Nature vs. Nurture

Kentucky Takes Homeschoolers’ 10 Kids

A family living “off the grid”—the state says in dangerous squalor—lost their 10 children to foster care, igniting a heated debate among fellow homesteaders.

According to their blog, Blessed Little Homestead, Joe Naugler, his five-months-pregnant pet-groomer wife Nicole, and their 10 children are living the good life.

They are a “homeschooling family of 2 adults, [10] children, 3 dogs, 2 cats and a few random farm animals. Living a simple, back to basics life.” Living off the land in a 280-square-foot Gilligan’s Island-style stick cabin without modern comforts like vaccines, or heat, or toilet paper may not be for everyone, but it is where the Nauglers want to be.

There’s just one problem: The state’s Child Protective Services and the local sheriff say the conditions aren’t fit for anyone. Last week—after receiving a tip that the brood was living in squalor, without running water or access to a septic system, and that Joe had threatened a neighbor with a gun (for which he’s plead not guilty)—officers removed all 10 children from their parents’ care and arrested Nicole for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. Nicole Naugler writes that as of Monday, the children were split into four different homes.

According to the complaint, which the Nauglers posted on Facebook, the only shed on the Naugler’s property was reserved for the animals. The two makeshift tents that the family called home were surrounded by “numerous piles of garbage, broken glass and nails,” which were scattered about the property. The kids were neither enrolled in school nor registered as homeschoolers with the school board.

The removal of 10 children from parents who may not fit the norm initially sounded alarm bells for proponents of free-range parenting, and rallied unschoolers, freebirthers, and off-the-grid devotees to the family’s cause.

“They live a very simple life,” writes their advocate and friend Pace Ellsworth, on a fundraising site that has already brought in almost $50,000 for the Nauglers in the last week. “They garden and raise animals. They are industrious people trying to teach their children how to live right. Their ten children are homeschooled on the homestead. They contribute to the success of the family crops and livestock, all while learning about the amazing beauty of life.”

The family didn’t always live such a simple life. Blog posts from 2012 and before show the family in a modest multilevel home, and even in 2013, when the Nauglers moved to their current parcel of land, they lived in an actual cabin—made up of luxuries like boards of equal sizes, and nails, and a roof. That prefab home was bought on credit but returned sometime later in the year. They now live on the slab where the home once stood, hauling in water for cooking, bathing and dishes and using a generator to power their small appliances and a laptop, according to their blog.

But as details of the complaint emerged, what started out as a clear case of government overreach against rural Kentucky’s answer to the Duggars has become a heated debate between homeschool advocates, neighbors, and homesteaders over just how free a family can live before it becomes child abuse.

Longtime homesteaders are questioning the family’s know-how. “Quite frankly, I am surprised all the children made it out alive,” one homesteader calling himself “Gary” posted on a blog for former homeschoolers, noting the worsening conditions of the Nauglers’ plot, including animals cohabitating with people, mud and run-off water mingling with animal feces and garbage, and an “open-air kitchen” that consists of a fire and some bricks, and is littered with garbage and dirty plates.

Several concerning posts on the family’s blog hint at the family’s lack of expertise truly living off the grid.

In one photo posted to the family’s Facebook page, several clearly ill Naugler children are doubled over or huddled under blankets laid out on the dirt around a fire pit. The caption reads:

“My family is sick.. We never get sick, its been nearly 3 years since we have been sick…But I think the children ate some bad food. ~lesson learned, ask mom before you eat something.. 7 of 10 children down.”

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Some homeschooling parents who claim to know the Naugers have also sought to distance themselves from the unschooling family and question the parents’ motives. “I home school my children, (and) my children are taught the things they need to know to be successful,” one commenter wrote on Facebook. “What the Naugler’s (sic) do is simply call it home schooling when in fact they are too lazy to actually home school them.”

Michael Farris Jr. of the Home School Legal Defense Association told WND that their group had initially been in contact with the Naugers but they are no longer defending the couple.

Most concerning, Alex Brow, Joe Naugler’s 19-year-old son—from whom he’s been estranged since the boy was 3—testified before the court and reiterated for reporters assembled outside that he had been a victim of abuse while living with his father and feared for his half-siblings’ safety.

“I got all of the beatings. I got most of the mental abuse,” Brow said. “There was a lot of sexual abuse towards me. We had a very dysfunctional relationship.”

The Naugler parents have denied Brow’s accusations, calling them “heartbreaking,” and Nicole has posted Brow’s photo to her Facebook page, asking her 1,800 followers: “What facial expressions or demeanors does a person do when they are lying?”

Though conditions may merit investigation, many are arguing that taking the Naugler children from their home is an extreme step.

The Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services (CHFS) wouldn’t comment on the Nauglers’ case, but statistics show (PDF) the state might have reason to err on the side of caution. Kentucky has one of the nation’s highest rates of child abuse referrals (77 per 1,000 children, making it sixth in the country for referrals). The state found over 20,000 child victims in 2013. The rate of child abuse victims (19.7 per 1,000 children)—the large majority a result of neglect—was the worst in the country. And just around 1 in five victims—a relatively low share compared to other states—were put in foster care.

Whether the Nauglers will be reunited with their children remains to be seen, but Joe and Nicole are already planning for their return following the CHFS investigation.

“We intentionally chose a simple life. No, it's not easy. We didn't have the funds to just do it all at once. We were building slowly as a family…” Nicole Naugler wrote on Facebook. “Once the donations have been received and my children are home, we will resume with our goals and build the new cabin with our children.”