Alecia Pennington can't prove she's an American – or even exists. What would you do?
To the government, Alecia Pennington doesn't exist. She has been unable to get a driver’s license, get a job, go to college, get on a plane, get a bank account, or vote. What can she do?
On Sep. 24, 2014, 18-year-old Alecia Faith Pennington left her family and childhood home with the help of her grandparents. Having been raised in a staunchly Christian, homeschooled family in Texas, she was ready to set off and pursue a new life.
But she quickly realized that would not be possible. While she claims that she was born on Nov. 26, 1995, there is no actual proof of her age or identity, when it comes to the United States government.
Ms. Pennington, who says she's now 19, has launched a campaign via YouTube and Facebook called “Help Me Prove It.” In the video, she explains her strange circumstance: she was born at home, after which her parents neglected to file for a birth certificate or a social security number; she was homeschooled and therefore has no school records; she has never been to a hospital and is without medical records. Furthermore, she says that her parents have been refusing to help her.
She appears caught in a Kafkaesque bureaucratic web – one that's been dubbed "identification abuse," which a small percentage of homeschooled children and adults sometimes experience, often due to the unconventional views held by their parents.
After making the top of Reddit’s video page, her story has begun to gain national attention. Pennington's plight has been the subject of much online debate – and counsel. While some commenters feel it could simply be an elaborate hoax, others are asking questions and trying to offer advice. But it seems to keep sending her in circles: you need documentation to get documentation, or you need your parents’ help.
Pennington says she received a certified letter from the Texas Department of State Health Services dated Oct. 1, 2014, informing her that after a thorough search, no record of her birth could be found, according to her Facebook page. The TCSHS informed her that she should apply for a delayed birth certificate; however, she is not allowed before a judge unless she has three documents verifying her age and citizenship, which she does not have.
“This leaves me with nothing to prove my identity or citizenship,” Alecia explains in the video. “I am now 19 years old and I’m unable to get a driver’s license, get a job, go to college, get on a plane, get a bank account, or vote.”
And James and Lisa Pennington have refused to help, according to their daughter.
James and Lisa live in Kerrington, Texas, where they serve on the board of the Hill Country Home School Association. In 2010, they were named the 2010 Texas Home School Coalition Association’s “Leaders of the Year,” according to the THSCA website. Lisa is also an ardent Christian, homeschooling, and parenting blogger, posting at Hip Homeschool Moms and The Pennington Point.
On The Pennington Point, Lisa shares the moment her daughter – who is one of nine children – left in a blog post called “The Hardest Post I Ever Wrote” (The post has since been blocked):
“On Wednesday, September 24th my life was changed forever. My 18 year old daughter left home. She gave us no warning, no signs that it was coming. She didn’t try to talk to us about it or work with us. She, with the help of my parents, just left. And with her she took pieces of my heart that had been torn to shreds.”
Lisa continues to say that her relationship with her parents, who helped plan Alecia’s departure, abruptly ended. She also claimed her daughter had help from “a godless woman who has been giving her foolish counsel and encouraging her to deceive [them] and get out.”
About a month after this post was written, Lisa followed up with in a post that outlined her current feelings about the situation. In some ways, it reads as if her daughter passed away rather than left home.
“What I can tell you about is how we are pulling ourselves together at home. We have been making an effort to find our new normal without her. It has been really hard and we all miss her terribly, but I have learned a lot about how to deal with grief throughout the past month,” Lisa wrote on her blog. “I definitely have days when I feel like I can hardly breathe and just cry for no reason. Like, hard crying. I know that’s part of the process. Oh, those crazy stages of grief.”
While it seems clear that the family did not want Alecia to go, do her parents have the right to withhold proof of her identity?
Apparently, this issue is not as unique as it may first appear. Homeschool Alumni Reaching Out (HARO), an advocacy organization for homeschool students, defines the type of behavior exhibited in the Pennington situation as “identification abuse,” where guardians destroy, deny, or hold hostage their child’s identification documents, such as a birth certificate, driver’s license, or social security card.
According to a Survey of Adult Alumni of the Modern Christian Homeschool Movement done by HARO in 2014, nearly 4 percent of respondents experienced some form of identification abuse.
“While such abuse can happen anywhere and everywhere regardless of one’s educational environment, homeschool kids (and alumni) are particularly vulnerable to this form of abuse because of certain anti-government and pro-parental rights attitudes in totalistic homeschool subcultures,” Homeschoolers Anonymous states on their website.
On Wednesday, Lisa posted a video responding to her daughter's claims. The video was immediately removed. From a transcription provided by Free Jinger, Lisa allegedly said in the video:
"[T]o our knowledge there was a birth certificate filed, the midwives told us you have to file a birth certificate and as far as we know there was one filed. We do not know what information was put on it and we do not have any copies of that. We are unaware of what was filed when she was born but we have no interest in holding anything back from her and we know you can get a delayed birth certificate which would be a great option for her . . . We want every opportunity for her, we have offered over and over to help her and she has not responded or accepted that help. So whatever she needs now, we are happy to do, whatever we need to sign, we are happy to sign and let her move on with her life."
Ryan Stollar, the executive director of HARO, says in a phone interview that it is uncertain why Alecia's parents are responding with support and then withdrawing. He suspects the issue to be more complicated than meets the eye, either with the parents or the midwife. In Texas, midwives are required to register as well as file a birth certificate, so it is possible that Alecia's midwife – who has reportedly refused help – either did not file or was not registered, both of which are illegal.
Alecia's father, James, is a certified public accountant and attorney, and has been a member of the Texas Constitution Party, which describes itself as working to "restore our God-given, unalienable rights and a "republican form of government." According to a 2007 court document, he was being audited because the IRS could find no individual tax return filed after 1996.
(In 2010, a US District Judge denied a petition by Pennington to prevent the IRS from obtaining access to The Anchor Group's bank records. Pennington is the director of The Anchor Group, which Pennington "asserts is a church within the meaning of IRC [Internal Revenue Code.]," according to court documents. The IRS sought "banking records in connection with the IRS’s investigation into the personal tax liability of James and Lisa Pennington."
Pennington points out that he won a back taxes case brought against him by the IRS.
Court documents show that on July 26, 2014, the United States Tax Court ruled that James and Lisa Pennington owed income taxes in the amounts of $3,728.00, $3,260.00 and $1,707.00 for the taxable years 2001, 2002 and 2003. But the court also ruled against IRS claims that the Penningtons owed back taxes from 2004-2008, and there were no penalties due during those years. Additionally, the court stated that the IRS owed the Penningtons $53,393.88 in litigation costs.)
Stollar says that while this happens to more children than many are aware, there are no easy, legal remedies. And the remedies that exist cost money, a luxury most children - even legal adults such as Alecia – do not have.
"We could get a lawyer, so they can subpoena her parents and midwife so they can verify her birth and citizenship. But that requires money. So for many kids, there is no easy path. If they don’t have a story that goes viral like Alecia’s – or have a network around them supporting them – they’re out of luck," Stollar says.
For Alecia, Stollar suggests that her best option is to find a lawyer who will be willing to represent her pro bono. Her campaign has at least shed light on a situation that a small but sometimes desperate group of homeschooled children face. And the easiest solution, he notes, would be for Alecia's parents to cooperate.
"I have seen parents change and come around and learn to respect their adult children as being adults," Stollar said. "But I’ve absolutely seen it not happen, too. Many times, what is required for parents to change is a crisis situation like the one Alecia is facing, where all hell breaks loose and the only reason the parents do change their mind is there is so much pressure put on them publicly. They are forced to acknowledge the damage they're doing to their children."
[Editor's note: The original story indicated that James Pennington is currently a member of the Texas Constitution Party. That could not be verified, only his previous membership in the party. It incorrectly identified the party purpose. The original story did not fully characterize Mr. Pennington's dispute with the IRS.]