Chris Clay does not homeschool his 5-year-old daughter, but a Texas home education group has come to his family’s defense.
Clay has been fighting for custody of his daughter, whose name is not publically known, for two years since her mother died in a car accident. First, the dispute was with the girl’s maternal grandparents. Now it is with a man who was engaged to marry her mother. The case has reached the Texas Supreme Court.
The Texas Homeschool Coalition intervened in September 2019, filing an amicus brief in support of Clay. Then the coalition hired a public relations firm and began a social marketing campaign in April called “Let Her Stay.” A pink and purple website displays an emotive video of Clay and his daughter, a timeline, a petition, a form to contact prominent politicians from the state on their behalf, and a growing list of political leaders and lobbyist groups supporting Clay’s cause. The Denton County father’s plea for parental rights is gaining national attention.
Homeschool advocacy groups have long followed parental rights cases since they often have ties to home education. The history of homeschooling is filled with tales of parents persecuted for wanting to educate their children at home. But homeschool advocacy groups typically get involved when a case relates more closely to homeschooling than Clay’s does, said Jim Mason, vice president of litigation and development for the Home School Legal Defense Association and president of the Parental Rights Foundation.
Clay’s custody battle is an exception, Mason said, but that could change: “We expect to see more of these kinds of cases with the breakup of the family and changing societal definitions of what constitutes a family.”
Clay and his daughter’s mother were never married. After they broke up, the girl spent nearly half her time with her father. Since her mother’s death, she has lived with Clay. The girl’s maternal grandparents and John Dumas, who lived with the girl’s mother for 10 months and was her fiancé before she died, filed separately for joint custody. A state appellate court blocked the grandparents’ petition but allowed Dumas’ case to proceed.
The Texas Supreme Court, using video streaming because of the coronavirus pandemic, heard oral arguments in that case on April 22. The justices likely will make their ruling by fall, said Holly Draper, an attorney representing Clay. If the justices rule in favor of Dumas, Clay plans to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Dumas’ attorney, Michelle May O’Neil, said her client came to care for the girl as his own child while in a relationship with her mother. “Nobody is trying to kick the [biological] father out, or take her away from the father,” she said. “This little girl deserves to continue to have a relationship with a man she called ‘Pops.’” I attempted to contact O’Neil again after talking with Clay and his attorney to give her a chance to respond to the issues they raised, but she did not respond.
Neither his daughter’s grandparents nor Dumas has disputed whether Clay is a fit parent. He arranges for his daughter to spend time with her grandparents. But Clay argues that he should not have to share custody of his child with a man he hardly knows and who spent less than six months cumulatively in his daughter’s life. “If [Dumas] were to have rights to my daughter and … decision-making power without having to go through me, that’s pretty scary for any parent,” he said.
Jeremy Newman, director of public policy for the Texas Home School Coalition, said Clay’s case merits attention because it has “frightening” implications for Texas families. It could mean “any person who lives in your home should be able to take custody of your child … including a nanny, roommate, live-in boyfriend, or a student renting a room,” he said.
The coalition similarly represented Daniel and Ashley Pardo in a 2019 case against Texas Child Protective Services after it seized their 4-year-old son Drake without explanation. The Texas Homeschool Coalition started a website called “Bring Drake Home” and amassed widespread support. CPS dropped the charges, and a judge dismissed the case.
Groups—including Alliance Defending Freedom, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the Parental Rights Foundation, and the office of Texas Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton—have all filed amicus briefs supporting Clay. ADF President Mike Farris said there “should be proof of abuse, neglect, or abandonment” before any court takes away parental rights, assigning them to someone else.
Katy Faust, founder and director of Them Before Us, a child advocacy group, said, “Statistically, the biological father is the safest man in this girl’s life.”
Clay told me he welcomes help from a homeschool group, or anyone else for that matter, if it helps him keep custody of his daughter.