WORLD Magazine Takes Aim and Misses

WORLD Magazine Takes Aim and Misses August 25, 2014

Growing up in a conservative evangelical home, I read WORLD magazine regularly. You can think of it as a sort of evangelical Christian version of TIME magazine. It covers all the issues, both internationally and nationally, but through a conservative evangelical framework. My parents have been subscribers since before I can remember, and continue to receive the magazine today. I say all of this as background to WORLD magazine’s extremely unfortunate feature article last week on the child abuse and neglect problem within the Christian homeschooling world.

WORLD magazine’s reputation on this topic coming in was already a bit troubled. In October of 2013, WORLD magazine’s Andree Seu Petersen complained that her church’s new sexual abuse prevention policies got in the way of her hugging and holding children in Sunday school. A month before that, WORLD minimized child abuse in its coverage of the Twelve Tribes cult in Germany, calling brutal beatings recorded by an investigator on hidden camera “spankings” and quoting at length from community members insisting that nothing was amiss. When reporting on Doug Phillips’ sexual abuse of a young woman in his employ, WORLD’s only response was to insist that Phillips had never been an evangelical Christian like them, in spite of the fact that they had previously published articles by Phillips. Needless to say, the track record here was not good.

And so we come to WORLD’s recent piece on abuse and neglect in the Christian homeschooling world, titled Homeschool Debate: Back to School—How to keep a few bad apples from spoiling the bushel. You can see the problem from the very outset. The characterization of abusive or neglectful Christian homeschooling parents as “a few bad apples” minimizes the problem from the beginning, and the focus on keeping them “from spoiling the bushel” suggests that the author of this piece (Daniel Devine) or his editors care more about protecting homeschooling than about protecting homeschooled children. We have seen this problem from so many circles. Rather than seeing a current threat from within to homeschooled children, they see only a potential threat from without to homeschooling as a system.

I should pause here for a word of background. In the past year or two, an increasing number of homeschool alumni have begun speaking out about the problems of abuse or neglect in the homeschooling world. It’s not about some sort of vendetta, it’s about the fact that homeschooled children have fewer protections against abuse or neglect than other children, and it’s about an increasing number of homeschool alumni whose experiences were not simply bad or negative, but much, much worse. It’s about an increasing number of homeschool graduates who want to do something about that—not to end homeschooling, but simply to help children being homeschooled today have a better and safer experience than they did.

In March of 2013, the website Homeschoolers Anonymous was launched as a platform for telling these stories. In May of 2013, the website Homeschooling’s Invisible Children was created to archive stories of serious abuse and child fatalities. In August of 2013, the creators of Homeschoolers Anonymous created Homeschool Alumni Reaching Out to focus on raising awareness and community support. The Coalition for Responsible Home Education, with its focus on research and policy change, launched in December 2013. All of these organizations were created by homeschool alumni. These organizations, together with my own investigative reporting in April of 2013, began to make waves—major homeschooling organizations, including the Home School Legal Defense Association, were forced to take note. This is what last week’s WORLD article was intended to cover.

Some former homeschool students are speaking out against what they consider an abusive or neglectful upbringing. Last year they began posting their stories on a website called Homeschoolers Anonymous, alleging mistreatment from parents ranging from sexual molestation to what they describe as “spiritual abuse.” The stories vary widely, but echo a common charge: Homeschooling, they claim, gave their parents opportunity to abuse, “brainwash,” or neglect them.

With this intro, Devine moves on to cover the story of Heather Doney, an abuse survivor who blogs at Becoming Worldly and co-founded the Coalition for Responsible Home Education (CRHE) before moving on to other activism.  The article references Homeschooling’s Invisible Children, which Heather also co-founded, but does not go in detail as to what the website covers.

But then the article takes a turn for the worse with these two paragraphs:

The existence of such cases, and the growing reach of the anti-homeschooling websites, raises questions that homeschooling defenders are primed to answer. Educational neglect? Brian Ray, president of the National Home Education Research Institute in Salem, Ore., said most studies by dozens of researchers since 1985 show the average homeschooler scoring in the 65th to 80th percentile on standardized tests. (The national school average is the 50th percentile.)

What about abuse? The Health and Human Services “Child Maltreatment 2011” report noted that 4.1 percent of U.S. children were involved in abuse investigations in 2011. A 2004 study from the U.S. Department of Education found about 7 percent of eighth- to 11th-grade public-school students claiming a fellow student, teacher, or school employee had touched or contacted them in a sexual manner, without their consent. Yet only 1.2 percent of Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) members called for help in dealing with child protective services investigations—sometimes for issues as trivial as a messy house or a missed paperwork filing deadline. That figure isn’t scientific, but it suggests abuse and neglect is far less common among homeschoolers.

Devine never gives Doney or anyone else at CRHE a chance to respond to these numbers. And it’s not that there is no response—there is. After the article came out, CRHE put up a blog post responding to and refuting the assertions here in detail. In essence, Devine suggests the existence of a problem by leading with Doney’s story and her activism, but then stops it short by uncritically quoting homeschooling leaders citing misleading data and saying “no problem here, nothing to see.” This would be fine if Devine then did some actual research on the numbers cited, or offered CRHE’s response, but he doens’t. In a sense, he sets homeschooling leaders up as experts and sets the homeschool alumni up as disgruntled children. This is a huge problem.

Next Devine moves on to Homeschoolers Anonymous and HARO:

Nevertheless, stories on the Homeschoolers Anonymous website brim with pain, anger, and bitterness. Many posts are anonymous, making the accounts hard to verify, but organization co-founder Ryan Stollar told me by email, “We are creating a growing community of misfits, survivors, and allies.” One series of posts titled “Homeschoolers Are Out” spotlights homeschool graduates who have declared themselves to be gay or transsexual. He said his organization “enthusiastically supports” homeschooling as long as it is “used responsibly.”

This bit isn’t all bad, but the use of the word “bitterness” and the mention of the series on LGBTQ individuals (Homeschoolers Anonymous has done many other series, including one on Bill Gothard’s ATI and one on self-harm) prime the magazines conservative evangelicals to blow HARO off as merely the work of a few rebellious children, perhaps playing a role in a plan designed by Satan himself to discredit homeschooling.

One of Homeschoolers Anonymous’ biggest targets is the Virginia-based HSLDA—homeschooling’s top ally since 1983. Last year Homeschoolers Anonymous launched an online campaign that claimed the organization’s defense of homeschool parents had weakened child abuse investigations. It called on HSLDA to tell its 80,000 member families how to recognize and report abuse, and HSLDA did add a section to its website defining child abuse and outlining how to address it.

HSLDA has long seen less government regulation of homeschoolers as best for parents and students . . .

“It’s obvious to me that homeschool parents love their kids and don’t want to abuse them,” said J. Michael Smith, president of HSLDA. “The reason they’re homeschooling is because they don’t want to neglect their child’s education.” Both Smith and Darren Jones, a staff attorney at the organization, agreed that abuse and neglect cases do exist within some homeschooling families, but argue their number is small. HSLDA staffers call them “fake homeschoolers.”

Holy sweet potatoes, guys.

There is no evaluation of why Homeschoolers Anonymous argued that HSLDA had weakened child abuse investigations, and no evaluation of whether their assertion had merit. Homeschoolers Anonymous’ campaign actually originated here on my blog back in April of 2013, when I researched HSLDA’s lobbying efforts and gave specific examples of HSLDA’s efforts advocating against mandatory reporter laws, working to ensure that excessive corporal punishment is legal, stonewalling child abuse investigations, and even defending child abusers. None of this gets mentioned. None. (For those who may be interested, I also have a series explaining why abusive parents homeschool, and what it looks like.)

Instead of actually examining homeschool alumni’s complaints with regards to HSLDA, Devine moves straight to quoting HSLDA’s J. Michael Smith stating that homeschooling parents love their children, don’t want to abuse them, and homeschool because they don’t want to neglect their children’s education—and then calling homeschooling families where abuse and neglect does happen “fake homeschoolers.” It is clear to me that HSLDA has not changed in the slightest. The same assertions about all homeschoolers are there, the same refusal to actually deal with the fact that abuse and neglect do happen, and the same flippancy about the issue. It is sickening—but then, HSLDA has demonstrated this same lack of compassion in the past.

If you need any proof that HSLDA is part of the problem here, read this post about how they handle things when their members call with asocial worker at the door.

Next is this bit:

CRHE’s homeschool policy guidelines are aimed at tightening overall regulation of homeschoolers so as to catch families that might go awry. Among the recommendations: Homeschool students should be academically tested or assessed each year by mandatory reporters; homeschool parents should have GED or high-school diplomas; and parents convicted of child abuse or sexual offenses should be barred from homeschooling.

HSLDA agreed with some recommendations but strongly opposes expanding mandatory reporting or mandatory annual testing. Attorney Jones acknowledged that some families have used homeschooling as a shield, but stressed, “We have always taken the position that the homeschool community should deal with that.”

And there it is—the endorsement of self-policing. Rather than having legal protections for homeschooled children, HSLDA would to have the homeschool community deal with it. How, I might ask? Other homeschoolers have no legal authority to go into a homeschooling family’s home and make them stop abusing their children or force them to start educating their children. It doesn’t work like that in churches, and it doesn’t work like that in the homeschooling community either. And what about those homeschoolers who don’t plug into their local homeschooling community? What of them?

Recent events in Idaho suggest homeschoolers might be able to police their own. Barry Peters, the president of the Idaho Coalition of Home Educators, said his organization had established a cooperative relationship with child welfare officials: Under a protocol initiated 14 years ago, whenever officials from the state education department received a report of educational neglect involving a homeschool family, they forwarded the tip to ICHE, which investigated each case and reported back to state officials. But from 2000 to 2004 in Idaho, state officials logged only 15 such tips, and further investigation revealed the claims were groundless, mistaken, or didn’t satisfy legal definitions of neglect.

The education department canceled the protocol arrangement with ICHE in 2006, apparently because of the lack of legitimate reports. “There are very few cases of educational neglect that come out,” said Kirt Naylor, a child advocate attorney and chair of the Governor’s Task Force on Children at Risk in Idaho: “You don’t need regulations, I think you need more informed investigations.” He said ICHE helped improve those investigations in 2008 by drafting, in cooperation with the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, investigation guidelines for child protective services workers dealing with homeschool families.

CRHE covered this in detail in their response, pointing out that homeschool organizations have a record of defending educational neglect in homeschooling settings, that the guidelines ICHE created for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare say what educational neglect in homeschooling settings does not look like but not what it does look like, and that there were problems with abusive and neglectful homeschooling families in Idaho during those years that this article does not mention (including the particularly horrifying case of the Halbesleben family, which included physical abuse, medical neglect, and sexual abuse and incest).

But I do want to add this comment, from WORLD’s comment section:

Further, the “solutions” it offers are mere figments of the imagination: homeschoolers self policing under the guidance of HSLDA and local groups like the Idaho Coalition of Home Educators? Not that I’ve ever seen, and I grew up as a homeschooler in Idaho.

While the details of the stories aren’t mine to tell, I know parents in the Idaho community who chose to label their children liars rather than deal with accusations of abuse. I know parents who were themselves abusive and have never faced repercussions. I know that the man quoted in the article as the architect of the Idaho homeschool policing scheme knows about unreported, unaddressed incidents of abuse in the homeschool community. While I was growing up I knew no-one who reported abuse by another homeschooler. I don’t believe any of them would have—we were counseled to always show homeschooling in a positive light, even if that meant some things didn’t get addressed well. We showed off our ridiculously high test scores to the legislators every year—but do you think the underperforming families came and voluntarily tested? I think not.

Self-policing simply does not work, and it did not work when it was tried in Idaho. I’ve written about this before. Most homeschooling parents will argue that it’s fine that a twelve-year-old not to be able to read before they admit that there is actually a problem—and even those who do admit that there is a problem will go on being against any form of outside intervention. It has to do with the current culture of homeschooling, a culture that badly needs changing. In this context, expecting homeschooling organizations like HSLDA or ICHE to self-police is like asking the foxes to guard the henhouse.

The WORLD article concludes with this paragraph:

The Idaho experience suggests the homeschool community could find ways to help identify problem cases, however rare, while minimizing government interference. For Doney, it’s an important first step for people to simply acknowledge that stories like hers exist: “There’s been a culture of child abuse denialism within homeschooling.” Jones, the HSLDA attorney, said he recognizes some in the Homeschoolers Anonymous community didn’t have a great experience growing up. “I feel terrible for them. I don’t think that’s a reason to crack down on all 2 million kids who are being homeschooled across the U.S.” 

And that about sums it up, doesn’t it? HSLDA feels bad for abuse and neglect victims but isn’t willing to do a single thing to help protect current and future homeschoolers from suffering the same fate. And notice again the minimizing that’s going on here—the article says that Jones “recognizes some . . . didn’t have a great experience growing up.” There seems to be very little awareness that we’re not just talking about people who had an unfortunate childhood, we’re talking about very real abuse and neglect.

The article includes a side column of sorts with additional thoughts as follows:

The role of churches

Bill Roach, the president of Christian Home Educators of Colorado (CHEC), has served on the organization’s board for the past eight years. He hasn’t spent all that time attending a traditional church: A few years after he started homeschooling the first of his five children in 1991, Roach left his Baptist church and began meeting on Sundays with several other families committed to home education and family discipleship.

They met in homes, sang hymns and contemporary worship songs (often a cappella), and set up a lectern for the dads, who preached on a rotating basis. They had no formal leadership: When the men set out to appoint elders, they broke up over various disagreements, including whether debt was permissible. Roach left the group in 2007 and has since returned to a formal church setting—an Orthodox Presbyterian church in Elizabeth, Colo., where he serves as an elder.

Roach now regrets the autonomous nature of his former house fellowship: “It got a little bit too independent.  … In some ways it was just family first,” without respect for the authority of the church, he said. Israel Wayne, an apologetics speaker who meets thousands of homeschool families annually at conferences, often hears from students and graduates asking his advice about family battles concerning teenage dating and video games. He often asks disaffected youths if they’ve talked to the elders in their church: “Almost inevitably, they tell me no,” either because they don’t feel safe discussing family issues at their church, or because they aren’t attending one.

Thankfully, in recent years homeschool leaders have recognized the problem of church disconnectedness and are working to correct it. At CHEC’s state conference in June, Voddie Baucham, a homeschooling pastor and Gospel Coalition council member, gave a keynote address titled “Why Your Family Needs the Church.” — D.J.D. 

First let’s talk about the Christian Home Educators of Colorado (CHEC). There’s a lot to talk about. CHEC created a legally-questionable “independent school” paper mill in which it automatically enrolls its members so that they don’t have to participate in legally-required periodic academic evaluations through their local school districts. But that’s just small potatoes. In 2009 CHEC held a Men’s Leadership Summit which, among other things, called for an end of child protective services. Interesting how the article doesn’t even mention that, isn’t it?

But now let’s talk about the argument that homeschooling families should attend church rather than home churching, because if they attend church the church will be able to step in if there is a problem. Let’s take a quick look at how Bill Roach’s and Voddie Baucham’s churches are run. Roach attends Kevin Swanson’s church. Here is what the church website says about parents and families:

We believe that God has primarily endowed Christian parents with the responsibility of training their children in the faith (Deut. 6:6-920-22Deut. 4:9-12Prov 1:86:20-21Eph. 6:1,2). Therefore, the church must encourage, equip, and empower parents and especially fathers to perform this God-given mandate. The church must not replace or displace the Christian parents in this task. The function of the church is not to segregate families, but to unify them, respecting the spiritual headship of first the Christian father and then the Christian mother over their home.

As for Voddie Baucham, he had this to say in a 2009 speech titled “The Battle for Faith and Family”:

Baucham begins by identifying himself with the family-integrated church movement, which is a movement, he explains, that is “committed, absolutely committed—in our structure, in our doctrine, in our practice, in our philosophy—to a very simple principle: we look men in the eye and say, “I double-dog dare you to disciple your family and we are not going to do anything structurally to put a net under you. It’s your job.”

These men are talking about church structures that elevate the parents, and especially the fathers, and afford no protections at all for the children. These churches don’t even have Sunday school classes where an abused child might be able to ask for help—no, they are “family-integrated” churches where the children stay with the parents, because the family is seen as primary over the individual. This is the solution WORLD magazine puts forward so uncritically.

Even leaving aside family-integrated churches, having churches self-police doesn’t work any more than having homeschooling communities or organizations self-police. And with evangelical and fundamentalist churches, it’s only worse. If you’re at all familiar with my blog, you will probably know that I’ve spent quite a bit of time writing about the various ways these churches and communities engage in abuse denialism. Asking these communities to self police is laughable. It does not work.

But there is also a problem with who the article chooses to quote here. They could have brought in Boz Tchividjian of Godly Response to Abuse in a Christian Environment (GRACE) to explain how pastors and church elders should respond when suspicions of abuse or neglect come up, but they didn’t. Boz is a grandson of Billy Graham and a professor at Liberty University, but he’s the real deal when it comes to dealing with abuse. He knows what he’s doing and he doesn’t hold punches, but he’s also aware of how evangelical audiences are approaching these problems and he knows how to communicate with them—because he is one of them. Instead, WORLD stuck with uncritically quoting homeschool leaders.

Bill Roach is the president of CHEC, the organization that held the 2009 Men’s Leadership Conference that called for an end to child protective services. His pastor, Kevin Swanson, spoke at that conference; has defended child marriage; has belittled the concerns of homeschool alumni and labelled those calling attention to the problem of abuse and neglect the “homeschool apostates“; and openly participates in fear-mongering about social services and urges parents to join Heritage Defense, an organization created to defend Christian families against social services investigations. As for Voddie Baucham, he worked alongside Doug Phillips for years, seemingly never noticing that Phillips was sexually abusing his young female employee. Voddie is also on record as saying “Amen, Hallelujah, praise the Lord and spank your kids, okay?” during a sermon.

For years, a big part of the problem has been the Christian homeschooling leadership, which upholds absolute parental rights, advocates for strict corporal punishment, and preaches that child protective services destroys families and is to be avoided at all costs. They accept homeschooling parents’ word uncritically and doubt children’s stories of abuse or neglect. As an example of this problem, Bill Gothard’s board members and other leaders involved in his organization knew that something was out of place, but did nothing as he abused dozens of teenage girls in his employ over several decades. And yet these are the sort of people WORLD magazine is quoting as experts on the subject, and as part of the solution.

I realize that WORLD magazine is a news source and that this piece was a news piece and not an opinion piece. But the uncritical way Devine handled the statements made by HSLDA and others—and the fact that he didn’t do enough research to bring up things like the  Halbesleben case or CHEC’s 2009 Men’s Leadership Conference—is really inexcusable. One finishes the article feeling that there is some awareness that there is a problem, but that the problem isn’t all that big and is already being dealt with within the homeschooling community—none of which is true.

Even Boz Tchividjian was left unsettled:

Boz


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