This June, a seven-year-old Pennsylvania boy was found by child welfare workers, nearly starved to death and weighing less than 25 pounds. According to police, the child was being denied food, beaten with a belt, and not allowed outside by his mother and grandparents — who are now charged with attempted murder and other offenses. Because the child was homeschooled and enrolled at online charter school, he was largely out of the public view, making detection of the apparent abuse difficult.
While his case was by no means the typical experience of a homeschooler, he is an example of what the Coalition for Responsible Home Education (CRHE) calls “Homeschooling’s Invisible Children,” — dozens of abused and neglected kids the group has documented across the country whose parents or guardians have hidden from detection by taking them out of public schools and keeping them at home. According to Rachel Coleman, a homeschool alum and the CRHE’s executive director, more than 90 of those “invisible children” have died since 2000.
State laws governing homeschool monitoring vary widely. In some states, homeschooled kids must be seen and reviewed annually by a certified educator. In some, parents have sole discretion over their children’s education. In most states, anyone with custody can homeschool their kids — even if they have been previously convicted of child abuse or other serious crimes. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Children’s Bureau, more than 678,000 children were victims of abuse and neglect nationwide in 2012. The agency does not track statistics about how many of those were homeschoolers. But CRHE, through its own research, has documented hundreds of anecdotal cases.
While no one actually endorses child abuse or neglect, there is disagreement within the homeschooling community about how best to address the problem — and how widespread it is. Coleman’s CRHE (a group made up of homeschool alumni that works to promote responsible “child-centered” home education practices and pushes for homeschooling reform) and other child advocates would like to see greater state oversight of homeschooling. But their policy proposals in this area have been met with strong opposition from the most visible organization within the homeschooling movement: Michael Farris’ Home School Legal Defense Association.
‘Whispered allegations over the phone’
Since 1983, the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) has provided advocacy and legal representation for parents who chose to educate their children at home. Co-founded and chaired by conservative Christian activist Michael Farris, HSLDA helped make homeschooling legal in all 50 states and became, in the words of homeschooling historian and Messiah College associate professor of education Milton Gaither, “pretty much the face of homeschooling.” The organization, based in Purcellville, VA, reported in 2013 that its annual budget is more than $10 million.
In addition to leading the legislative and judicial charge to protect the rights of parents to homeschool, HSLDA has directed a great deal of its attention to keeping the government out of their homes. Reflecting the organization’s conservative views, it prefers letting parents make decisions without interference from federal, state, or local officials.
The organization has lobbied for laws to criminalize “knowingly making a false report of child abuse” and requiring “corroborating evidence of the alleged abuse or neglect before a full investigation is conducted” based on anonymous reports. In 2003, Farris wrote in an article that, “The misuse of anonymous tips are well-known. Personal vendettas, neighborhood squabbles, disputes on the Little League field, are turned into maliciously false allegations breathed into a hotline. From my perspective, there is no reason whatsoever in any case, for a report to be anonymous. There is every reason to keep the reports confidential.” He argued that “the welfare of children is absolutely consistent with our constitutional requirements” and that young children “can be traumatized by investigations in ways that are unintended by the social worker.”
“HSLDA will help stop social workers or any other government officials from conducting unwarranted searches in your home,” the group promises on their “You Can Homeschool” website. HSLDA instructs its members to never let social workers into their house “without a warrant or court order.” In 2011 interview, Farris explained his group’s concern:
FARRIS: We also fight government agencies when they do unlawful searches and seizures for child abuse investigations. Homeschoolers, because we’re a little different, are subject to these whispered allegations over the phone, whispered rumors: “I think they do this and such.” And they call up child services. So we’ve gotten to be pretty expert in defending Fourth Amendment rights.”
He observed that often social workers investigating homeschooling families “just think that the normal rules of the fourth amendment don’t apply to them,” but noted that over the years, this problem has “dramatically improved.” As homeschooling has become more common, HSLDA says fewer people are incorrectly reporting homeschooling families for “educational neglect and truancy.”
Robert Kunzman, an expert on homeschooling and a professor at the Indiana University Bloomington, wrote in his 2009 book, Write These Laws On Your Children, that HSLDA has long portrayed social workers and child protection agencies as a “dangerous combination of bumbling bureaucracies ignorant of homeschoolers’ constitutional rights and devious ideologues intent on removing children from their homes,” though it appears that “the vast majority of homeschoolers never come into contact with these agencies.” Still, he wrote, he can understand why homeschoolers are wary of child protective agencies, acting on anonymous tips, “knocking on your door and demanding to interview your children.”
The fear of anonymous tipsters has been longstanding for HSLDA. In 1996, Farris published a novel called Anonymous Tip, relaying a Kafkaesque tale of a family whose life is uprooted by Child Protective Services after a false report by an anonymous accuser.
Kunzman told ThinkProgress that while he understands how “even the possibility of an overzealous social worker might make me on high alert,” the HSLDA’s steady diet of published accounts of harassment and persecution by social workers “rarely seems to be the full story,” and “it’s impossible to tell how representative this is of the overall population.”
The organization’s position is that child abuse and neglect are very rare. “Statistics show that up to 60 percent of children removed from their homes by social workers were taken away from their parents without probable cause to suspect abuse,” HSLDA asserts, and about “30 percent of reports that are investigated include only one child found to be a victim of abuse or neglect.” HSLDA boasts that it has “represented thousands of families during [child protective services] investigations” and “litigated and won a number of cases” on their behalf.
HSLDA has also opposed efforts to expand the list of people who are designated as “mandatory reporters” (legally required to report suspected child abuse) and to require criminal background checks for parents who intend to homeschool their children.
“The other side of the equation”
Daniel Pollack, a professor at Yeshiva University’s school of social work, has written extensively on child abuse and neglect and frequently serves as an expert witness in abuse cases. He told ThinkProgress that, “Without a doubt, there are parents who are removing their children [from public schools], not specifically to abuse them,” but because they “don’t want them to appear in school.” If a child is in a school setting, he notes, “teachers, administrators, school nurses, and social workers are in theory looking after [them] in a safe environment.” But, he notes, many parents are “legitimately concerned about their kids being bullied in school,” and it is very difficult to know whether there is more abuse “behind closed doors” in the homeschool environment or in the school setting. According to a U.S. Department of Education survey in the 2008-09 school year, about 1.4 percent of students (ages 12 through 18) reported that were victims of a violent crime, in the previous six months.
In 2010, Laura Brodie wrote in Psychology Today about a fourth-grade boy who would tell his parents every morning that he was “sick to his stomach” and wanted to stay home. Upon further investigation, the parents discovered that classmates regularly bullied him and once even “stuffed him head first into a garbage can.” Despite intervention efforts by the school, the problem persisted. One day, he told his mother his day had gone “great” as he’d been picked on only once. To stop the bullying, the parents took him out of school and homeschooled him for a year. “I’m convinced pulling him out to homeschool (which gave him a break) was the best choice we could have made,” the mother told Brodie. Several other parents of bullied children have also found that for their kids, the home was safer than school.
Pollack’s point was echoed by David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. He told ThinkProgress that homeschool kids “may be subject to less bullying and peer victimization, the effects of which can be as toxic and long-term as parental child mistreatment.” Moreover, he noted, “evidence suggests that educators in general are not that good at identifying abuse and neglect and getting it reported,” so more training for all educators and teachers should be the priority.
Linda Spears, vice president for policy and public affairs at the Child Welfare League of America, called bullying “the other side of the equation.” She also told ThinkProgress that while “any time a child is less than visible in the community, that places them at higher risk that harm will happen and go undetected,” there is a similar concern about “other populations, including any child under five [years old, and thus] not in the school system” and kids who are “periodically absent from school for long period of time.” The real question, she said, “is visibility: who sees the child and how often, outside of family,” and “is the child isolated or participating in recreation, church, etc.”
Homeschool alumni speak out
In April of 2013, a former homeschooled student named Libby Anne published a series of blog posts criticizing the Home School Legal Defense Association’s handling of the child abuse and neglect issue. “Put simply,” she wrote at the time, “HSLDA is doing everything it can to keep people from reporting child abuse and to inhibit child abuse investigations, has opposed laws against child abuse, and is working to undo compulsory education laws altogether, effectively decriminalizing education neglect.” Her conclusion was that HSLDA’s ideal would be for “only those who directly witness child abuse occurring (i.e., not just suspect that it’s occurring) and are willing to go on the record and be sued and charged with a crime if their allegations turn out to be unsubstantiated should call in child abuse tips.”
A few weeks later, HSLDA posted on its Facebook page, apparently in response to the blogs, that “HSLDA does not and will not ever condone nor defend child abuse.” The statement noted that the organization “receives hundreds of calls each year from parents who are under investigation by CPS, often based on false, anonymous, trivial, or malicious reports,” most of which are ultimately dismissed as unfounded. But the statement did include a sentence seemingly conceding that some of the group’s prior work could be construed to have backed harmful behavior: “To the extent that any statements we may have made could be misunderstood to suggest that we condone the abusive actions of some we repudiate them wholeheartedly and unequivocally.”
Libby Anne responded that HSLDA has not actually defined what child abuse is. “It’s easy to speak against something without defining it. Even though HSLDA continually says that it only supports ‘reasonable’ corporal punishment, in practice HSLDA [has] a track record of working against bills that would ban excessive corporal punishment.” She pointed to the group’s opposition to legislation that would have banned unreasonable corporal punishment and made it a felony in Mississippi to “whip, strike or otherwise abuse any child,” in a way that causes bodily harm to the child, except in cases of self defense. “HSLDA may claim that it does not condone or defend child abuse, but it appears that its words do not match its actions. Words are easy—it’s actions that matter,” she wrote.
Homeschool Alumni Reaching Out, a group of former homeschoolers who work within the movement to protect the rights of current homeschool kids, did take action. “We started a social media campaign, hashtag #HSLDAMustAct,” executive director Ryan Stollar told ThinkProgress, “calling on them to launch a public awareness campaign for recognizing child abuse. We created a Change.org petition for parents, homeschoolers, and alumni.” Stollar said HSLDA was not immediately responsive.
In January, the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, the alumni group that oversees the Homeschooling’s Invisible Children database, issued a series of policy recommendations for states aimed at protecting the interests of homeschooled students. Among their recommendations were proposals that all parents “convicted of child abuse, sexual offenses, or other crimes that would disqualify them from employment as a school teacher” be barred from homeschooling and that all homeschooled students “should be assessed annually by mandatory reporters.” As of now, according to the group, only Pennsylvania prevents convicted criminals from homeschooling and Arkansas prohibits homeschooling if a registered sex offender lives in the home.
CREDIT: Coalition for Responsible Home Education
Rita Swan, a longtime advocate for children and president of Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty, endorsed the second proposal and told ThinkProgress she’d also “like to see laws requiring everyone called to render aid or assistance to a child to report suspected abuse or neglect” and stronger penalties for failure to report. But HSLDA has opposed CRHE’s proposed approaches, objecting to any criminal background check for parents and to an Ohio bill it said would have meant children’s services diverting “time and resources away from true child abuse investigations in order to review homeschool plans which they are neither prepared nor qualified to evaluate.”
The CRHE’s Rachel Coleman told ThinkProgress that she spoke with Michael Farris about abuse and neglect of homeschooling children late last year and that Farris “expressed concern that if HSLDA couldn’t deal with the abuse problem, homeschooling might end up banned.” But, she said, Farris said he preferred “self-policing” rather than regulation: “He said he wanted to change the culture of Christian homeschooling such that people will say something and speak up when they have concerns,” and that “parents are children’s first protectors [and] a grandparent or aunt or uncle should step in to protect children if their parents fall down on the job.” Coleman noted that this approach is problematic, as without a child abuse finding by social services, relatives have no legal power to help a child if the parents refuse to let them in.
Jim Mason, senior counsel for HSLDA told ThinkProgress that while he was “not privy to the conversation,” the organization is taking the stories of abuse and neglect seriously. “We are addressing the issue now out of a two-fold concern: we care about children and families; and we wish for homeschooling to thrive in an environment of liberty,” he said, and, the organization does “believe that the homeschooling community is well-suited to address the issues raised by Rachel without further government regulation.”
Earlier this year, HSLDA for the first time posted an “Addressing Child Abuse” section on its website. In it, the organization says: “Addressing child abuse is a vital part of building a stronger, healthier homeschooling culture.” It also claims:
The evidence suggests that abuse in homeschooling families is rarer than in the general population. In 2011 (the last year for which data are available), approximately 4.1% of all children in the U.S. were involved in abuse investigations. The same year, HSLDA assisted less than 1.2% of our member families in child protective services investigations. The vast majority of these investigations were based on accusations that did not rise to the level of abuse or neglect (such as children being seen outside during school hours or a messy home) and closed as unfounded. While this statistic is not comprehensive, it can be seen as an indicator of a generally low rate of abuse among homeschoolers.
Rachel Coleman said that he group has serious concerns with the site’s tone. Observing that the HSLDA’s claim of a lower abuse rate appears to be solely based on their self-selected membership (HSLDA’s membership application form asks if prospective members have a history of child abuse accusations) and notes that since “homeschooled students have fewer contacts with mandatory reporters than other students,” it logically follows that “when they are abused their abuse is less likely to be recognized and reported.”) She fears the organization’s repeated insistence that “child abuse is very very rare in homeschooling circles” will suggest “that people should automatically give homeschool families the benefit of the doubt.” By not defining physical abuse or pointing people to state laws and others’ definitions, she says, many parents do not know “the line between appropriate discipline and abuse.” Though she notes that the “vast majority” of homeschooling parents are not abusers, she believes greater accountability is needed to protect the children of those who are.
Coleman disputes the argument by Farris and HSLDA that social worker harassment of homeschoolers is a bigger problem than actual abuse: “Yes, there are sometimes social workers who abuse their position, and yes, the system sometimes fails. But like with anything else, this is why accountability is necessary.” The stories Farris cites as outrageous, to Coleman, “tend to be nothing more than social workers doing their jobs — ensuring children are not abused or neglected.”
“HSLDA appears to operate under the assumption that child abuse accusations are de facto false,” Coleman said. “In this context, we have to take the organization’s claims about the supposedly high rates of false child abuse reports against homeschooling families with an entire container of salt.”
The HSLDA’s Mason reiterated the organization’s belief that “abuse and neglect among homeschooling parents is less prevalent than in the population in general.” While the group does not believe “that investigative social workers are motivated by a desire to traumatize children or tear apart families,” he said, the group does believe “that their failure to follow constitutional rules does result in these outcomes in far too many cases.” He pointed to a 2005 law review article by Duke University law professor Doriane Lambelet Coleman which warned caseworker intrusion can case ‘trauma, anxiety, fear, shame, guilt, stigmatization, powerlessness, self-doubt, depression, and isolation.”
While cases like the seven-year-old Pennsylvania boy being starved seem like obvious neglect and abuse, when it comes to child discipline, the line is not always clear. A subset of the religious conservatives in the homeschooling have adopted a controversial corporal-punishment-based approach to child rearing that critics believe straddles or crosses that.
Coleman’s understanding of this part of the issue comes not just from her organization’s research, but from her own experience. Her parents, she told The Daily Beast last year, were adherents to the teachings of pair of homeschooling pioneers whose strict biblical disciplinary approach has been adopted by many in the movement.
In 1994, two married evangelists named Michael and Debi Pearl published a To Train Up a Child, a book that encourages parents to train children using the “the same principles the Amish use to train their stubborn mules, the same technique God uses to train His children.”
The book and the Pearls’ ministry website encourage parents to homeschool and to discipline children using “biblical chastisement” tactics including whipping children with a switch, belt, or plumbing tube, including infants, to deter future need for discipline. Michael Pearl defends using “a straight slender stick growing on or cut from a tree or bush” to hit children as required by Proverbs 13:24 (“He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.”) Their approach is discipline based on “an eye for an eye.”
But some children whose parents have attempted to adopt the Pearls’ approach have died as the result of this discipline and their parents were ultimately charged with murder. Rita Swan, of Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty, writing about two parents who were reportedly Pearl followers and were convicted of homicide by abuse, noted that the couple prescribe no “limits to punishment and the hitting of children” in their book.
The Pearls have attempted to distance themselves from these deaths, claiming that their instructions were not followed in these cases and are often misunderstood. A representative from the Pearls’ ministry sent ThinkProgress a statement Michael Pearl released in 2011, arguing that their book recommends discipline, not abuse. “The book repeated warns parents against abuse and emphasizes the parents’ responsibility to love and properly care for their children, which includes training them for success,” he wrote, noting that these parents “chose to ignore (or twist) the contents of the book that could have corrected their poor parenting and prevented the abuse and her death.”
Messiah College’s Milton Gaither believes many in the homeschooling movement are “trying to get back to what they would consider and Biblical and early American notion of male headship,” where “there’s really no such thing as child abuse.” In their patriarchal worldview, he observed, “A father is like a king. His word is final. It is not the business of government or outsiders to question a father’s reign within his own household.” Gaither does not believe that Farris or HSLDA are completely on board with this view, but said “Farris’ knee-jerk belief that parental rights trump children’s rights” stems from this mindset.
Coleman told ThinkProgress that “in many cases abusive homeschool parents are under the impression that they are simply administering ‘biblical’ discipline.” But, she said, this problem “is a lot bigger than just Michael Pearl,” as “many of the child rearing manuals in wide circulation in the Christian homeschooling world” encourage “spanking infants and breaking children’s wills.”
Coleman also pointed out that child abuse and neglect of homeschoolers “is not limited to excessive discipline that crosses the line into abuse,” noting: “There are abuse cases where narcissistic homeschool parents severely emotionally abuse their children without ever laying a hand to them” and “homeschooled children who are locked in empty bedrooms and regularly sexually assaulted.”
“A Line in the Sand”
Late last year, Doug Phillips, a prominent homeschooling advocate aligned with the biblical “patriarchy” movement, resigned from his ministry after admitting an “inappropriate” relationship with a woman — soon after, a young former follower filed a lawsuit against him, alleging sexual battery and assault. Phillips has denied her claims.
Farris distanced himself, posting on Facebook that while he had not been aware of any sexual misconduct, he did know that Phillips “was involved in unscriptural views about women in his teaching” and that he wished he had spoken up sooner.
In February, a second significant homeschooling figure named Bill Gothard — reportedly the 2010 recipient of HSLDA’s leadership award — was placed on leave by his ministry following allegations of sexual harassment and failure to report child abuse. He too admitted to having “crossed the boundaries of discretion,” but denied some of the claims.
Last month, HSLDA and Farris responded to these incidents with an article in their Home School Court Report magazine, called “A Line in the Sand.” While noting that HSLDA’s role is not “to be the police force of the homeschooling movement,” Farris called Gothard and Phillips threats to “the freedom and integrity of the homeschooling movement” and apologized on behalf of his entire organization for “failing to speak up sooner.”
After denouncing the patriarchy movement, Farris also ventured into the issue of biblical child discipline. Without referencing the Pearls by name, he wrote:
The overuse of physical discipline is causing real harm to children. (I am particularly concerned about the overuse of physical discipline with adopted children. Children need to feel loved in any discipline situation. Using spanking for adopted children poses a very high risk of being perceived by the child as an act of hatred instead of loving discipline, no matter what words surround the immediate act.)
He noted that while he does believe that “the Bible encourages spanking as a form of discipline,” but urged “common sense” in determining “at what age we should start, at what age we should stop, or what offenses deserve such discipline.”
Coleman told ThinkProgress that while CRHE is “glad that Farris has finally come out and drawn a line,” the group remains “concerned by both his reluctance to acknowledge his own role in the problem and his continued failure to call out Michael Pearl.” She also noted that HSLDA has yet to change the way it handles abuse cases by its member families or its legislative policy approach: “Self reflection and self policing is not enough. Homeschooled children need legal protections safeguarding both their freedom from abuse and their interest in receiving an education.” Until these change, she said “homeschooling will continue to serve as an easy cover for abusive or neglectful parents.” Asked about the Pearls, HSLDA’s Mason responded only that the group “is concerned about those who promote an imbalanced approach to child discipline.”
The blogger who originally called out HSLDA, Libby Anne, told ThinkProgress that HSLDA’s latest actions is a “classic deflection.” “My concerns with regards to homeschooling and abuse and neglect have always had more to do with HSLDA’s willingness to protect child abusers and its emphasis on parental rights at the expense of children’s interests, and this has not been addressed by that organization in any way shape or form,” she said, adding that she worries the organization and others will now claim to have “done their part” while not actually addressing the real concerns.
In the end, CRHE and HSLDA agree that child abuse and neglect represent a serious threat to homeschool students and to the movement as a whole. CRHE and HSLDA just strongly disagree on how to address the problem. And while child-rights advocates agree with CRHE that some additional oversight might help make the invisible abuse victims more visible, the lack of any reliable statistics on abuse within the movement makes solutions difficult.
“Maybe the story is ‘the answer needs to be known. We don’t know the answer to the question,'” offered Linda Spears of the Child Welfare League of America. “I don’t think there is any one answer; it’s complex.”