Until this year, 14-year-old Kathleen Lavery had never attended a public school.
Kathleen, along with her four brothers and sisters, were model home-taught students who garnered local press in Akron, Ohio, when they began winning spelling bees and other academic contests.
But prosecutors say there was a darker side to the Laverys’ accomplishments.
Summit County prosecutor Michael Callahan said this week that Thomas Lavery’s need for his children’s success drove him to torture them and even threaten to kill them when they didn’t meet his expectations.
Lavery, 56, was indicted Tuesday on eight felony counts and one misdemeanor count of endangering children. He is free on $2,500 bond pending his arraignment Friday.
Emotional, Physical Abuse Charged
Prosecutors say Lavery emotionally and physically abused some of his children because they didn’t do as well as he had hoped.
In one case, Lavery allegedly refused to let Kathleen eat, sleep or use the bathroom after she finished second in a local spelling bee earlier this year.
He also is accused of threatening to kill Marjory Lavery, now 18, when she lost in the final round of the 1995 Spelling Bee in Washington.
According to prosecutors, her mother and other family members had to restrain Lavery after Marjory, 13 at the time, misspelled “cappelletti” — ;a kind of pasta — and came in second.
Lavery’s attorney, Peter Cahoon, declined to comment, saying he wanted to meet with Lavery and review the allegations.
School Brings Case to Light
Callahan said the abuse may have gone unnoticed a lot longer had it not been for a school administrator who filed a complaint after Kathleen Lavery, who wanted to participate in group sports, began attending public schools this year.
Callahan said the charges against Lavery are not necessarily an indictment against home schooling, but the case shows the danger of an overly determined parent when outsiders aren’t around to step in.
“I don’t want to get in the middle of the home-schooling controversy,” Callahan said. “But home schooling may have exacerbated a situation with a very obsessed individual.”
Home-school advocates said the case does not reflect the reality of children who learn at home.
“To say that because one person stands accused then the rest of us are guilty is preposterous,” said Michael Farris, chairman of the Virginia-based Home School Legal Defense Association. “It is a form of bigotry. If any other kind of minority group were involved, people would see it for the hate-based thinking that it is.”
Child psychologists agree with home-school advocates that Lavery’s alleged conduct might have been more a product of an increasingly common phenomena he calls “hyper-parenting.”
“I don’t think this case is a comment about home schooling, but it does demonstrate in an extreme way the degree to which people desperately have kids’ accomplishments reflect their own ambitions,” said Alvin Rosenfeld, a child psychologist and co-author of Hyper-Parenting, Are You Hurting Your Child by Trying Too Hard?
Rosenfeld said for the most part, parents are well-intentioned. But in today’s highly competitive society, they believe that through the proper program and design they can get exactly the right child.
“Parents have been convinced by the media that every parent can raise a Tiger Woods,” Rosenfeld said. “Parenting — not golf — has become the most competitive sport in America.”
Kathleen Lavery is in the custody of local child protective services and her 18-year-old sister is living alone, said Callahan.
Two other older siblings, who live away from home, refused to speak to prosecutors about the allegations. A 17-year-old is still living with his family, Callahan said.