HSLDA as a Supervillain

I recently received an email from the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) with the headline “Single Mom Shields Son from Bullies, Faces Charges.” Curious, I looked at the summary the email provided:

New Jersey: Charges Dropped, Case Dismissed After HSLDA Intervenes

Home School Legal Defense Association worked closely with a local attorney to prove that charges of educational neglect against a single mom were false.

Still curious, I clicked the link to the full article.

Single mom Vernal Rogers (named changed to protect privacy) removed her son from public school in 2008 after the school did not stop the bullies who were harassing him.

In January of 2013, a DYFS (Division of Youth and Family Services) representative showed up at her door and told Vernal that she was suspected of educational neglect in connection with homeschooling her son. The DYFS worker demanded to see Vernal’s homeschool curriculum.

A member of HSLDA, Vernal quickly called for help. Based upon our guidance, she showed the DYFS worker a copy of the “Frequently Asked Questions” published by the New Jersey Department of Education, but refused to submit her curriculum for inspection. The DYFS worker left unhappy.

DYFS subsequently went to court and asked a judge to order Vernal to submit to the DYFS investigation. HSLDA hired River Vale attorney Grace Meyer to represent the family locally.

Working closely with HSLDA attorneys, Meyer showed the prosecuting attorney the program Vernal was using for her son. It consisted primarily of a well-organized set of interactive online materials in all major subject areas tightly focused on preparing a young person to pass the GED test.

Seeing that the young man was receiving a solid education, the prosecuting attorney dismissed the case without the family ever appearing before the judge. DYFS subsequently notified Vernal that the allegations against her were “unfounded.”

I’m afraid I didn’t take away from this article whatever HSLDA wanted me to take away from it. In fact, I kind of took away the opposite. I’m afraid that my conclusion on reading this story was that HSLDA operates like villain in a superhero movie.

What the DYFS worker wanted to do was verify that Rogers was actually educating her son. That was all. Someone had called in a tip alleging that Rogers was not. All the DYFS worker asked was to see the curriculum Rogers was using in order to verify that she was indeed educating her son. HSLDA knew this. Let me repeat: HSLDA knew that all Rogers had to do to diffuse the situation was to show the DYFS worker her curriculum—and that is exactly what HSLDA advised her not to do.

HSLDA took what should have been a very simple thing and escalated into a full-blown court case, all the way down to the necessity of having to hire a local lawyer to defend Rogers (interestingly, the lawyer HSLDA hired and “worked closely with” here is the same “HSLDA-affiliated” lawyer who is defending John and Carolyn Jackson against charges of horrific child abuse, arguing in the face of the evidence that they’re just a “good, Christian homeschooled family”the Jacksons were the third example in my “cages” post). This whole time, HSLDA knew what it needed to do to diffuse the situation—simply show the curriculum. And yet, it held off till exactly the right moment, waiting for the case to become something it could use to scare its members with before ending it with the solution it could have used to keep the case from ever going to court in the first place.

You know how in all of those super hero movies, the villains create disasters just so that they can save people from them and come off looking like heroes? That’s honestly what it looks like happened in this case. HSLDA created a court case, knowing the whole time exactly what it needed to do to diffuse the situation (i.e., show the curriculum) but waiting until the right dramatic moment to employ this and bring the case to its close, coming off as the hero. This is reflected in the article’s title: “Charges Dropped, Case Dismissed after HSLDA Intervenes.”

And of course, the article finishes with this:

Protect Your Family

If you or someone you know is not a member of HSLDA, will you consider taking a moment today to join or recommend us? Your support for our work enables us to defend individual families threatened by government officials and protect homeschooling freedom for all.

It’s a marketing ploy. It’s all a marketing ploy. It’s a marketing ploy played over real people’s lives and with real people’s emotions, and that is wrong. It’s like in those movies where the villain spreads a plague all the while in possession of the antidote, waiting for the right moment to release this miracle cure and be hailed as a hero. It’s sick.

So let me give you an alternative story. One homeschool mom, Sharon, recently shared a story of the time she was visited by an employee of the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) investigating a child abuse complaint, and she explains how the incident went down and how it would have gone down had she followed the advice given by HSLDA.

It was a beautiful spring evening, ten years ago. We’d just finished eating dinner when an older woman knocked on our door and identified herself as an employee of the Department of Child and Family Services. “Were you at Target yesterday?” she asked. “With children?” Well, yes, I was. And someone had filed a complaint against me, turning in my license plate number, accusing me of child abuse.

I remember the panic and the humiliation that swept through me. This very thing – being accused of child abuse, having the official standing on my doorstep questioning me – was one of my parenting nightmares. Guilt or innocence had very little to do with the fear I was feeling in that moment. As I listened to the social worker speak I silently prayed one of my most frequent prayers, used in a variety of circumstances: “Please, Lord, no matter what, help me to tell the truth.”

This turned out to be an easy truth to tell. This was back in the days when I still spanked, but I wasn’t being asked about that. Instead I had been accused of having shaken my baby. I could say with complete conviction that I had never, ever shaken her. “I do spank the other kids sometimes,” I confessed, even though she hadn’t asked, “but I promise you, I’ve never shaken a baby.”

The DCFS worker was not unkind. She asked to question my children without me, and I allowed her to do so. She told me that she would be reporting the case as unfounded, and eventually – after 90 days? My memory is fuzzy – unless I was accused again the case would be closed with no permanent record of the accusation. “Spanking isn’t illegal,” she added. “But do it in the privacy of your own home. Some people are nosy, or they have an axe to grind.”

. . .

If I had been a member of the HSLDA, and if I followed the advice they give to their members, things would have gone differently the evening that the DCFS showed up. I would have immediately assumed a defensive posture with the caseworker, declining to answer her questions until after I’d contacted my HSLDA lawyer. I certainly would have refused her request to interview my children. That honestly didn’t occur to me that day, when the caseworker was at my door. As alarmed as I was, I trusted in God and the truth.

If Sharon had followed HSLDA’s advice, I have a pretty good guess as to what would have happened. This is because I know of a situation almost identical to Sharon’s, except that in this case the family followed HSLDA’s advice. In the Stumbo case a CPS worker responded to a tip that the Stumbo’s two-year-old had been left naked and unattended in the family’s driveway. When the CPS worker asked to interview the children to ensure that everything was okay, HSLDA advised the Stumbos to refuse to grant the CPS worker any access whatsoever to their children. The CPS worker then went to a judge and got a court order to interview the children. The Stumbos appealed this order, goaded on by HSLDA. As a result the case spent literally four years in the courts, almost certainly taking a tole on the family’s emotional well-being. And all this for something that could have been resolved in five minutes had the Stumbos not taken HSLDA’s advice. And this, too, might have happened to Sharon had she also followed HSLDA’s advice.

Be sure to read the rest of Sharon’s post, where she talks about how glad she is that child protective services follows up on tips to ensure children’s safety, and her concerns about HSLDA’s attempts to undermine this system.

What I’m really struck by is how bad HSLDA’s legal advice appears to be for the people actually taking it. HSLDA makes its money off of ostensibly protecting homeschoolers’ right to homeschool, but in practice it rather looks like HSLDA cares more about keeping its members frightened enough to continue renewing their membership than it does about actually giving them good advice. Interestingly, a guide for homeschoolers dealing with CPS investigations composed by a homeschooling group that opposes HSLDA gives basically the exact opposite of the advice HSLDA gives. It appears that, like the villains in superhero movies, HSLDA’s modus operendi is to create disasters to save people from, thus coming off as a hero and ensuring that HSLDA coffers stay full.

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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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