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Homeschooling and Child Abuse: Should We Increase Requirements?

In recent years, cases of abuse, neglect, or even (as in Washington DC last week) murder by homeschoolers or persons claiming to be homeschoolers have prompted some journalists and government officials to call for increased regulation and supervision of homeschooling families. Each time abuse like this comes to the attention of the nation, the obvious first response is to reign in the autonomy of homeschool parents, so that they are unable to slip through the cracks of the social services system.

In this most recent case of apparently gruesome and heartbreaking murder, such a reaction is certainly understandable. The innocent children involved appear to have been at the mercy of a distraught and deranged parent, and everyone wants to know how this could have happened, and how it could be prevented in the future.

Homeschoolers are not all saints

Unfortunately, I can’t say that homeschoolers are all benevolent, law abiding citizens and loving parents. Similar to the population in general, a certain percentage of homeschoolers will break the law. As homeschooling grows more common, it seems to be inevitable that some abusive parents will be homeschooling their children. The appropriate question to ask: Is increasing regulation and supervision the correct response to this unfortunate reality?

Public and private school parents aren’t saints either

Equally unfortunately, there are numerous cases of non-homeschooling parents who are tragically mistreating their children. In fact, it is a daily occurrence in this country. Abuse is a reality in our world, and most Americans (including homeschoolers) want to prevent it whenever possible, instead of sweeping it under the rug.

While our country has customarily operated on the idea that the vast majority of parents love their children deeply, and do anything in their power to protect them from harm, we cannot forget the children who suffer needlessly at the hands of their parents.

As a result, whenever we learn of such tragedies, homeschoolers all over the country ask ourselves, “Does it make sense to regulate and supervise homeschoolers as a way of preventing these tragedies from occurring?”

If it does make sense, I want to be the first person to lead the way toward getting that done.

Two Big Reasons Why Increasing Regulation of Homeschoolers is Not the Right Response

After much thought, and repeated soul searching, I have to say that the push to regulate homeschoolers is understandable, but not reasonable.

Here are a couple of reasons why:

Reason #1: Often, homeschooling doesn’t help these parents slip through the cracks

In the high profile cases with which I am familiar (including the Washington, DC murders and another case in my home state of North Carolina that was the topic of a highly critical report by CBS news) government officials were already aware that there was a problem in the family. I’m going to repeat that, because it is a very important point: The government department responsible for social services was already investigating these families.

I’m emphasizing this point because it is so often overlooked in the media coverage of such cases. In this most recent case, it appears that 5 different government agencies, including social services, had had contact with this family. Nobody in those agencies suspected that this apparently loving mother would resort to such horror. In the other high profile abuse case from NC, social services had been in contact with the family on numerous occasions, and had even removed the children from the parents’ custody temporarily, to no avail.

Reason #2: It isn’t logical or consistent, based on the way we treat parents in this country

Because we are used to children of a certain age being in the school system, supervising homeschoolers initially seems like a logical, reasonable option. Public schooled students are around people outside the family every day, which can help identify and correct abuse in some cases.

Of course, homeschooled children are a relatively minute part of the overall child population. If supervision were the answer, there is a much larger population of children that could benefit from such protection. I’m speaking, of course, of the millions and millions of children who are below school age.

For better or for worse, these children are typically released at birth directly into the unsupervised custody of their parents. In this country, we give parents of infants and preschoolers the benefit of the doubt, because the vast majority care desperately about their children’s welfare. Occasionally, this approach leads to tragic results.

Nonetheless, the idea that all parents of infants and preschoolers should be subjected to increased regulation, registration requirements, and supervision by the state seems unnecessarily intrusive – a solution that costs more in freedom than most parents would be willing to give up.

Arguing for closely regulating and monitoring homeschoolers to prevent abuse seems little different from arguing that parents of preschoolers need to be closely regulated and monitored for abuse. Even parents of school aged children are left unsupervised during school holidays and summer vacations.

Unless we are prepared to require that all parents of young children submit to increased regulation and supervision, it seems unreasonable and illogical to expect the population of overwhelmingly loving and law-abiding homeschooling parents to assume that burden, either.

In any tragic situation like this, we are driven to seek out ways to prevent it from ever happening again. This striving for improvement is reasonable and justifiable, and there are doubtless many improvements that can and should be made. Subjecting an entire population of parents to increased state supervision doesn’t seem reasonable, however, and neither does increased regulation of homeschoolers.

For additional perspective and information on this issue, please see the excellent research and well thought out arguments at these links:

Thoughts on Protecting Children in Homeschooling Families

Homeschooling and Child Abuse: No Connection

I would love to dialog about the points made here, or about points I may have overlooked. Again, I am open to being convinced either way, but so far have been convinced by the arguments above.

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7 Comments, Comment or Ping

  1. I think you’ve made some excellent points here. It is unfortunate that such abuse occurs, but it is foolish to point at one factor of the family’s life and assume that if it weren’t for ___, the abuse would not have happened. Governments like to use quick fixes on problems. They treat the symptoms instead of addressing the underlying issues. Micromanaging parents seems like it would create more stress and more incidents of abuse.

  2. In all the tragic cases I’ve seen involving allegedly “homeschooled” kids, the decision to pull the kids from government-run schools was made *AFTER* the initial contact with the child welfare authorities. I think it would be reasonable to do a quick check in the welfare authorities’ database whenever a parent removes his/her children from government schools. Not to say that a parent with previous contact(s) couldn’t homeschool but to see if there are any other red flags in the file that would warrant keeping an eye on the family. In Banita Jacks’ case, there were multiple red flags (recent loss of her boyfriend, homelessness, allegations of drug use, etc).

    Most states require background checks on prospective government and private school teachers so I don’t think it would be unduly intrusive to require a check on prospective homeschool teachers with the child welfare authorities.

  3. Great post about a very timely subject! I totally agree with point number one, in the vast majority of these cases, government agencies have already been involved. The sad fact is that children do fell through those cracks and adding yet another level of bureaucracy in one small area is not going to fix that. I wish that it would never happen that a child would fall through the cracks but it is just that – wishful thinking. There is no way to totally prevent all such tragedies. What we can do is continue to improve the safety nets already in place to insure that we have as few tragedies as humanly possible.

    Point number two is also very well taken but dangerous IMHO. There are many folks out there that would be only too happy to have all parents under supervision from childbirth on. Some would love to take it a step further and require prospective parents to be certified in some way – to receive permission to have children. Just the thought gives me the creeps.

    I can’t come up with a better point two at the moment. I really like point one because it is the kind of argument that anyone can understand – they don’t have to be a homeschooler. I remember doing a lot of reading when the lady in TX killed her children. It was very personal for me as I had just had my last baby and was having severe PPD (post partum depression). That was also an example of helpers not going far enough. She had had PPD that got progessively worse and had been hospitalized that spring for PPD that was called psychosis, it was so bad. She should not have been left alone at all. I think, if memory serves, her mom had been coming to help but there was a long space between her dh leaving for work that day and her mom coming. I may be fuzzy on the details. But my point is that she had a very severe problem that people knew about. I am sure that they wished they had done more and hindsight is 20/20 and all that, but it wasn’t the homeschooling that was the problem.

  4. april

    @Christina – Thanks for the comment! I agree that focusing on homeschooling is a quick fix, that doesn’t actually fix anything and avoids the real reasons why these tragedies happened.

    @Crimson Wife – Thanks so much for your comment, as well! I understand what you are saying – I guess my next thought is that if there are actual abusive things going on in the family (like the red flags you mentioned)then it seems to me that the children should be protected regardless of whether they are homeschooling or not. I do not want to second guess the social workers and agencies involved in this situation, but it seems like this woman needed help that never came. Flagging her account wouldn’t have been likely to change the outcome, because she already needed help and didn’t get it as it was. I keep wondering whether requiring her to register would have gotten her anywhere, when she didn’t (apparently) even have the wherewithal to register for food stamps?

    @Karen – Good to “see” you! It’s funny, I was thinking even as I typed point 2, that some people would see that option as a really good idea. Fortunately, (hopefully?) I do think we are still at a point where only *some* people would think that. I hope most parents would still be horrified to be treated with that level of suspicion, and if we got to the point of that much regulation of infants, etc, the issue of homeschooling freedoms would be minor in comparison.

    That said, I agree that there feels like there is something missing. Maybe it is because I didn’t offer anything in the way of a solution? I don’t know. It is such a disturbing issue to me, because what I keep coming back to is similar to what you said: sometimes these things just happen. Like you said, hindsight is 20/20, and people often wish they’d done things differently when they have the benefit of hindsight, but if we really did institute regulation and supervision of all parents, regardless of children’s age or schooling preference, won’t these things still happen? That’s not what I want to conclude, here. I want to feel like there is something that can be done. I especially want to feel like there is something that can be done without feeling like we are living in a police state!

    The realist in me says that there is no way to keep all children safe in this world, while the protective mommy in me argues that can’t be so. In the end, there probably are things that can be done. There are inefficiencies in the social services system that can be addressed, and there is education and assistance that can be offered. Hopefully as society learns more about issues like PPD and such, people will feel more comfortable to get help when they are struggling, friends and relatives will understand and be better prepared to support, and assistance will be available for those who need it. I hope that more education and assistance will come for others who need it as well. If there is anything that comes from a tragedy like this, I hope it is that all of us become just a little bit more prepared to reach out to friends, relatives, and even strangers. Not out of suspicion of the parents, but out of concern and support for the family. And if the parents are truly abusive (as in the NC case mentioned above, where the son killed his siblings and himself) that we step up and get those children out of there.

    Like you said, Karen, there are systems in place to address abuse, and if we can focus our energies and resources on optimizing the systems that are already in place, we’ll surely prevent some of these tragedies.

  5. Although I agree with your first point, the second could lead well-meaning people to impose just such surveillance on citizens in the name of preventing a small number of deaths.

    I wish there were a way to prevent these tragedies from happening without violating the constitutional rights of the majority of families out there. But there is not.

    Of course, we wonder how best to protect children when we hear of these high-profile cases. I have not done the research yet, but I suspect that the number of children dying each year from abuse is far smaller than, say, the number of teens killed in car accidents. Do we stop people from driving because they might be killed? In fact, we could stop people from taking all risks to prevent morbidity and mortality, but life would be kind of boring, and the economy would go into the drink. There’s a science fiction story about this kind of risk-aversion called “With Folded Hands.”

    The truth is that we live in a dangerous world, and we are hostages to fortune, and sometimes to the actions of insane or evil people. As much as we’d like to, we cannot stop every instance in which a child dies and also preserve for people the freedom to live their lives.

    We must also recognize that governments are able to kill on a much grander scale, when the protection of individual rights are removed. Think about the scale of death involved in Stalin’s nationalization of farming, or of Mao’s cultural revolution. We can even consider non-binding recommendations–like the McGovern Report (1977) on nutrition that started a 25 year experiment on the American people that has had serious health consequences, including death.

  6. april

    Thanks so much for you well though out comment. Your point, as with Karen’s, is well taken. I didn’t mean to suggest that we should actually regulate parents of preschoolers – actually I meant it the opposite way, and I appreciate your and Karen’s attempts to emphasize the dangers of taking that argument literally.

    My aim was to show, not that all parents should be closely monitored and supervised, but rather that it is not appropriate for either parents of infants and preschoolers or homeschoolers to be monitored.

    You said:
    “As much as we’d like to, we cannot stop every instance in which a child dies and also preserve for people the freedom to live their lives.”

    That says exactly what I was feeling, but couldn’t quite pull out of my brain in a clear enough sentence. Thanks for the contribution!

  7. I guess my BIGGEST concern is that the American people have slowly lost touch with what it means to have personal rights and freedoms. I see *no* outcry from liberals or the ACLU. THEORETICALLY, those people should be the first ones hopping in anger at the idea of this intrusion into private lives. What happened to, “My body, my choice, my right to decide?” Ah… after the child is born, though, I suppose it belongs to the state.

    There are a lot of well-meaning people who are advocating for “universal preschool” and the like right now, though. Your prediction of an earlier surrender to the state by parents will probably happen. S l o w l y. And without the protests that really should be there.

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