The shift to virtual education caused by the coronavirus pandemic has raised serious concerns about the risks to children’s educational performance and personal safety without the in-person support and monitoring provided by schools. Yet, homeschooled children were in this situation before the pandemic and will remain in it once schools re-open. While most homeschooling parents are dedicated to their children’s education and wellbeing, the lack of oversight of American homeschoolers has provided an opportunity for a small proportion of homeschooling parents to abuse or neglect their children without any interference from the government, as I have described in the past.
I was honored to be invited to a Summit on Homeschooling convened by Harvard Law School’s Child Advocacy Program on June 9-11, 2021. The Summit was cosponsored by the Academy on Violence and Abuse, American Professional Society on Abuse of Children, Institute for Human Services, New York Foundling, William & Mary Bill of Rights Institute, and Zero Abuse Project. The purpose of the conference was to bring together leading experts in the field to discuss the nature of the problem, the reforms needed, and how to achieve them.
Modern homeschooling emerged in the 1970’s and 1980’s largely from a leftist critique of public education, as Sean Peters from the University of Wisconsin explained to summit attendees. But over time, conservative religious families flocked to homeschooling fed by the burgeoning evangelical movement which turned away from public schools due to concerns about the the teaching of sex education and evolution and the absence of prayer and Christian education. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, the number of homeschooled students nearly doubled from from 850,000 in 1999 to 1.7 million in 2016.
Some of the parents who flocked to homeschooling were motivated by a desire for total parental control. Many of these parents were influenced by writers such as James Dobson and Michael Pearl. Dobson, founder of the conservative Christian media ministry Focus on the Family, wrote a book called The Strong-Willed Child, which described how the two-hundred-pound psychologist beat a 12-pound dachshund into submission and recommended that parents use the same tactics on their children. Michael and Debi Pearl teach a method of child discipline based on “breaking a child’s will.” Their approach involves using switches on babies as young as six months and beating older children with belts and plumbing tubes. Their book, To Train Up a Child, has sold hundreds of thousands of copies and advocates that parents beat their children into submission, withhold food, and hose them down when they soil themselves. Their books have been linked to the abuse deaths of three children.
The current absence of regulation means there is very little protection for children whose parents are following the dictates of Dodson and Pearl. As Professor James Dwyer of William and Mary, one of the co-organizers of the Summit, explained, “There is no question that states constitutionally may impose conditions for homeschooling reasonably designed to ensure children’s physical wellbeing and academic development. Yet the current state of regulation amounts to complete abdication of government responsibility in nearly all states.” Twelve states require nothing of homeschooling parents, not even notification to the school district; another 15 or so require notification only. The other half of states have some requirements, such as that the parent have a high school degree, that certain subjects be taught, or that students be assessed requirements, but these are generally not reviewed or enforced in a meaningful way. Shockingly, there is no requirement in any state that any adult outside the family have any contact with the child.
Harvard’s Elizabeth Bartholet, who co-organized the summit, stated that the U.S. is an outlier in its allowance of homeschooling with minimal regulation, as she explained in a 2020 article. She noted that this is characteristic of a broader problem in the U.S., where “child rights are regularly trumped by adult rights.” Bartholet contrasted this to attitudes in almost all other countries, where child rights are given equal value with adult rights, child rights to education and protection are guaranteed by national constitutions, and homeschooling is banned or carefully regulated.
Unfortunately, we know very little about the association of homeschooling with child maltreatment due to data limitations. But there are some troubling reports. Child abuse pediatrician Barbara Knox described her study of 28 children who were victims of abuse so severe that it merits the definition of torture. In most of these cases, the children were kept out of school; about 29 percent were never enrolled in school and another 49 percent were removed from school, allegedly for homeschooling, often after a CPS report was made by education personnel. Connecticut’s Office of the Child Advocate found that of children withdrawn to be homeschooled between 2013 and 2016, 36 percent had at least one prior accepted report for suspected abuse or neglect to the Department of Children’s Services. The majority of these families had multiple prior reports for suspected maltreatment. The Coalition for Responsible Home Education (CHRE) maintains a database called Homeschooling’s Invisible Children, which includes 454 cases of severe and fatal child abuse in homeschool settings in the United States since the year 1986. Since these are only the cases that made it into the media and were found by CRHE, there may be many more.
A lack of data on homeschooled children makes large-scale studies of the correlation of homeschooling with child maltreatment or educational performance impossible. Emily Putnam-Hornstein, one of the nation’s leading child welfare researchers, described her inability to obtain a list (without identifiers) of homeschooled children in California to compare against child welfare system data because the state does not collect any data on these children. In order to allow for such a study, a jurisdiction would have to require registration of homeschooled students, who would then be assigned a tracking number to enable crosschecking with other databases, such as maltreated children. (The same problem and potential solution applies to the much larger group of children attending private school).
Some of the most powerful testimony at the summit came from adults who were homeschooled as children. Many are part of the first large wave of homeschooled children, who found each other on Facebook, resulting in the founding of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education (CRHE) in 2013. Fueled by passion, many of them have been working for no pay as staff of the CRHE. Sarah Henderson, CRHE’s advocacy and support coordinator, was the second of nine children. She was homeschooled from the ages of five to 14 and then expected to care for her younger siblings without receiving any education. Her parents fell under the sway of writers like Dodson and Pearl who instructed parents to seek absolute control over their children. She had to watch as her nine-month-old sister was hit with a stick for playing with her food. Her family moved frequently to avoid investigations for child abuse. At 13, she began a campaign to help her siblings, which resulted in her father being removed from the home and her siblings being sent to school. At 17 she went to high school, then went on to get her Bachelor’s degree.
What can be done to ensure that other suffering homeschooled children don’t have to depend on an unusually brave and persistent big sister to rescue them? Participants agreed that regulation is needed but differed on how strict it should be. Rachel Coleman, Founder of CRHE argued for a three-point program, some of which is described in CRHE’s website. Comprehensive oversight would include annual notice of homeschooling, annual (or more frequent) assessment by a mandatory reporter, a requirement for annual physicals, and Individualized Education Plans (IEP’s) for homeschooled students with disabilities. Special protections for at risk children could include a prohibition on homeschooling by parents who have committed offenses that would disqualify them from teaching school and additional monitoring for children considered at risk. Voluntary incentive programs, such as Alaska’s program which gives homeschoolers access to athletics and academic enrichment under the auspices of school districts, would provide benefits for homeschooled children while keeping them under the umbrella of the school system.
While I agree with the CRHE proposals, I would also give priority to requiring that every homeschooled student be registered with their local school districts and receive an identification number for the purposes of tracking student outcomes. It is only through data that we can assess the possible connection of homeschooling to child maltreatment. Whether this could be required on the federal level (perhaps as a condition for education funding) or only individually by state, and whether it would requires legislative action, are topics beyond my expertise, but I hope that this proposal generates a robust discussion.
Unfortunately, the summit made clear that the homeschool lobby is a severe threat to any attempt at reform, no matter how small. Homeschooling’s national lobby, the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) resembles the National Rifle Association in the single-minded passion of its members and its surplus of legal resources. HSLADA sends out email blasts to its members that can result in a barrage of phone calls that can swamp legislators’ offices and even in-person threats and harassment of state legislators, as described by Jessica Huseman in an investigation by Pro Publica. Not all of HSLDA’S legislative campaigns deal strictly with homeschooling. A recent campaign asked members to tell Congress to oppose a national child abuse registry, a requirement under the reauthorization bill for the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act. An interstate child abuse registry would ensure that a parent’s record of child maltreatment would follow them from state to state, so that child protection authorities in the current state can access a parent’s record in states where they live previously. By throwing their weight into this campaign, which has nothing on the surface to do with child abuse, HSLDA has shown how important they think it is to keep child protective services away from homeschooled children.
States also have their own homeschool parent associations, which jump into action to eliminate any perceived threats. Along with HSLDA, they have been successful in preventing even modest attempts to regulate homeschooling, such as one in Pennsylvania that would have required monitoring of children in a household with a founded CPS report for at least six months and up to two years. Huseman’s article has many more examples of homeschooling advocates’ track record in defeating any attempt to regulate the practice.
The homeschooling movement has even been able to influence court decisions. In the notorious Jonathan L. case described Bartholet’s article, two parents had been reported to CPS numerous times over 20 years for physical abuse, neglect, failure to prevent sexual abuse, and unsafe conditions in the home. The parents refused to cooperate with CPS despite a court order to do so, and the children’s lawyer requested an order that they be sent to school so that they would be seen by other adults. The court’s denial was overturned by an appellate court on the grounds that only children in private full-time day schools, or taught by a certified teacher or tutor, were exempted from compulsory public education in California. In response to a huge outcry from the homeschooling movement, Governor Schwartzenegger, the state schools superintendent and other prominent public officials made public statements opposing the appeals court’s decision. The appeals court granted a rehearing. It received amicus briefs from many Christian homeschooling organizations and some members of Congress, and HSLDA helped represent the parents. The court reversed its original ruling and changed its interpretation of California law to allow homeschooling without requirements for parental qualifications by classifying home schools as “private full-time day schools,” which are exempt from the state’s compulsory education requirement. Readers around the country learned of this classification in the aftermath of the discovery of the thirteen Turpin children and young adults, who were found imprisoned and emaciated in their home in Riverside County after a seventeen-year-old escaped and called the police. We learned that this house of horrors was classified as a private school, but was never monitored or inspected by education authorities.
So how can child advocates achieve any success in fighting the homeschooling behemoth? With their money and single-mindedness, HSLADA and its state allies are tough adversaries. CRHE was created to provide an opposing force, with a mission that includes working with lawmakers and others interested in passing legislation to protect homeschooled children. At the summit, CRHE’s representatives stressed their readiness to help with any such efforts. But CHRE cannot match the dollars that HSLDA and state groups collect from homeschooling parents bent on preserving absolute power over their children. Readers should consider making a gift to CRHE, one of my favorite nonprofits for the justice of its cause, the brilliance and passion of its staff, and the bang for the buck, as all of its staff are currently volunteers!
As Elizabeth Bartholet pointed out, the pandemic has made us realize the importance of children going to school, except in certain special cases. So there could not be a better time for a new national push on this issue. As CRHE’s Sarah Henderson pointed out, for every horror story released, many more children may be living in hell. We cannot let this continue.