar 28, 2009 by Bart B. Van Bockstaele
A judge ordered a home-schooling mother to send her children back to public school. The Internet is buzzing with accusations. Did the judge actually go too far? How selective reporting can influence public opinion.
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Most blogs agree: this is a case about a religious mother who has been home-schooling her children for the past four years and who has now been ordered to send her children back to public school, and that this is either because of her religion or because the judge is biased against home-schooling. This is an open and shut case: the judge was wrong, dead wrong. That is also the tone of an article here on Digital Journal. There are, however, a few dissenting voices in the choir.
This is about a painful divorce case where the father and the mother, both want custody of their three children. They can't find an agreement, so they have asked the court to decide. I have before me, the court order under fire.
The facts according to the order
According to the court order, the marriage was a happy one. The mother's father is quoted as stating under oath that the children love both parents and that both parents love them. He goes on to say about the husband that he had seen few men that were a better parent and father and him, and that it is very apparent that the three children adore their father. Others are said to correctly describe the mother as someone who deeply cares for her children.
In 2005, the relationship started to change, when the mother joined the Sound Doctrine Church. The woman's mother, father and sister declared under oath that "they are concerned about the woman's involvement with Sound Doctrine and are particularly concerned about the affect on the children."
Numerous affidavits have been submitted to the court that describe the Sound Doctrine group as a cult. The two leaders, Tim and Carla Williams, like to be called mom and dad, which is what the woman does. Her three children call them grandpa and grandpa, or variations thereof.
A former member of the Sound Doctrine Church declares this:
"Sound Doctrine is not a healthy place for kids to grow up it is run by fear and manipulation. Timothy and Carla manage to ruin relationships between man and wife and parents and kids. They constantly test people's commitment by asking them to give more and more if you don't give to them then you don't love God enough, that's what you are told. People are constantly beaten down mentally and live a miserable existence . . . "
"Our family was involved with Sound Doctrine Church for just over two years and in that time we suffered so much mental abuse at the hands of Timothy Williams and his wife Carla. We were also harassed often to give money"
"It took our family two years to recover from the abuse, and begin to live a normal life again and I would plead with anyone that has the power to keep children out of this evil cult to exercise that power. Please don't let more children suffer at the hands of this evil manipulative couple that dare to call themselves God's workers."
Other former member of the Sound Doctrine Church make similar statements under oath.
The husband states that a normal relationship was no longer possible with the woman, and that she told her own family members that she did not consider herself married to him. Her father and mother described, under oath that she had become controlling and domineering, instilling fear in her children.
A lifelong friend of the woman stated in a sworn affidavit that their friendship withered away since the woman joined the Sound Doctrine Church. She states that the woman has distanced herself from her parents and her sisters, that the woman has an extreme control over her children, that they are more withdrawn than is to be considered normal and that the behaviour of the children when she saw them in June 2008 was alarming. Other people make similar statements.
A witness states in an affidavit that the leader of Sound Doctrine Church told her to develop a boot camp style programme for her children in order to "break" them.
Leaders and members of the Sound Doctrine Church have filed affidavits that adamantly deny these accusations.
The woman pressured her husband into temporarily accept that she would home school the children. The three children are intelligent, performed at grade level and participated in extra curricular activities.
Husband and wife became completely estranged. The husband had warned his wife that the marriage would end if she continued to value the Sound Doctrine Church above their own marriage. As a result, he started to spend less time at home, which eventually led to an extramarital relationship.
The husband has agreed to leave the marital residence.
Although the husband has a good job, no criminal record, and no history of substance abuse or domestic violence, the woman has asked for several court orders:
-Limiting the husband from having any overnights visits with his children.
-Limiting the husband from seeing his children to a total of 9 hours a week.
-Removing all decision making authority away from the husband related to education and religion.
-To not allow the husband any regular visitation on Sundays.
-Limiting the husband's phone calls to the children to only those that are scheduled beforehand.
-To order that the husband to not allow the children to have contact with any ex-Sound Doctrine members or anyone hostile to the organization.
Based on all this, Judge Ned Mangum finds that the woman is alienating her children from their maternal grandparents, their aunt, and most importantly
their father. He also finds that the affidavits of the woman's parents, sister, and lifelong friends are credible as they have known her for many years.
Conclusions according to the order
1. The Constitution of the United States and the laws of the State of North Carolina guarantee that both parents have equal rights regarding the upbringing of a minor child.
2. Only when two parents reach an impasse and have specifically asked the Court to make these decisions for them can the Court do so. These parties have reached that impasse and both parties have asked the Court to decide the issues in this case. In this case, the mother wants full custody and for the children to continue home schooling. The father wants custody and for them to attend public school.
3. Therefore, North Carolina law mandates that this Court shall make this decision based on the best interest effecting the health, safety, and welfare of the minor child.
Judge Mangum thinks it is clear that it is in the best interest of the children that the father, who has equal rights under the law, should be allowed to expose the children to more than only the experiences that the mother wants. This includes removing them from home schooling and sending them to public school in order to expose them to more than only the mother's viewpoint. Since a transition mid-year is difficult, the judge thinks it is best to wait with it until the fall of 2009.
Mangum also says that contrary to the mother's request, the Court can not and will not infringe upon either party's right to practice their own religion and expose their children to the same and that these will enable the children to accept or reject their parent's beliefs when they grow up.
Because of the concerns expressed by the mother's family and friends, the judge orders a mental health assessment based on all affidavits submitted by both parties. The mother is given the option of submitting herself to the assessment as part of the custody evaluation.
The judge also orders a comprehensive custody evaluation of the parents and the children, and orders the evaluator to read all affidavits. Until a conclusion is reached, he orders shared custody, essentially one week with one parent, and one week with the other.
Interestingly, the mother's lawyer has asked to be removed from the case.
Final conclusion
It is quite clear that Judge Ned Mangum is deeply concerned about the mental state of the mother, and that he is afraid that this is harming the children. This is not about the judge being against home schooling, and it is also not about him being against religion. As a judge, he has been asked to make a decision. In his decision, he has taken into account all facts as best he could interpret them, and has given a balanced ruling on that basis.
Reading what can be found in most blogs, I can only conclude that most reporting on the case is very biased, because a part of the home schooling community sees anything that stops home schooling as an attack on its principle.
It is strange that many religious bloggers also see this as an attack on religion. Obviously, it isn't. The judge clearly states that he cannot and will not interfere in this matter. This judgement is completely neutral from a religious standpoint.
In short, Judge Ned Mangum had to make a difficult decision, taking into account the wishes of deeply opposed parents and the best interest of their children. It is my conclusion that he has done exactly that.