ADEL, IA — The adoptive mother accused in the starvation death of Sabrina Ray, one of two Iowa teens at the center of a Patch investigation about lax homeschool education laws that can allow some parents to abuse and torture their children, pleaded guilty to felony kidnapping Wednesday to avoid a trial on first-degree murder and other charges.
At 16 years old, Sabrina weighed only 56 pounds when paramedics were called to her home in May 2017 in Perry, Iowa. She had often been so hungry that she ate what she could find rummaging through garbage cans. Police said that sometime after April 15, 2017, Sabrina’s adult brother “drop-kicked” her down a basement staircase. She lay for days on the basement floor in excruciating pain, police said, unable to move until her emaciated body finally gave up.
Misty Ray, Sabrina’s adoptive mother, also pleaded guilty to two lesser charges of kidnapping for locking her other two adopted children in a bedroom. Sentencing is a formality — first-degree kidnapping carries a mandatory life sentence in Iowa.
In a District Court proceeding Wednesday in Adel, Iowa, Ray admitted she “intentionally acted to secretly and unreasonably confine Sabrina Ray without her consent and having no authority to do so.”
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“I caused such confinement by way of covering the bedroom windows from the outside view by placing the lock on the door and by causing the door to be locked while she was so confined,” Ray admitted. “During and as a result of that confinement, on May 12, 2017, Sabrina Ray died of malnutrition, which is a serious injury.”
Ray and her husband, Marc Ray, will be sentenced together on Jan. 18. He pleaded guilty in December 2018 to multiple felony charges, including child endangerment resulting in death and three counts of third-degree kidnapping. He also avoided a trial on first-degree murder with the plea deal, and faces a minimum of 35 years in prison.
Two other members of Sabrina’s adoptive family have also been charged and sentenced:
Sabrina’s cousin, Josie Bousman, is charged with kidnapping and child endangerment. She had agreed to testify against Marc and Misty Ray, but now that they have taken plea deals, it’s uncertain if she also will take a plea deal.
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Sabrina was homeschooled.
In Iowa and many other states, homeschool education laws shield parents who abuse their children. With no oversight whatsoever required, professionals like teachers and school nurses who are charged with protecting children don’t ever see them.
Iowa opened the door for abuse six years ago when it sliced homeschooling regulations to almost nothing. Before the changes, Iowa’s homeschooling laws were among the most thorough in the country.
Now, parents may choose to have their kids taught by a certified instructor, but they don’t have to. They don’t even have to notify anyone of their intent to teach kids at home. The law say kids must receive instruction in math, science, reading and language arts, and social studies, but there are no notification, parent qualification, instruction time, bookkeeping or assessment requirements.
Sabrina was one of two homeschooled Iowa teenagers who were starved to death by their adoptive parents over a period of just a few months.
Sixteen-year-old Natalie Finn died from starvation on Oct. 24, 2016, after her mother locked her, a 15-year-old brother and a 14-year-old sister in their bedroom for months, food and water all but cut off. One of the kids who survived, barely, later said their bedroom slowly filled with their own waste because their mother often would not let them out even to use the bathroom. When they did get permission, they were so desperately thirsty they sometimes scooped water into their mouths from the toilet bowl.
These damaged children were not alone. There are scores of cases in which homeschooling parents are accused of starving their kids to death. Other cases document children who have been beaten by parents most of their young lives or have otherwise been treated so severely for so long they can rightly be classified as torture victims.
“It’s really hard to starve a child to death when that kid’s in school,” Rachel Coleman, co-founder and research director of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, told Patch last year.
Her group does not oppose parents teaching their children at home but it wants to prevent abusive parents from so easily making their kids invisible and is pushing for regulations to protect homeschooled kids.
Photo illustration via Shutterstock