Homeschoolers, we have a problem. Homeschooling is an excellent educational option for many families and it’s popularity has spread. It has rightfully become more respected and seen as legitimate. This post is not about normal, decent homeschool families.
This post is about what amounts to torturous abuse in families who claim to homeschool.
The vast majority of homeschoolers are good, loving parents who want a nice life and solid education for their children. Homeschoolers are a fiercely independent lot of people. I have homeschooled one or more children for the past ten years; I too am independent and skeptical of government oversight or intervention into my educational choices. But we need to face the facts that monsters are real and that far too many kids are suffering in our community. Child abuse exists in the world and should not be seen as something unique or pervasive in the homeschool community. But it does exist within families who claim to homeschool and that presents unique challenges to helping the victims. Because the vast majority of homeschoolers are good and decent does not mean that the minority who are brutal should be beyond scrutiny.
Only through keeping their kids at home 24/7 are abusive parents able to inflict the most profound level of wounds. This abuse is only possible if the victim is completely or near completely isolated. This extreme suffering presents us with a profound moral challenge. We cannot continue to deny that it exists. It does. The question is, what do we do? And I don’t mean us, as in individuals. I mean a collective “us” with regard to how we support struggling kids. This post is about the start of a conversation as homeschool parents. What do we think could be done to balance our legitimate concerns as home educators with the moral need to at least try to protect kids from extreme abuse?
Two cases that have been in the news lately have just gnawed at me. The first is the Hart family, about which I wrote a previous blog entry (The Hart Family Tragedy Underscores Need for CPS Reform). They were the family of 2 moms with 6 adopted kids who drove off a cliff. The second is the adoptive mom who horrifically abused her 7 kids and forced them to make “funny” Youtube videos for her channel. Both of these are adoption cases, which brings so many different dimensions into the conversation about the ethics around adoption. But there are as many cases over the past number of years that were biological parents – the Turpins were the parents of that huge group of kids chained and kept in the basement or the mom who killed her kids and kept them in the freezer in her apartment. And the list goes on… Though I haven’t heard of many high-profile incidents I worry how much sex trafficking is happening. The fact is that we have a highly disconnected society where parents who perpetuate nightmarish abuse on their kids may have no authentic relationships with anyone who could see what’s happening. If the kids are also then kept at home 24/7, there is no one at all to help them.
I have seen child protective services at its best and worst, having adopted and fostered kids and dealing with many behavioral challenges that required social workers to access funds and programs. I never had CPS concerns regarding my homeschooling, but I often felt that it was something frowned upon and judged in the background and that it strained relationships from the start. Much of their critique was the kind of thing you hear everyday, like that kids won’t be socialized, it’s not normal, etc. But we have all heard of cases where legitimate philosophical differences around education were turned into neglect accusations on the part of social services (unschooling and free range parenting, for example) and interacting with social workers around it always made me uneasy. And several years ago when my oldest son went completely off the rails, the local government’s response was nightmarish. I do not advocate for any policy with CPS lightly. Their capacity to wreak havoc on families is well known and documented. My opinion on the subject are conflicted and complex. But failing to think these things through because they are hard and frightening is an increasingly untenable position morally.
I am certainly not suggesting that we have some CPS gestapo go out and investigate every homeschool family. Homeschooling alone should not be viewed as a reason for a child protection worker visit or for a family to become suspect. I am not necessarily even advocating for annual visits or some other such thing as is routine in some states. I honestly do not know what the best and least obtrusive way to have some form of oversight should be discussed.
But what I do know is a lot about how the bureaucracy of child protection works. And when a worker comes to a person’s home and interviews a family, that worker almost always has some written or mental checklist they are going through. Having thought somewhat excessively about these cases, I’ve come to see a few patterns emerge. In nearly ever one I’ve seen with this extreme abuse and neglect, a number of common elements exist – the kids had near zero contact with anyone outside the home, they were starved, they are almost never seen outside, and they are seriously educationally neglected.
In the cases above that I mentioned and many more, the kids had no routine contact with anyone outside their homes. I am not judging the quality of contact per se, just that there was next to nothing Many of us have limited social lives, to be honest. But there is a huge difference between not spending as much time out and about as you wish you could and having virtually no contact with anyone else outside their family.
In many of these horrific cases, the children were starved. As an organic gardener, I find particularly galling that the Harts that they told their CPS worker that the kids were thin because they ate organic food. Kids who are painfully thin deserve a second look to see what the underlying issues might be. Is the child suffering from an eating disorder, or has a medical condition, or even an extremely picky eater who is eating what they want and still thin? Those seem like relevant questions.
Another common element of these cases is that the kids rarely, if ever, spend time outside. The fact is we live in a time when fewer and fewer people spend much of any time outdoors. But what I’m referring here is well beyond the normal couch potato kid. Often children are almost never seen, including getting into and out of vehicles, helping with household jobs, checking the mail, etc.
Legitimate home education families have either educational materials or educational experiences available for their kids. In many of these cases there has been nearly nothing at all found that the kids could do or learn from. Since they rarely left home they had no educational opportunities, either. In several cases the victims had become adults while still being abused but did not have even the most basic education to advance their lives after resue.
The thought of a social worker visiting at all is all is at least mildly panic inducing to most people. Some may read this and worry that their introverted picky eater could end up on this checklist. Being mindful of overreach concerns, I have also advocate for the creation of offices of the ombudsperson for every state to help reign in the excesses of CPS. An ombudsperson can be effective at helping parents who can unjustly end up on their radar. But as much of a critic of CPS I am, it’s cases like torture, sexual abuse, starvation and other horrors are exactly why we still need it. Because we worry about the overreach does not mean we also shouldn’t also worry about failure to do due diligence. To do justice with a discussion about all that is screwed up about the entirity of the child protection, adoption and foster care systems is not possible with one post. That’s what this blog is for – dissecting and thinking about the pieces, one post at a time as I’m struck to write. And what has been on my mind lately has been how to begin thinking about the plight of highly abused supposedly homeschooled kids.
Children are so incredibly vulnerable to whatever their parents do to them. Even good parents have bad days or stretches where things are hard but fine. CPS needs to leave those families alone to do the business of loving and learning from each other. But for those parents who are destructive, the kids need child protection workers to understand what they are seeing when they come into contact with them. They need someone to hopefully realize the pain they are in. And they need us to engage in the conversation as to setting standards and priorities to help keep kids safe.
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For further reading see this great article by Responsible Homeschooling that flushes out more of the challenges that homeschooled kids can face from abusive and unstable parents. Abuse in Homeschooling Environments