This has been a crazy couple of weeks, to be honest. I never expected that HSLDA would respond to my posts or that people would come out of the woodwork angry about the blind eye HSLDA has turned toward the issue of child abuse in homeschooling families. Some people have even rephrased this whole thing as “Libby Anne vs. HSLDA.” I’ve put together a page bringing together everything I’ve written on homechooling, child abuse, and HSLDA recently—feel free to take a look.
So where are we, exactly? Well for one thing, you should all sign the petition asking HSLDA to actually step forward and address this issue, and with more than the vague non-answer their response to my posts truly was. If you have personal involvement in homeschooling, make sure to give the reasons your signing the petition, as I personally think that’s the most powerful part of the petition.
Next, there’s been some really interesting work done on HSLDA recently on both Becoming Worldly and Homeschoolers Anonymous. It appears that HSLDA was actually involved in a Christian homeschool leadership conference calling for the elimination of child protective services altogether. Why? For the children, of course.
I would also highly recommend this post by a homeschool mom talking about the problems with HSLDA’s approach to investigations by child protective services:
One question that has come up a lot is just how big a problem this actually is. How many homeschooled children are abused? How does this compare to abuse rates among other children? At this point the answer is that we don’t know. In fact, there’s a lot we don’t know about homeschooling, including how well homeschoolers do academically. (For more, take a look at the International Center for Home Education Research’s FAQs.) We know that it is wrong to assume that only good parents homeschool, but there are no statistics on the rate of child abuse in homeschooling situations as compared to child abuse in children who attend public schools.
As a side note, I don’t think anyone in this conversation is trying to tar all homeschoolers as child abusers or to say that every homeschool parent should be treated with suspicion. I know I’m not. There are lots of parents who homeschool their children for excellent reasons and try to do right by their kids, and the percentage of parents homeschooling for secular reasons as opposed to religious reasons is believed to be growing. I see homeschooling as an educational method that has a future, but at the moment needs some cleaning up.
We don’t have statistics on the rate of child abuse among homechooled children, but we do have stories. It’s true that the plural of anecdote is not data, but at the moment it’s all we have, and I think it’s enough to indicate that there is a problem that needs addressing.
How do we address the problem of child abuse among homeschooled children? It’s all well and good to say that we need to work to prevent child abuse in homeschooling families, but how are we going to go about doing that, practically speaking?
First, homeschooling organizations and leaders need to admit that there is a problem here and take efforts to improve the situation from within homeschooling itself. For example, these organizations and leaders could work to educate their membership on how to recognize and report child abuse. Those who homechool for educational or pedagogical reasons are more likely to take a hard stance against child abuse—for example, popular unschooling leader Pat Ferenga spoke out this week—but are also apt to miss the point and respond to concerns about the use of homeschooling as a cover for abuse with denial. When it comes to Christian homeschooling organizations and leaders, I am under absolutely no illusion that anyone will actually admit that there is a problem and work to fix it, given that these groups and leaders tend to range from “CPS needs to be eliminated” to “that kind of issue should be dealt with in the church, by the pastor.”
Second, individual homeschool parents need to change the culture of homeschooling by taking a hard stance against abuse and in favor of the needs and interests of children. Child abuse needs to be condemned, watched for, and reported. Several homeschool mothers have recently written excellent posts along these lines:
I am under no illusions about this approach, though. First, many homeschool parents embrace a worldview that grants the family primacy, and makes it sacred, meaning that they are often more likely to overlook signs of abuse than to to confront someone or call in a child abuse tip—indeed, the entire idea that others’ parenting choices shouldn’t be interfered with undergirds much of Christian homeschooling today. Second, there is the pervasive conspiratorial fear of child protective services in many homeschooling circles. Third, many parents in Christian homeschooling circles define child abuse very narrowly and define appropriate corporal punishment very broadly. As a result of all of this, I have very little hope that homeschooling culture can be changed in this area, especially in circles where it’s needed most.
There’s another reason that the two above approaches wouldn’t be enough even if they could actually be implemented, though. Namely, abusive parents who use homeschooling in an attempt to ensure that their abuse of their children is not seen or noticed are unlikely to be involved in homechool groups or the greater homeschool community, meaning that changes from within that community won’t actually do anything for these children.
Third, then, I think there needs to be some legal change. I’m going to say upfront that I don’t know exactly what that should look like. I do have some ideas, though. I think homeschoolers should have to register their home schools with the state so that people can’t claim they’re homeschooling when they’re not. I don’t think those who have recent substantiated child abuse claims against them, or past child abuse convictions, should be allowed to homeschool, at least not without added oversight. I think there should be some basic academic assessments for homeschooled children. These assessments would ensure that the parents are at least putting in an effort to educate their children, and would ideally bring children into contact with mandatory reporters. They would be minimal and would not require the dreaded “teaching to the test.” Portfolios present one possibility, and taking a test like the Iowa Test, which is fairly simple and looks at a battery of subjects, measuring competency in each, presents another. (It might be interesting to have some form of remediation for students who score especially low, designed in a positive, not adversarial effort to help the child learn.)
Again, I don’t pretend to have all of the answers, and I’m glad to see other people talking about this issue too, and offering their own thoughts. These are simply some of my ideas at the moment. I think that we will find that as homeschooling becomes an even more mainstream educational option, one not tied to any specific religious agenda or pedagogical movement, and also as homeschooling continues to grow as it is projected to, that state legislatures will take another look at homeschooling laws, and hopefully find a happy balance between maintaining homechooling’s educational innovation (which is in my opinion the most positive academic thing it has going for it) and safeguarding the needs and interests of homechool children. That would mean getting past the homeschooling lobby, of course (and remember that HSLDA’s Chris Klicka once indicated that he doesn’t think children have rights), but I’m going to be an optimist and say I think it could be done.
And with that, I have to say, this has been kind of exhausting. This is a topic people get very emotional about, and a topic where misunderstandings appear left and right. I’ve seen a lot in this past week or so, and I’ve been told that I’m saying all homeschoolers are abusers (I’m not), that I’m twisting the facts to suit an agenda (I’m not—everything I’ve written has the links to back it up, you can read the original documents for yourself), that I’m anti-homeschooling (because wanting work toward better ways to prevent and detect abuse apparently makes one anti-homechooling), that I want to ban homeschooling (I don’t), that public schooled children are abused too (yes, and I’m against that too), that I’m a feminist atheist progressive (that one’s actually true), and much, much more. And beyond that, this topic is just emotionally draining in general. And now I’m tired. Very, very tired.