HSLDA’s Stonewalling of Child Abuse Investigations

This is the third post in a series on the role the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) plays in aiding and abetting child abuse. In the last post I wrote about HSLDA’s efforts to decrease the reporting of child abuse; in this post I will write about the role HSLDA has played in encouraging the obstructing of child abuse investigations. In a nutshell, HSLDA encourages its member families to do whatever they have to to prevent social workers from talking to their children alone, has pioneered legal strategies aimed at enabling parents to stonewall child abuse investigations, encourages children and parents alike to regard social workers with fear and suspicion, and portrays child abuse investigations themselves as abusive.

Standard Bearers of the Fourth Amendment

The fourth amendment protects citizens against unreasonable search and seizure; it is because of this amendment that law enforcement must have a warrant to enter your house. HSLDA is adamant in its insistence that the fourth amendment gives parents the right to deny Child Protective Services workers access to their homes and children without a warrant. In fact, HSLDA has been so dogged in pursuing litigation to extend parents’ fourth amendment rights that a legal comment published in UMKC Law Review in 2004 was titled “Standard Bearers of the Fourth Amendment: The Curious Involvement of Home School Advocates in Constitutional Challenges to Child Abuse Investigations.”

Just what is HSLDA’s line on the fourth amendment? Well, in his 2001 testimony urging that the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) be amended, HSLDA’s Christopher Klicka made the following suggestion:

Specific Declaration of the 4th Amendment Probable Cause Standard: Social workers must be held accountable to the same 4th Amendment standards as the police and other law enforcement authorities. As a condition of receiving federal funds, states should be mandated to declare in their state code that a warrant, supported by probable cause, must be obtained before a social worker can enter the home without consent of the parents.

HSLDA was actually partially successful in its attempt to amend CAPTA: As a result of their efforts, a provision requiring that social workers be trained regarding the requirements of the fourth amendment was added to the bill. Now while HSLDA’s laser focus on the fourth amendment as a way to protect homeschooling families against child abuse investigations may seem fishy, it is true that the fourth amendment does protect families against intrusions of law enforcement without a warrant, so applying this same standard to CPS workers, who serve as government agents, is not really that out there (whether or not I agree with it, of course, is another matter). Where it gets strange is what comes next.

Don’t Let the Social Worker In!

HSLDA insists that requiring social workers to get either the parents’ consent or a warrant before entering a home and interviewing children won’t actually get in the way of child abuse investigations, explaining as follows:

Obviously, nothing in the Constitution prevents a social worker from going to a home and simply asking to come in. If the parent or guardian says “yes”, there is no constitutional violation whatsoever provided that there was no coercion.

This covers the vast majority of investigations. The overwhelming response of people being investigated is to allow the social worker to enter the home and conduct whatever investigation is reasonably necessary.

This is very odd given what HSLDA advises its members:

Never let the social worker in your house without a warrant or court order. All the casesthat you have heard about where children are snatched from the home usually involve families waiving their Fourth Amendment right to be free from such searches and seizures by agreeing to allow the social worker to come inside the home. A warrant requires “probable cause” which does not include an anonymous tip or a mere suspicion

In the Stumbo case, when a social worker came to the door to investigate suspected child abuse after a tipster made a report about an unattended naked two year old in the family’s driveway, HSLDA advised the family not to let the social worker in. The Stumbos followed HSLDA’s advice, denying social workers access to their children, and as a result what might have been a simple investigation revealing no suggestions of child abuse and leading to the tip being unsubstantiated and the case dismissed instead turned into a drawn-out court battle that lasted for years.

Growing up in an HSLDA member family, I remember what I was taught was the number one most important thing to remember in case of a social worker coming to the door: Never, never, never let a social worker into the home, and never let the social worker talk to any of the children alone. The reason for this, I was told, was that social workers would fake evidence and plant false memories in children, meaning that if even the most innocent homeschooling family let a social worker into the house they would end up losing custody of their children. I never thought about the reality that, in practice, urging parents against allowing CPS workers into their homes or access to their children might both make the families appear extremely suspicious and serve to impede the investigation and discovery of real and devastating child abuse.

Just What Is Probable Cause?

If HSLDA member families follow HSLDA’s advice, social workers will always have to get warrants to investigate child abuse complaints against homeschooling families. To get a warrant the social worker will have to establish probable cause, and HSLDA is adamant in wanting the strictest standards used in determining just what constitutes probable cause—and that means anonymous tips or “mere suspicion” of child abuse, however earnest or dire, are out.

In the Stumbo case the social worker responded to the parents’ refusal to allow access to their home or children by going to a judge and getting a warrant. HSLDA responded by taking legal action to challenge this warrant—and ultimately won.

In one article, HSLDA offers an example of probable cause: A grandmother calls CPS, providing her name and personal information, and reports that her grandson has been locked in his room for days without food and that she has seen him and he looks pale and weak. HSLDA states that in this case, if the CPS worker can verify the identity and relationship of the caller, he would then have probable cause and could get a warrant. Later, the article states that “It is not enough to have information that the children are in some form of serious danger. The evidence must also pass a test of reliability that our justice system calls probable cause. … Anonymous tips are never probable cause.”

Let’s take a look at how things would work if HSLDA has its way: When a tipster calls CPS to expresses concerns about a homeschooling family, a social worker will be dispatched to the family’s home in an attempt to ascertain whether there is any justification for these concerns. On HSLDA’s advice, the family will turn the social worker away without allowing her access to their home or children in order to investigate the allegations. The social worker can then go to a judge, and must present some form of information that will pass the “test of reliability” and serve as “probable cause”—and this information must all be obtained and presented without any access to the family’s home or children. If the tip is anonymous or the repost rests on “mere suspicions” or the allegations are not deemed to pass the “test of reliability,” regardless of the severity of the accusations, the judge will deny the warrant and the case will be dismissed, all without the social worker ever having any contact with the family’s children. Seen in this way, it’s not hard to see that HSLDA is intent on throwing up any possible roadblock in the path of child abuse investigation.

Don’t Let Them Talk to the Kids!

Perhaps this is the most disturbing part: HSLDA does whatever it has to to keep CPS workers from contact with homeschooling children, rejoicing every time they successfully keep children from private interviews with the social workers sent to investigate child abuse tips a family. In one article in its Home School Court Report, an article that is extremely representative of the stories recorded there, HSLDA exults over a successful case against child abuse investigations as follows:

A Home School Legal Defense Association member family in Jackson County recently contacted us for assistance in a Department of Social Services investigation alleging physical abuse.

The investigation was prompted by a report to DSS alleging inappropriate discipline of their child approximately two years ago. Although the report just covered one child, the social worker insisted that she be allowed to interview all of the children in the home.

HSLDA contacted the social worker, explaining that our members were eager to address the allegations made against them and were prepared to meet with the social worker to respond to questions about the report. However, we clarified that the parents would not discuss any matters beyond the specific allegations, and that they would strenuously oppose subjecting their children to the trauma of any interrogation by social workers.

The family recently received a letter stating that the investigation was terminated as “unfounded.”

In case after case after case after case after case after case, HSLDA makes it clear that allowing social workers to speak with children alone is the absolute worst thing a parent can do, and is something to be avoided at all costs. This is the thing a parent must never do. HSLDA seems completely unaware that sometimes a private interview with a social worker is the only chance an abused child has to speak out about her abuse, and that having a parent or other relative present often impedes abused children’s ability to speak openly of their abuse. But then, HSLDA also seems unaware that any of its member families could possibly abuse their children.

In fact, here is a statement by HSLDA directly addressing the importance of opposing private interviews between children and social workers:

Private interviews with a social worker can be extremely traumatic for a child. Social workers sometimes ask inappropriate, personal, and offensive questions which can destroy a child’s innocence or security. HSLDA works hard to avoid such traumatic interviews wherever possible.

HSLDA isn’t shy, then, about its opposition to letting social workers speak privately with children. In case after case listed in their Court Report and on their website, they crow over how they cowed social workers out of being able to meet one-on-one with homeschooling children. HSLDA may insist that social workers plant stories of abuse and traumatize children during these private interviews, but the simple reality is that HSLDA is working its hardest to cut off any chance abused children might have of actually speaking to social workers about their abuse.

For more on how HSLDA teaches parents to deal with CPS workers—and more on the fear and suspicion with which HSLDA encourages parents to view CPS workers—take a minute to read this play in two acts involving “Mr. Innocent,” “Mr. Wise,” “Little Eager,” and “Orwell,” the social worker. This play is an excellent peek into exactly how I was taught growing up to view social workers and deal with CPS investigations. And you may have guessed it already—the goal is to avoid allowing CPS to speak privately with the children.

Child Abuse Investigations as Abusive to Children

HSLDA also has a track record of arguing that children must be protected from child abuse investigations. For example, in explaining opposition to mandatory reporting laws HSLDA has said the following:

HSLDA has seen firsthand how malicious or ignorant child abuse and neglect allegations have destroyed innocent families. A family has few protections against the power of CPS agencies. And even if a CPS investigation is closed as unfounded, the trauma to a young child, to an innocent family as a stranger (albeit maybe a well-intentioned stranger) enters the home and threatens to remove the children, is lasting and profound.

And, after winning one case, HSLDA reported as follows:

Elated by this sudden victory after months of worry, the Willittses returned to normal life. Their refusal to back down-even in the face of relentless intimidation-had protected their children from a traumatic interview and their family from any further invasion of privacy. We thank God for the positive resolution of this case.

HSLDA often describes CPS investigations as abusive toward families, thus co-opting the rhetoric of abuse. I’m unsure of whether HSLDA is aware of how insensitive this makes them look—or if they’re aware that even HSLDA member families can be abusive. Either way, the idea that child abuse investigations are this horribly abusive thing that families and children must be protected against at all costs serves in practice to aid abusive parents seeking to hide the evidence of their abuse and minimizes the abuse that many children suffer every day at the hands of their parents.

Teaching Children (and Parents) to Fear Social Workers

I would suggest that whatever “trauma” is in fact suffered by homeschooled children interviewed by CPS workers is the result of HSLDA literature urging children to be afraid of social workers. When I was a child, I was terrified of CPS workers, viewing them as an evil boogeyman out to take me away from my parents at the drop of a hat. Where did I get this fear? From HSLDA. In spades. HSLDA sows fear among homeschooling parents and children because that fear is what keeps its coffers full—after all, if homeschooling parents are not afraid, they will not buy HSLDA’s legal insurance.

In fact, HSLDA founder Michael Farris even wrote a horror novel called Anonymous Tip, which detailed the story of a woman whose daughter was removed from her custody by a conniving social worker who faked evidence after a child abuse tip called in by the woman’s deadbeat ex. I’m sure I’m not the only homeschooler who read Farris’s novel and took it very, very seriously—and the play I referenced earlier was likely taken similarly seriously.

Through its books, email alerts, and magazine, HSLDA plants a fear of social workers and CPS investigations deep in the heart of both parents and children—even leading them to believe that CPS workers commonly remove children from their parents without justification, and that this could happen to them too—and then crows to the rooftops about the trauma that results from child abuse investigations. If HSLDA wasn’t sowing this fear in the first place, parents and children wouldn’t be frightened to death when social workers show up at the door to investigate a complaint and make sure everything is alright.

But there’s more to this, too. When HSLDA teaches children to be afraid of social workers, it is teaching them to see their helpline as the enemy. CPS workers ought to be seen as friends and supporters of children, there to listen to kids and help protect them from abuse. Sure, there may be the random bad social worker, but by and large social workers are dedicated individuals who believe deeply in helping children. Social work isn’t something you go into for the money. And yet, HSLDA is busy teaching children to view social workers as objects of terror, which of course means that homeschooled children won’t see social workers as people they can trust and go to when they need help.

This Isn’t Hypothetical

I think it’s important to realize that this isn’t some abstract hypothetical we’re talking about. In early 2012 a fifteen year old homeschooled Wisconsin girl was found starving, walking alone along the side of the road, having escaped the prison cell her basement room had become.

The girl, now 15, was found by a passerby earlier this month as she walked in her pajamas and barefoot along a McFarland road. Authorities said the girl weighed 70 pounds.

The complaint states the girl’s face appeared sunken with her collarbones sticking out, and that she was”gorging” on food after authorities got her to care. The complaint states the girl gained 17 pounds in a matter of days.

According to the complaint, the girl told authorities Drabek-Chritton often denied her food, while Chritton claimed food would trigger diabetic reactions and render the girl prone to violence. Court documents state Drabek, two small children in the household, and Chritton and Drabek-Chritton would eat normally, while the girl would scavenge for food from garbage and go days at a time without eating. Her stepmother, Drabek-Chritton, was listed in court records as 370 pounds. Authorities said there was no evidence to support family claims of the girl’s alleged medical conditions, including eating disorders.

It seems there had been child abuse tips lodged against this family in the past:

“It also appears that the family in the past was not cooperative with the department of human services or the city of Madison police department,” Moeser said. Court documents state Chritton and Drabek-Chritton refused social workers access to their home during at least one investigation, and refused staff access to Drabek and the girl at times when both were minors. State and county officials were unavailable to comment on whether court actions were considered or attempted to overcome parental objections during investigations, with officials citing confidentiality rules.

I don’t know whether this homeschooling family was an HSLDA member family, but I do know that they step by step followed the course of action HSLDA recommends families follow in dealing with child abuse investigations, and that following HSLDA’s advice enabled them to hide their abuse of their daughter, abuse that only came to light when the girl physically escaped the hell her home had become. HSLDA’s policies for the handling of child abuse investigations aren’t just hypothetical—they have real world implications and affect real children’s lives in profoundly negative ways.

Conclusion

HSLDA may not see itself as doing everything in its power to obstruct child abuse investigations, but that is in practice what it is indeed doing. HSLDA urges its members against allowing social workers to investigate allegations of child abuse without a warrant and at the same time is working to increase the standards of what counts as “probable cause,” thus making it harder for social workers to get warrants to investigate abuse. At the same time, HSLDA does everything in its power to avoid letting social workers personally interview children, thus cutting off any possibility children who are being abused by their parents have of speaking out about that abuse. Meanwhile, HSLDA keeps homeschooled children so scared silly of social workers that it is more than likely that many abused homeschooled children wouldn’t report their own abuse if they had the chance. Meanwhile, HSLDA paints the child abuse investigations themselves as the problem, and as a dire threat to children.

Instead of doing its utmost to obstruct child abuse investigations, why doesn’t HSLDA instead urge its members to comply with investigations in order to dispel allegations of abuse? Why not focus on ensuring that CPS follows their own best practices and rules, thus minimizing false positives in child abuse investigations, rather than viewing CPS as the enemy to be opposed and obstructed? Or for that matter, why deal with child abuse allegations in the first place? Why not stick with the accusations that deal directly with homeschooling, such as ensuring that local officials know state law and that member families comply with those laws?

There are many possible responses to these questions, of course. Perhaps protecting parental rights against any limitations whatsoever is HSLDA’s primary goal, with homeschooling merely a tool to this end, and perhaps this has led to HSLDA defending parents against investigations of child abuse. Perhaps HSLDA’s definition of child abuse does not elide with the CPS’s definition of child abuse. Perhaps many HSLDA member families do have something to hide, and HSLDA knows it. Perhaps HSLDA’s focus on the primacy of parental rights means that the organization is not actually interested in doing things to protect children against abuse at the hands of their parents.

As one last example of how HSLDA views child abuse accusations and investigations, let me quote from an HSLDA article on Japanese homeschoolers:

Recent revisions to the Juvenile Law have strengthened child abuse reporting laws. There is now the possibility for neighbors of homeschool families to give notice to the Child Consultation Center (Zidoh-Sohdan-shyo in Japanese) that homeschooled children are abused by their parents. Regrettably, the Child Consultation Centers in each district are now required to investigate each and every abuse notice. Unsubstantiated abuse claims are expected to increase and to affect homeschool families adversely.

Regrettably.

In case it is not already clear, HSLDA considers Child Protective Services investigations simply annoyances homeschoolers should not have to deal with rather than seeing them as important means of locating and helping abused children. Once again, it’s like HSLDA is completely unaware that some homeschooling families might actually physically abuse their children, or that some homeschooled children might be in need of help. HSLDA would probably deny these allegations, of course, and would point to statements deploring child abuse, calling for “true” child abusers to be prosecuted, and arguing that the corporal punishment parents employ should be “reasonable.” In the next segment of this series we will examine HSLDA’s ideas about just what actually constitutes child abuse.

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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.


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