‘Off-the-Grid’ Parents Lose Custody of 10 Kids

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The Nauglers of Kentucky have temporarily lost custody of their 10 kids in a child-protective investigation. (Photo: Blessed Little Homestead/The Naugler Family)

Following a Monday court hearing, a Kentucky couple living what they call a “simple, back-to-basics life” in a rural, off-the-grid shack has lost custody, at least temporarily, of their 10 children. Joe and Nicole Naugler — who are expecting an 11th child in October — will remain under investigation by the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services (CHFS), while their kids, ranging in age from 3 months to 15 years old, will stay in the agency’s custody.

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“Although we are sad our children will not be returned to us today, we have nothing to hide,” Joe Naugler wrote on the family’s Facebook page, Blessed Little Homestead. “We have cooperated with all requests made to us by CHFS and will continue to do so. We are confident that throughout this process, Nicole and I will be shown to be the good parents that we are and that our family will be reunited.”

The court’s decision came several days after authorities removed the children from their home, following an anonymous police complaint about the family’s living conditions — which allegedly include residing under a crude tarp construction, having no heat or running water, and having no septic system (which the Nauglers dispute). But many of their supporters believe they’re being targeted for their lifestyle, which includes living off the power grid, birthing children at home, and relying on “unschooling,” which is a less structured approach to homeschooling.

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The case is just the latest of its kind to raise national questions about Child Protective Services overreaching and flouting parental rights. Other cases grabbing the national spotlight recently have included that of the Meitiv family in Maryland, investigated by CPS for allowing their children to walk unattended to a nearby playground, as well as that of the Stanleys, in Arkansas, who had their seven children removed from the home in January over a dispute related to a mineral supplement.

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Nicole Naugler is pregnant with her 11th child. (Photo: Blessed Little Homestead/The Naugler Family)

“My reaction to this case is that CPS and those with power in our society tend to make decisions based on what they view as normal or not normal,” says David DeLugas, executive director and general counsel for the National Association of Parents, which aims to guard parent-child relationships. “But,” he tells Yahoo Parenting, “the same protocol should be employed in all situations: Are the children hurt? Are they in imminent danger of being hurt? If the answer is no, then we should ask the question — we should all ask the question: Why do anything?”

A spokesperson for CHFS in Kentucky tells Yahoo Parenting, “The Cabinet for Health and Family Services cannot confirm or provide any information about Child Protective Services investigations, as that information is confidential by law.” A receptionist at the Breckinridge County Sheriff’s Office also would not provide any information, telling Yahoo Parenting that there is a “gag order” regarding the Nauglers, because this is “a juvenile case.”

The Nauglers did not respond to a request for comment made through their website. But their Save Our Family website answers questions about their living conditions, explaining that they have a wood stove for heat, an “open cabin” made of metal and tarps, a composting toilet, a pond with potable water, and a generator for power. They explain that they are naturopaths who would “seek professional medical care if it was needed,” and that they make an income from a pet grooming business. They describe their lifestyle as “intentional.”

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An interior shot of the Naugler family home. (Photo: Facebook)

Attorney T.J. Schmidt of the Home School Legal Defense Association, which counseling local attorneys regarding the family’s educational philosophy, explains to Yahoo Parenting, “It is an ‘unschooling’ method, which can mean many things, but it usually a very child-directed form of education, with parents actively encouraging curiosity and related learning experiences.” But in the Nauglers’ case, he notes, “I don’t think schooling is the primary concern.”

To help with the Nauglers’ legal fees, as well as upgrades to their home, a family friend has launched a Go Fund Me page, which has raised more than $41,000 in just five days. On the website, campaign organizer Pace Ellsworth says she met the family through investing in their dog-grooming business in 2014. “They live a very simple life. They garden and raise animals,” she writes. “They are industrious people trying to teach their children how to live right. Their 10 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.” Ellsworth goes on to explain that when Nicole Naugler attempted to leave her property with two of her children when sheriffs arrived, she was arrested for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.

Online supporters say the family should be left to raise their kids as they see fit, with one Facebook commenter noting, “Who should be setting the standard for what are acceptable living conditions? People who have only ever known first-world living? The fact is that the majority of children in the majority of the world have grown up or are growing up in conditions that are excessively sub-par to what we are accustomed to in the United States. And that doesn’t mean that they’re bad conditions; they’re just different.”

Naysayers, meanwhile, say that Joe once threatened a neighbor with a gun, and that “Barn animals have better shelter than these kids,” according to a Facebook commenter. Even the family’s estranged son, Alex Brow, 19, joined the anti-Naugler voices on Monday, testifying against his parents in court. “I am very worried about them, and I hope that everything that can be done, that was done here, can help them move on and have a better life,” Brow told WLKY regarding his siblings. That left Joe and Nicole “heartbroken,” as they noted on their Facebook page.

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The kids. (Photo: Blessed Little Homestead/The Naugler Family)

Whatever the reality in this situation, DeLugas questions the drastic decision of taking the children out of their home. “Should the remedy be to take the children away, which has a harm level of its own, or provide what is missing?” he asks, suggesting the possibility of bringing in food or other supplies. “How much damage are these children enduring right now?”

According to Christine James-Brown, CEO of the Child Welfare League of America, an advocacy organization established in 1921 to set the standard for child welfare, “It’s always a call,” and never an easy or popular one, for children to be removed from their homes.

“The child welfare system, particularly in the last 10 years, has had an overall push to remove fewer children — but to safely keep these children at home,” she tells Yahoo Parenting. Some of the difficulties for a CPS worker making the assessment, she says, include cultural differences, the fact that “community norms around parenting differ and change,” and also that neglect and poverty are often improperly conflated. Those making decisions must decide if there is a health risk, a risk of imminent danger, and whether or not a situation is chronic or temporary.

In the case of the Nauglers, James-Brown says it would be important to meet the family where they are, as long as it doesn’t cause the child any risk. “It’s a difficult call,” she says, “and it should be.” She notes that CPS workers are “underpaid, undersupported, and go into the worst situations,” and that the other side of the boundary-crossing criticism is one worth pondering.

“A CPS worker might say, ‘OK, the kids are fine, we can’t bother the parents’ — and then three months later, the kids are dead. The community would be up in arms,” she says. “I’d rather err on the side of caution.”


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