HSLDA, the CPS, and fear: Quick, kids – hide!

I grew up afraid of the CPS (Child Protective Services). My parents carefully instructed us children on what to do if the CPS ever came to the door. We were never to let a social worker into the house, never to talk to one, and especially never to let one talk to any of us children alone. I used to have nightmares about this, where the CPS took us children away from our parents, interrogated us, and never let us return.

The weird thing is, we had nothing to fear from the CPS. My parents did everything above the book. They were careful never to leave bruises when spanking us, they followed our state’s practically nonexistent homeschool regulations to the T, and we were always well fed, well groomed, and well clothed. If the CPS had come and spoken with us, nothing would have happened.

So why all the fear? The answer is simple: The Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), perhaps the most prominent organization in the homeschool world, engaged in a sort of fear mongering to keep us and other homeschoolers afraid of the authorities and in order to make sure that we would continue to buy their legal insurance. Sound wacky? Let me explain.

HSLDA was founded in 1983 to protect homeschoolers from legal suit and to change the laws regulating or in some cases banning homeschooling. By the early 1990s, homeschooling was legal in every state. Since that date HSLDA has focused its attention on opposing any new attempt at additional homeschool regulation (and let me tell you, it’s very effective) and at providing legal assistance to homeschool families who find themselves in legal trouble.

HSLDA essentially operates as legal insurance. Homeschool families can become members of HSLDA for a annual fee (I think it’s between $100 and $150 at the moment), and then HLSDA will provide legal support completely free of charge if the family ever gets into legal trouble as a result of homeschooling.

The trouble is, HSLDA has essentially worked itself out of a job. So long as homeschoolers follow whatever regulations exist in their states (these vary from nothing at all to requiring annual portfolios), they’re fine. They don’t need legal insurance. It’s not the 1980s anymore. The most that is ever needed is to explain the state’s regulations to a local official who may not know just what is required of homeschoolers. But of course, if homeschoolers realize this and stop buying HSLDA’s legal insurance, HSLDA will go out of business.

Therefore, HSLDA has developed a brilliant strategy: fear mongering. Every member family receives HSLDA’s magazine, The Home School Court Report. This magazine has a section called “Active Cases” that outlines specific instances where families have recently gotten into legal trouble over homeschooling and needed HSLDA’s help, suggesting that these troubles could visit your family at any moment. I used to read this section religiously. While most of the cases were mundane and boring (HSLDA stepped in and told the local officials what the law says) a few were inevitably sensational and horrifying. The magazine also has an “Across the States” section dedicated to any new proposed regulations on homeschoolers, suggesting that homeschoolers’ legal freedom was precarious.

From time to time HSLDA whips its members into a frenzy over some new piece of regulation it declares would “end homeschool freedom as we know it,” but these charges are generally trumped up and overstated. If you listen to HSLDA and read its Court Report, it seems like every other year or so portends “the end of legal homeschooling” even though this is absolutely not the case. But HSLDA has to keep its members and followers in a state of concern and anxiety if it is to continue to exist.

Curriculum providers, conference speakers, and support group leaders also add to HSLDA’s membership by telling new homeschoolers that this legal protection is necessary. Impressionable new homeschoolers are very susceptible to this, and once they’re in the door, HSLDA does its best to use its magazine to keep them in.

Despite the dwindling legal threats to homeschooling, HSLDA’s membership rolls have continued to expland along with the movement as a whole. Though HSLDA loses 18 to 20 percent of its members every year, to date there have always been enough new recruits to more than make up for the losses: around 25 percent of members in a given year are first-timers. Christians new to homeschooling are often understandably worried about doing something so scary, and when they hear over and over from curriculum providers, conference speakers, and support group leaders (many of whom get kickbacks from HSLDA for members they bring in) that they need to join HSLDA, they do. Enough members remain to keep the organization solvent, but many new recruits quickly get their bearings and decide to pocket the membership fee after a year or two. (Gaither, Homeschool, 2008, p. 209)

I wish I could stop here but I can’t. In addition to founding HSLDA, Michael Farris has also written two fear-mongering novels that are worth a mention. The first is called Anonymous Tip. Here is an excerpt from a short review of the book:

When the child abuse industry goes amok, innocent parents and children are violated and their privacy invaded by self-serving bureaucrats with big egos and expedient ethics.

This is a gripper! From the first page on you’re getting deeper and faster into the undertow an anonymous tip can generate. You watch as a youthful and award-winning Children Protective Service investigator assails a citizen in her own home and, when Constitutional concerns are raised, returns with a vengeance.

The story is of a young Christian woman whose small daughter is removed from her by the CPS on completely falsified charges. The CPS is the enemy, ready to stop at nothing to keep the small girl from her loving mother. I’ve read it, and it’s heartrending. Only the talents and constitutional arguments of a young Christian lawyer are enough to return the girl to her mother after a months-long battle.

The second novel is called Forbid Them Not. In this book, the United States has signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and moves in to enforce it, removing the children from several Christian parents because they homeschool and use corporal discipline. In fact, one family has their children removed for merely opting their daughter out of the local public school’s sex education program. The message is simple: if the United States signs the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, parents’ right to homeschool, use “godly” discipline, and opt their children out of public school sex ed will end.

Here is an excerpt from a short review of the book from a conservative Christian site that expounds on this theme:

While the book is fiction, all the law in the book is factual and it could actually happen.  It is written under the premise that the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is ratified and the UN board of directors begins trying to bring lawsuits against parents in the US that they feel are in violation of the treaty.  They sue parents for spanking, teaching their children that Jesus is the only way to heaven and homeschooling. The book follows their lawsuits all the way to the Supreme Court.

At the end of the book is the text to the actual UN Convention on the Rights of the Child so you can see for yourself some of the aspects that are mentioned in the book.  I did not want to put the book down and could not wait to see how it ended but I am fearful that someday I may be reading about this sort of thing in the news, rather than in a fictional novel.  Michael Farris is also the founder of ParentalRights.org and there you can find information about how to protect parental rights and keep things like this from actually happening.  You can also follow the happening of the Parental Rights Amendment by visiting Support Parental Rights.

One thing HSLDA’s Court Report spends a lot of time talking about is the dangers and horrors of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and as you can see, HSLDA and its founder Michael Farris are in the front lines fighting this treaty, a treaty that has been signed by every country in the world except the U.S. and Somalia. Farris’ message to his followers is that if the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is signed, children will cease to be wards of their parents and become wards of the state.

I don’t have time to get into the ins and outs of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child at the moment, but suffice it to say that HSLDA’s concerns about it are either based on misinformation (i.e., every country in Europe has signed the convention but none of them have made teaching your children your religious beliefs illegal) or are backwards (i.e., HSLDA holds that anything that asserts that children are not simply the property of their parents is bad). But HSLDA uses its political clout and its huge membership base to stir up fear mongering and conspiracy theories about the convention and continue to keep the US from signing it.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is, of course, only one aspect of HSLDA’s fear mongering. Between its concerns about this treaty, its portrayal of social workers as inept or devious, and its constant message that homeschooling is on the edge of being banned, HSLDA uses fear mongering to keep its members buying its legal insurance. My parents kept HSLDA’s contact information close, taught us children not to let a social worker in or even speak to one, and told us that at the first sign of trouble we were to grab the phone and dial HSLDA.

The idea that we children might be removed from our parents and placed to live with strangers, and the idea that social workers might resort to lying and faking charges to do this, terrified me. I believed that if a social worker got one of us alone, he or she would use rhetorical tricks to trap us into saying things against our parents looking for any possible way to remove us. And let me tell you, that scared me to no end. I’ve heard that some homeschool families even have drills, training their children to run and hide if a social worker comes to the door. We never personally had any run-ins with the CPS, but I grew up with a huge fear of social workers.

For more on the background, history,and practices of HSLDA, see Mitchell Stevens’ Kingdom of Children (2001) or Milton Gaither’s Homeschool: An American History (2008).

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.