January 29, 2015

In 2012, HSLDA opposed a New Jersey bill that would have allowed the Division of Family and Youth Services (DFYS) to determine whether children under their “care, supervision, or custody” should be prohibited from homeschool. The main reason this bill was introduced is that children who are homeschooled are not seen regularly by mandatory reporters in the way children who attend school are, and therefore children who are vulnerable or at risk of abuse may benefit from being in school. A perusal of the cases at Homeschooling’s Invisible Children drives this home—when abusive parents homeschool, their relative isolation can mean both that the abuse is worse and that it is harder for the child to find help.

Interestingly, HSLDA acknowledges in this piece that there are cases where it would make sense for DFYS to be able to make this sort of determination. They simply argue that the bill as written was “far too broad,” and as usual, they make no practical suggestions for improving it. They also argue that the bill was “probably unnecessary” because if a judge takes jurisdiction of a child as “usually happens in serious cases,” that judge “probably already has the power to make decisions about the child’s education.” I find the use of their word “probably” concerning. They’re lawyers, shouldn’t they know for sure? 

But I’m getting off track here, because it’s not really HSLDA’s opposition to this bill that I want to talk about. Instead, I want to talk about the way HSLDA talks about abuse in their treatment of the bill. Mainly, it’s this paragraph I’m concerned with:

Children can be placed under DYFS care, custody or supervision for many reasons totally unconnected with education. For example—say a child gets in a fight at the local park, and a judge gives DYFS supervision of the child. It makes no sense whatsoever for DYFS to have power to veto the famiy’s homeschool program and force the child into public school. Or what if a baby gets sick and a judge decides the family waited too long to go to the emergency room, and places all the family’s other kids under DYFS supervision. There is no reason DYFS should have the power to force them to stop homeschooling. Or say a family is remodelling and the house is so messy that a judge gives DYFS supervision of the kids. Is there any reason to force them to stop homeschooling? Obviously not. OR say a family with 6 biological children adopts a 10-year old orphan from Russia who starts making up bizarre stories about maltreatment, and a judge gives DYFS supervision over all kids as a result. There is absolutely no reason for DYFS to have power to force all the kids into public school.

Wow. That’s a lot.

Frankly, if a judge places an entire family of children under DYFS supervision because of how long the family waited to take a sick child to the ER, you better believe the delay must have been significant. And if a judge orders a family of children under DYFS supervision because of how messy or dangerous a family’s house was, it’s not just dishes in the sink or outlets without safety plugs we’re talking about. And if a child gets into a fight at the park, and it’s bad enough for a judge to put the child under DYFS supervision as a result, there is probably more going on than a simple fight.

HSLDA’s argument appears to be that where and how children are educated is irrelevant to each of these cases, but I have to disagree. It may be irrelevant, in which case I would hope DYFS would allow homeschooling to continue, but it may not be irrelevant at all. Take the child who got in a fight at the park, for example. What if that child’s parents are not actually teaching them or supervising them and now they’re starting to get in trouble?  Wouldn’t it be relevant for DYFS to be able to require the child to be sent to school? And in the other two cases—depending on the situation, it may be pertinent that the children be seen by mandatory reporters to ensure their safety and wellbeing while the issues involved are being dealt with.

Remember that the proposed law did not say DYFS must order the children to school. It left it to their discretion. In cases where the children being homeschooled (and not seen by mandatory reporters) was irrelevant to the other issues, DYFS could have allowed homeschooling to continue while the children are under its care, supervision, or custody.

But again I feel like I’m getting off track. I set out not to argue for or against this bill but rather to talk about the troubling way HSLDA discusses these various situations, as though they are no big deal—and especially the last one. So now that I’ve mentioned the first three cases HSLDA puts out there, let’s talk about that last one.

OR say a family with 6 biological children adopts a 10-year old orphan from Russia who starts making up bizarre stories about maltreatment . . .

I’m still having trouble coherently addressing this because I find it so upsetting.

It’s like the people at HSLDA have never heard of Nathaniel Craver or Alex Pavlis or Victor Matthey or Dennis Merryman. All four of these boys were adopted from Russia and then homeschooled by their parents. All four died as a result of their parents’ abuse or neglect. And if we want to widen the net farther, we can talk about Lydia Schatz or Hana Williams, who were also adopted from foreign countries, were also homeschooled, and also died at the hands of their parents.

I mean, seriously here. What is this “making up bizarre stories of maltreatment” thing? HSDLA appears to think that it is common or ordinary for a child to make false allegations of abuse. It is not. And when adopted children are significantly more at risk of abuse than other children, HSLDA’s phrasing here is the height of irresponsibility. HSLDA’s target audience for pieces like this is their member base. What does this communicate to their members? Well first, that children make up stories of maltreatment, and second, that this is especially the case for adopted children, and third, that this is even more the case for foreign adoptees.

What if Hana Williams had gotten up her courage and gone to another homeschooling mom in their social circle, telling her story asking for help? Would that mother have believed her, or, having read things like this, would she perhaps have written it off as a foreign adoptee’s “making up bizarre stories about maltreatment”?

I mean my goodness, if we widen the net to all adopted children who are homeschooled rather than just foreign adoptees, we have to talk about Christopher Smithberg and Colin David Jones and Christopher Forder and Joseph Beebe and Timothy Boss and Erica Lynn Parsons and Lucas Ciambrone and Nubia Barahona and Calista Springer and Ricky Holland and Crystal Ramirez and Austin and Edward Bryant and Samuel Hudson—and those are just children who have died. There are plenty more cases of gross abuse where the children made it out alive, though certainly not unscarred.

I am not saying that all homeschooled children who are adopted are abused, or even that most are. Far from it! What I am saying is that when it happens (and it does), this idea that foreign adoptees will make up “bizarre” stories of abuse can make it so much harder for that child to find help.

And so, when I got to that part of HSLDA’s statement, I wanted to tear my hair out. This is no way to talk about abuse. This sort of rhetoric actively undermines what little chance abused adoptees may have of getting help—especially when they are homeschooled and the number of adults they may have contact with outside of their parents’ circle of friends and acquaintances is limited.

Badly done, HSLDA. Badly done.

October 15, 2014

HSLDA has finally responded to The Old Schoolhouse scandal. As you may remember, this scandal involves prominent homeschool speakers and publishers Paul and Gena Suarez hiding and covering up child sexual abuse and protecting child molesters from exposure. Earlier this year Gena Suarez’s sister and fellow homeschool speaker, Jenefer Igarashi, became so concerned by her sister’s actions that she determined she had to do something about it and reached out to other homeschool leaders, including current HSLDA president Michael Smith. Smith never responded, and reportedly told another homeschool leader that HSLDA would not get involved.

Here, a week after the scandal broke, is HSLDA’s first and (so far) only statement:

HSLDA shot


Thank you for sharing your concerns with us. HSLDA does not condone covering up sexual abuse. Sexual abuse is a crime and should always be reported to the police.

In addition, HSLDA does not get involved in conflicts between families or individuals. Professionals trained in mediation and arbitration are better suited than us to resolve civil disputes. Our mission is to protect the homeschooling rights of our member families, not to be the police force of the homeschooling movement.

So HSLDA does not condone covering up child abuse, but will not get involved when it learns about child abuser coverups, because they are not “the police force of the homeschooling movement.” Okay, but here’s the thing. There’s this, from an article published on Think Progress last month:

The CRHE’s Rachel Coleman told ThinkProgress that she spoke with Michael Farris about abuse and neglect of homeschooling children late last year and that Farris “expressed concern that if HSLDA couldn’t deal with the abuse problem, homeschooling might end up banned.” But, she said, Farris said he preferred “self-policing” rather than regulation: “He said he wanted to change the culture of Christian homeschooling such that people will say something and speak up when they have concerns,” and that “parents are children’s first protectors [and] a grandparent or aunt or uncle should step in to protect children if their parents fall down on the job.” Coleman noted that this approach is problematic, as without a child abuse finding by social services, relatives have no legal power to help a child if the parents refuse to let them in.

Jim Mason, senior counsel for HSLDA told ThinkProgress that while he was “not privy to the conversation,” the organization is taking the stories of abuse and neglect seriously. “We are addressing the issue now out of a two-fold concern: we care about children and families; and we wish for homeschooling to thrive in an environment of liberty,” he said, and, the organization does “believe that the homeschooling community is well-suited to address the issues raised by Rachel without further government regulation.”

It is incredibly hypocritical for HSLDA to verbally promote self-policing but then refuse to participate in said self-policing. It is hypocritical for an organization to say that child sexual abuse should never be covered up but do nothing when another homeschool leader makes them aware of a child sexual abuser coverup and asks for their advice and support in dealing with it.

To me it sounds as though HSLDA is happy to talk a good talk, but when it comes to walking a good walk it is self interest that takes precedent. The Old Schoolhouse is a very popular publication in Christian homeschooling circles, and Great Homeschool Conventions, which is backing up the Suarezes and blacklisting Jenefer Igarashi for speaking out, has come to dominate the homeschool convention circuit. HSLDA does not appear to be willing to either challenge these individuals or organizations privately or expose their actions publicly. And as Homeschoolers Anonymous reported, “The Old Schoolhouse remains an HSLDA-suggested resource promoted to HSLDA members at a special discounted rate.” 

Once again, money and status matter more than children’s lives.

January 6, 2014

I recently came upon something posted on HSLDA’s site some years ago that I found interesting, in light of what I have written about HSLDA in the past. HSLDA releases stories of the cases it handles in various states, partly to keep its members apprised of what it does and partly to encourage people to stay members. Anyway, this incident happened in Kentucky. Here is how it starts:

Coming home at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday this summer, the Wall family were puzzled to see a sheriff’s car and another car parked in their driveway. As they exited their car, a social worker asked, “Are you James Wall?” After the father acknowledged he was, the social worker said, “We have received a call about possible child abuse in your family.”

The shocked parents gathered their family together immediately and prayed. Afterwards, they had their 15 year-old son take their 5 year-old daughter into their home.

The parents asked the social worker about the allegations. She refused to reveal them. The parents decided it was time to call HSLDA.

The family called our after hours phone number, and moments later HSLDA attorney Scott Woodruff was on the phone. Though she had refused to tell the family the allegations, she told Woodruff that the hotline said the son had bruises on his neck and arms and was being locked in his room.

This is how this sort of thing usually works: Someone sees suspicious bruises or other cause for concerns and calls child protective services. Child protective services determines whether the report sounds credible and then sends someone to investigate. What Woodruff should have done at this point is simple. He should have said, “Thank you, I wanted to ensure that it was not a homeschooling issue, and it appears that it is not. You may proceed with your investigation, we will not interfere. Have a good day!” Is that what he said? Let’s take a look!

Woodruff then spoke privately to the family and found there was absolutely no truth to the allegations.

I’m less bothered by the fact that HSLDA stayed involved even when they learned that the allegations had nothing to do with homeschooling than I am by the fact that Woodruff felt that, with no training whatsoever, he could determine, over the phone, almost certainly speaking only with the parents, whether or not there was abuse occurring. I imagine the conversation went something like this:

Woodruff: “Is there any truth in the allegations?” 

Wall: “No.” 

Woodruff: “Okay, I thought I’d ask.

If this is all HSLDA thinks is involved in determining whether or not child abuse allegations are true, just imagine what life would be like for abused kids if HSLDA were in charge of child protective services. A social worker would show up at the door, knock, and then say “We have a report that Johnny has suspicious bruises and are worried that you are beating him. Is there any truth to this?” Then the parent would say “No, that’s not true,” and the social worker would say “Okay, thanks! Have a nice day!” and leave.

But you’re probably wondering what happened next in the saga of the Wall family of Kentucky. And so, now that HSLDA has conducted its own “child abuse investigation” and determined that the charges are false, let’s move on.

He [Woodruff] advised the family to not permit the social worker to come into their home and not permit her to question their daughter. Instead, the family should allow the social worker to see their daughter and to ask the parents questions, and the son questions, in their presence, but only questions relating to the two allegations.

The family accepted this advice, and the social worker was soon convinced the allegations were groundless. Woodruff stayed on the phone until the social worker and sheriff had left the premises.

How do circumstances like this actually allow a social worker to conduct an effective investigation? Children very rarely disclose abuse in the presence of their parents, and in this case the family did not even permit the little girl who was the subject of the report speak with the social workers, even in their presence. It is of course completely possible that there was nothing to the charges, but bruises on the neck are not something that generally occur by accident. These charges involved a thorough investigation, and that is not what they got, thanks to HSLDA’s interference.

Do you all remember this?

Scott Somerville, an attorney with the Home School Legal Defense Association in Virginia, said he talked with Michael Gravelle before the story broke in the media, and he believes this is a family trying to help special children.

When a social worker visited the house last week, there was no resistance to an inspection, said Somerville, whose organization represents home-schooling families on legal matters.

“They had nothing to hide,” Somerville said. “He told me why they adopted these children and told me the problems they were trying to solve.

“I think he is a hero.”

Here is another case where an HSLDA attorney deduced from a phone conversation that allegations were false and there was no abuse. And guess what? There was abuse, and lots of it. The children were kept in cages rigged with alarms at night, and had their heads held under water in the toilet as punishment. There was additional physical abuse, too.

Interestingly, these two cases took place in the same year—2005. The odd thing is that Somerville here uses the fact that the family let social workers into their home as evidence of their innocence, even as Woodruff told the other family to bar social workers from their home, never considering that by his colleagues on criteria this might indicate that they had something to hide. It’s interesting to note that while HSLDA urges parents not to let social workers into their home, they also interpret a family’s willingness to let social workers in as a sign of innocence. That seems rather contradictory.

Now, Somerville didn’t talk to Gravelle until after social workers had investigated and gained entrance. What would have happened if Gravelle had talked to Somerville when the social workers arrived at his door, and Somerville had given Gravelle the same advice Woodruff was dispensing? Gravelle would have barred the social workers from coming inside and would have refused to allow social workers to speak with his children, the subjects of the report. If Gravelle had talked to an HSLDA attorney, that attorney would very likely have sent the social worker away without allowing him or her to effectively investigate the charges. In other words, if HSLDA had been involved at the beginning rather than after the fact those children might still be living in cages.

HSLDA claims they don’t defend abusers. But given the way they conduct their own “child abuse investigations,” how would they even know if they did defend an abuser?

May 15, 2013

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.

Petition to HSLDA

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.

End Child Protection: Doug Phillips, HSLDA, and the 2009 Men’s Leadership Summit

This Is Not Homeschooling: Is HSLDA Part of a “Bible-Based Cult?”

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:

On DCFS, HSLDA, and the Day the Social Worker Showed Up

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.

Homeschoolers Anonymous

Homeschooling’s Invisible Children

Petition to HSLDA (read the comments)

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:

Christians, Homeschoolers, HSLDA: We Must Do Better

What I Should Have Said 13 Years Ago

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.

May 15, 2013

I’ve used this page to collect together things I’ve written on HSLDA and things I’ve written on child abuse and educational neglect in homeschooling families. See also the page I’ve created with links and resources on child abuse in homechooling.

HSLDA and Child Abuse Series:

HSLDA and Child Abuse: An Introduction

HSLDA’s Fight against Child Abuse Reporting

HSLDA’s Stonewalling of Child Abuse Investigations

HSLDA’s Defense of Child Abuse

HSLDA and the Deregulation of Homeschooling


The Key to the Liquor Store

Who Are HSLDA’s Clients? Not the Children!

Checks and Balances—Except for Homeschooling?

Guest Posts by Law Students:

On Fundamental Rights, HSLDA, and Homeschooling

Why HSLDA Is Wrong about Romeike v. Holder

Exchange with HSLDA:

HSLDA: Man Who Kept Children in Cages a “Hero”

I’ve Had Enough: My Reply to HSLDA’s Response

Series on Abuse and Neglect:

Why Homeschooling Is Attractive to Abusive Parents

When Abusive Parents Homeschool

Homeschooling To Hide Abuse

Homeschooling To Avoid the Truancy Officer

On HSLDA and Fear:

HSLDA, the CPS, and Fear: Quick, Kids—Hide!

HSLDA: Why We Fear the Child Snatchers

April 22, 2013

This post is part of a series examining the role of the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) in aiding and abetting child abuse. I have previously looked at HSLDA’s efforts to prevent the reporting of child abuse and their efforts to stonewall child abuse investigations. In this post I will turn to HSLDA’s defense of child abuse.

HSLDA has made a name for itself defending parents’ right to spank their children and spends a good bit of its time and energy monitoring and opposing new child abuse legislation—an odd activity for an organization nominally devoted to protecting the legality of homeschooling. While HSLDA literature continually talks about the importance of defending parents’ use of “reasonable” corporal punishment, the organization has never taken the time to define just what constitutes “reasonable” corporal punishment. Similarly, while HSLDA occasionally makes statements condemning child abuse, I’ve noticed a bit of a pattern—these statements are always followed with the word “however.”

Hiding and Ignoring Child Abuse

In its literature, HSLDA (to my knowledge) never defines “reasonable” corporal punishment, never warns its member families not to abuse their children, and never tells its member families how to handle child abuse they might see in other families in their homeschooling communities. HSLDA’s attorneys are not pioneers in stopping child abuse in homeschooling families; they are pioneers in disabling child abuse protections. Never once does HSLDA touch on how to solve the child abuse problem, perhaps because they don’t see it as a significant problem or perhaps simply because they see it as something “other” people do, not problem some of their own member families might have. While you could argue that HSLDA sees child abuse detection and prevent as important but not as a homeschooling issue, this makes no sense when you consider the amount of time HSLDA spends working to disarm protections for abused children.

Let me give an example of the sort of advice HSLDA gives regarding child abuse and child protective services—In a document titled “The Social Worker at Your Door: 10 Helpful Hints,” HSLDA attorney Christopher Klicka advised parents as follows:

Avoid potential situations that could lead to a child welfare investigation.

b. Do not spank children in public.

c. Do not spank someone else’s child unless they are close Christian friends.

In other words, Klicka is aware that HSLDA member families physically discipline their children in ways many people would consider abusive, and even find concerning enough to actually call Child Protective Services. But instead of addressing where the line between “reasonable” corporal punishment and child abuse is located, he merely advises HSLDA member families to avoid the use of corporal punishment in public. This displays a remarkable lack of care about the very real problem of child abuse, as well as an inability to consider that any of its member families might actually discipline their children in ways that are abusive and should be stopped.

Further, Klicka advises HSLDA member families to restrict their use of corporal punishment on children outside their families to the children of “close Christian friends.” This statement seems to imply that without this suggestion, HSLDA member parents might spank children outside of their families without their parents’ permission and be reported to Child Protective Services for doing so—and also that close Christian friends will de facto be okay with them spanking their children without asking first. After all, why not say “Do not spank someone else’s child unless you have their permission“? Or even, why not say “Do not spank someone else’s child” and leave it there?

There is also the problem of omission—for all of the advice HSLDA gives on how its member families can recognize, avoid, or stonewall child abuse investigation, the organization never takes two seconds to inform its member families how to recognize and avoid child abuse or even how to handle or deal with child abuse in their homeschooling families or communities. One wonders if there are any circumstances at all in which HSLDA would ever recommend that its member families involve CPS.

What Is Child Abuse?

HSLDA’s member manual states that “HSLDA believes that child abuse is a terrible crime and that true abusers should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.” Note the use of the word “true.” The more I read, the more convinced I become that HSLDA does not define child abuse in the same way as most Americans. For example, HSLDA is on record defending foster parents’ rights to use corporal punishment on their foster children, something most Americans would find disturbing. Further, it’s worth noting that the sentence above is one of the many times HSLDA briefly condemns child abuse and then starts the next sentence with the word “However” (see page 3, column 2 of the link).

The only time anyone at HSLDA comes close to discussing what actually counts as child abuse is in discussing a 2008 California law that would have added to the penal code a list of actions for jurors to consider when determining if a form of discipline is “unjustifiable.” In a Washington Times op ed, HSLDA president J. Michael Smith explained that HSLDA had no problem with most of the items on the list—stating that these things were indeed child abuse—and that the organization only opposed the law because it took exemption to the listing of hitting children with objects. Here are his words:

This bill amends Penal Code section 273(a), which makes it a crime to cause unjustifiable pain, harm or injury to any minor child. If the bill passes, spanking with an object such as a stick, rod or switch would be lumped in with throwing, kicking, burning, or cutting a child.

Striking a child with a fist. Striking a child under 3 years of age on the face or head. Vigorously shaking of a child under 3 years of age. Interfering with a child’s breathing. Brandishing a deadly weapon upon a child. These are all factors that a jury could use to conclude that a defendant in a criminal case has inflicted unjustifiable physical pain or mental suffering.

What the bill would do is to equate discipline administered via an implement with the above conduct, which obviously is abusive behavior toward a child.

Now of course, this is no actual laying out of a comprehensive definition of child abuse—Smith merely goes down the items listed in the bill. Further, I’m less than willing to trust what HSLDA spokespeople say in public forums given that Farris claimed in an article for popular readership that requiring social workers to have either parental consent or a warrant to enter a home was be no biggie because the vast, vast majority of people voluntarily let social workers in, even as the organization advises its members to never never never let a social worker into their homes without a warrant, ever. Still, it does appear that HSLDA does view some actions—such as violently shaking a small child or striking a child with a fist—to be child abuse. Whether it warns its member families against these actions or ever takes the time to define “reasonable” corporal punishment, however, is another story.

For the record, I am personally against any form of physical punishment of children, and am raising my two young children without laying a hand to them. In contrast, many conservative Christians, including those who founded and run HSLDA, believe strongly that the Bible demands that parents use corporal punishment on their children (they take “spare the rod, spoil the child” stuff literally). Most Americans fall somewhere in between these two positions: they believe that some form of corporal punishment can be employed without crossing the line into child abuse, but also that spanking should consist merely of swatting a child’s buttocks with an open hand and that this form of punishment is usually unnecessary. The question I want to ask here is not whether or not corporal punishment is acceptable but rather where HSLDA draws the line between “reasonable corporal punishment” on the one hand and child abuse on the other. The reason I titled this post as I have is that HSLDA appears to define child abuse differently from the average American.

Given that HSLDA never defines “reasonable corporal punishment” or gives any sort of comprehensive definition of child abuse, I want to take a look at the organization’s positions regarding three different proposed state child abuse statute changes over the past five years. Their positions and advocacy on these bills represent a small fraction of HSLDA’s monitoring of child abuse statute changes across the nation—something the organization watches very closely and doesn’t hesitate to use its e-alert system to mobilize its members in lobbying—but should give us a sample of how HSLDA talks about and defines “reasonable” corporal punishment and what it does or does not include as child abuse.

HSLDA in California: Don’t Restrict Disciplining with Objects!

We’ll start with the HSLDA’s opposition to the proposed 2008 revision of California’s child abuse statute referenced above. At the time, the state’s statute banned causing children “unjustifiable physical pain or mental suffering.” The new bill kept this same language but added the following:

In a prosecution under this Section in determining whether or not a defendant willfully caused any child to suffer, or inflicted unjustifiable physical pain, or mental suffering, a jury may consider any of the following:

a) The use of an implement, including, but not limited to, a stick, a rod, a switch, an electrical cord, an extension cord, a belt, a broom, or a shoe.

b) Throwing, kicking, burning, or cutting a child.

c) Striking a child with a closed fist.

d) Striking a child under the age of three on the face or head.

e) Vigorous shaking of a child under the age of three.

f) Interference with a child’s breathing.

g) Brandishing a deadly weapon upon a child. However, the above conduct is not sufficient by itself to prove guilt, and its weight and significance, if any, is for the jury to decide.

HSLDA explained its opposition to this change as follows:

The instructions to a jury which are mandated by the current version of A.B. 2943 would state that a jury may consider that physical pain or mental suffering inflicted upon a child is unjustifiable if it is caused by any of the seven kinds of actions…. The first of the seven actions listed is “the use of an implement, including, but not limited to, a stick, a rod, a switch, an electrical cord, an extension cord, a belt, a broom, or a shoe.” This first action includes the act of spanking with an object other than using one’s hand. Because these items would be listed in the Penal Code, the police and district attorney would likely consider all spanking with an implement grounds for bringing charges against the parents. Then a court trial would determine if the parents are guilty of criminal child abuse. Parents would have the difficult task of proving that the spanking was justifiable to the satisfaction of the court in order to avoid being sent to jail for up to one year or receiving other penalties. The case also could be referred to Child Protective Services (CPS) and Juvenile Court, which could result in the possible temporary or permanent loss of custody of their children.

In other words, HSLDA opposed this bill because it listed beating child with a stick, rod, or electrical cord as a factor the jury should take into account when determining whether or not the actions of a parent accused of child abuse were justifiable. Indeed, HSLDA has a pattern of opposing laws that would ban hitting children with objects, even without banning spanking itself. We can safely conclude that HSLDA does not consider hitting children with objects to be child abuse.

But there’s another reason I started with this example, and that’s because of the way HSLDA uses this sort of case in an attempt to induce fear in its member families, distorting the facts and engaging in hyperbole in order to do so. I mean just look at the title of HSLDA president J. Michael Smith’s Washington Times op ed’s title: “California May Ban Spanking.” This bill absolutely would not have banned spanking, and it would not have even banned the use of a paddle—it would instead have merely stated that when determining whether the pain a parent inflicted on a child was unjustifiable, the jury should consider whether an implement should be used. But none of that mattered to HSLDA, which saw a chance to hold the specter of a complete ban on spanking over the head of its member followers.

HSLDA in Mississippi: “Reasonable Discipline” Exemption Not Enough

Next we move to the Deep South. In January of 2012 HSLDA opposed a change to Mississippi’s child abuse statute. Let’s start by looking at the original text of this section of Mississippi’s code:

(2) (a) Any person who shall intentionally (i) burn any child, (ii) torture any child or, (iii) except in self-defense or in order to prevent bodily harm to a third party, whip, strike or otherwise abuse or mutilate any child in such a manner as to cause serious bodily harm, shall be guilty of felonious abuse of a child and, upon conviction, shall be sentenced to imprisonment in the custody of the Department of Corrections for life or such lesser term of imprisonment as the court may determine, but not less than ten (10) years. For any second or subsequent conviction under this subsection, the person shall be sentenced to imprisonment for life.

In other words, if you burn or torture a child, or whip or strike a child so as to cause that child serious bodily harm, you can be prosecuted for child abuse. Brice Wiggins, a Republican state senator, became convinced that the statute did not do enough to penalize child abuse, and introduced a bill to entirely rewrite this section of the code. So let’s look at how his 2012 bill would have amended the code:

(2) (a) (i) A person shall be guilty of felonious abuse of a child if the person intentionally and in a manner causing bodily harm shall:

1. Burn any child;

2. Torture any child;

3. Strangle or choke any child;

4. Disfigure, scar or mutilate any child; or

5. Whip, strike or otherwise abuse any child except as a result of reasonable discipline, in self-defense or in order to prevent bodily harm to a third party.

(ii) A person who is convicted of felonious abuse of a child shall be sentenced to imprisonment in the custody of the Department of Corrections for life or such lesser term of imprisonment as the court may determine, but not less than ten (10) years. For any second or subsequent conviction under this subsection, the person shall be sentenced to imprisonment for life.

(iii) Reasonable discipline shall be a defense to any criminal charge brought under this subsection.

The new statute would prohibit striking or whipping a child so as to cause “bodily harm,” rather than “serious bodily harm” as in the previous statute, but would also insert an exception to this prohibition for “reasonable discipline.” Or to put it another way, while parents before could legally strike or whip their children so as to cause bodily harm whether or not it was done as part of “reasonable discipline” (just so long as they didn’t cause serious bodily harm), under the new revisions parents could only strike or whip their children so as to cause bodily harm as part of “reasonable discipline.”

HSLDA opposed this revision, explaining as follows:

Summary: This bill would make it a felony to “whip, strike or otherwise abuse any child,” thereby causing bodily harm to the child. The maximum penalty would be life in prison. “Reasonable discipline” would be an exception to this offense, but what is reasonable would be left up to judges to decide.

HSLDA’s Position: This bill has the potential to send a parent to prison for life for spanking a child. This bill should be opposed.

First note the fear mongering: “This bill has the potential to send a parent to prison for life for spanking a child.” This makes absolutely no sense—listing a “reasonable discipline” exemption to a law that banned striking a child so as to cause bodily harm clearly indicates that striking your child so as to cause harm can be reasonable discipline. Else why the exemption? In other words, contrary to what HSLDA told its member families, the bill would actually have codified spanking as “reasonable discipline.” HSLDA’s actions here were nothing short of lying and conniving fear mongering—and HSLDA did kick up a good bit of fear as conservative media outlets picked up the story, quoting HSLDA spokespeople and running alarmed headlines like “Miss. Bill Could Mean Life Imprisonment for Parents.” Given that HSLDA makes its money off of selling legal insurance, scare mongering is where it’s at its best. In fact, some have suggested that the organization may intentionally beef up the legal alerts it sends out right around the time it does its membership drive.

HSLDA claimed to oppose the bill because “reasonable discipline” was not defined and would be left up to judges to interpret. What this indicates to me is that HSLDA is aware that its member families define “reasonable discipline” appreciably differently from most Americans—or at least differently from Mississippi judges. What HSLDA wanted was for the law to allow its members to strike or whip their children so as to cause bodily harm without having to prove to judges that their actions constituted “reasonable discipline,” or at the very least an expansive and detailed definition of what constituted “reasonable discipline.” And HSLDA got its way when a new version of the bill was introduced early this year—a bill HSLDA did not oppose. Here is how this bill amended the statute to read:

(2) Any person shall be guilty of felonious child abuse in the following circumstances:

(a) Whether bodily harm results or not, if the person shall intentionally, knowingly or recklessly:

(i) Burn any child;

(ii) Physically torture any child;

(iii) Strangle, choke, smother, or in any way interfere with any child’s breathing;

(iv) Poison a child;

(v) Starve a child of nourishments needed to sustain life or growth;

(vi) Use any type of deadly weapon upon any child;

(b) If some bodily harm to any child actually occurs, and if the person shall intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly:

(i) Throw, kick, bite, or cut any child;

(ii) Strike a child under the age of fourteen (14) about the face or head with a closed fist;

(iii) Strike a child under the age of five (5) in the face or head;

(iv) Kick, bite, cut or strike a child’s genitals; circumcision of a male child is not a violation under this subpagragraph;

(c) If serious bodily harm to any child actually occurs, and if the person shall intentionally, knowingly or recklessly:

(i) Strike any child on the face or head;

(ii) Disfigure or scar any child;

(iii) Whip, strike, or otherwise abuse any child;

The new bill banned striking or whipping a child so as to cause them “serious bodily harm” but made a broad allowance for causing a child bodily harm, excepting only bodily harm caused by throwing, kicking, biting, or cutting, striking a child under 14 in the face or head with a closed fist, striking a child under 5 in the face or head, and kicking, biting, cutting, or striking a child’s genitals. Or to put it another way, under the new bill it would be legal to cause your child bodily harm without having to prove that doing so constituted “reasonable discipline,” so long as that bodily harm was not caused by things like biting, kicking, punching in the face, or trauma to the genitals. With this change, HSLDA no longer saw this law as a threat to its members’ “right” to discipline their children using “reasonable” corporal punishment.

Just how did the law define “bodily harm” and “serious bodily harm”?

(e) For the purposes of this subsection (2), “bodily harm” means any bodily injury to a child that includes, but is not limited to, bruising, bleeding, lacerations, soft tissue swelling, and external or internal swelling of any body organ.

(f) For the purposes of this subsection (2), “serious bodily harm” means any serious bodily injury to a child and includes, but is not limited to, the fracture of a bone, permanent disfigurement, permanent scarring, or any internal bleeding or internal trauma to any organ, any brain damage, any injury to the eye or ear of a child or other vital organ, and impairment of any bodily function.

With these definitions, then, the new bill left it legal for parents to beat their children so as to cause “bruising, bleeding, lacerations, soft tissue swelling, and external or internal swelling of any body organ” without even having to pass any sort of “reasonable discipline” standard. The reason HSLDA had opposed the 2012 version of the bill—but not this one—was that the former version only allowed parents to strike or whip their children so as to cause bodily harm if it was done as part of “reasonable discipline,” a standard they did not want their member families burdened to meet. HSLDA was successful in opposing the original bill and this travesty of a child abuse statute is the result.

HSLDA in Florida: Significant Bruising and Welts are A-Okay

Finally we turn to Florida. In 2010, HSLDA sent out a legislative alert about Florida’s Senate Bill 1360, urging its members to oppose the measure. Here is the text:

Summary: Includes inappropriate or excessively harsh corporal discipline in the definition of “criminal conduct” for purposes of protective investigations. Prohibits parents, legal custodians, or caregivers from inflicting such corporal discipline. Provides penalties and applicability. Includes offenses involving inappropriate or excessively harsh corporal discipline within the offense severity ranking chart of the Criminal Punishment Code, etc.

HSLDA’s Position: Oppose.

This one had me scratching my head. Why would HSLDA oppose a bill outlawing “excessively harsh corporal discipline”? Isn’t their typical line that they defend “reasonable” corporal punishment (which they never define)? Doesn’t that make them de facto against excessively harsh corporal punishment? Just what “inappropriate or excessively harsh” corporal punishment did SB 130 add to the criminal code? Let’s have a look at the text of the actual bill. The bill begins as follows:

Section 1. Paragraph (b) of subsection (2) of section 39.301, Florida Statutes, is amended to read:

(2) (b) As used in this subsection, the term “criminal conduct” means:

1. A child is known or suspected to be the victim of child abuse, as defined in s. 827.03; or of neglect of a child, as defined in s. 827.03; or of inappropriate or excessively harsh corporal discipline, as defined in s. 827.032.

In other words, the statute originally listed “child abuse” and “neglect” as “criminal conduct” and this bill would have amended it to also include “excessively harsh corporal discipline” alongside “child abuse” and “neglect.” How does the bill define “excessively harsh corporal discipline”?

Section 2. Section 827.032, Florida Statutes, is created to read:

827.032 Inappropriate or excessively harsh corporal discipline; penalties.—

(1) As used in this section, the term “inappropriate or excessively harsh corporal discipline” means an act of discipline that results or could reasonably be expected to result in any of the following or other similar injuries:

(a) Sprains, dislocations, or cartilage damage.

(b) Bone or skull fractures.

(c) Brain or spinal cord damage.

(d) Intracranial hemorrhage or injury to other internal organs.

(e) Asphyxiation, suffocation, or drowning.

(f) Injury resulting from the use of a deadly weapon.

(g) Burns or scalding.

(h) Cuts, lacerations, punctures, or bites.

(i) Disfigurement.

(j) Loss or impairment of a body part or function.

(k) Significant bruises or welts.

(l) Mental injury, as defined in s. 39.01.

The bill defines excessively harsh corporal discipline, then, as that which results in bone fractures, suffocation, burns, cuts, disfigurements significant bruises and welts, etc. HSLDA did not explain its opposition to this bill. The only thing that makes any sense to me is that HSLDA opposed it because it listed “significant bruises or welts” as “excessive corporal discipline.” HSLDA’s concern must have been that banning discipline that resulted in significant bruises and welts infringed on parents’ rights to use “reasonable corporal punishment” on their children. It seems, then, that disciplinary actions that leave “significant bruises or welts” fit within HSLDA’s definition of “reasonable corporal punishment.”

Concluding Thoughts

Given the lack of any word from HSLDA on what constitutes “reasonable” corporal punishment, we have to piece together HSLDA’s definition of that term by examining its positions on bills revising state child abuse statutes, which HSLDA monitors closely. What we find when we do this is that HSLDA opposes laws that would ban hitting children with physical objects, striking or whipping children so as to cause bodily harm in a manner that judges would not consider “reasonable discipline,” and disciplining children in a manner that leaves significant bruises or welts. It would seem that all of these things fit within HSLDA’s definition of “reasonable corporal punishment.” And, beyond that, it appears that HSLDA is aware that its members use corporal punishment that many if not most Americans would consider child abuse.

If HSLDA’s view of child abuse reporting and child abuse investigations as bad things that need to be cut down on or obstructed was disturbing, HSLDA’s actions and views regarding child abuse itself are more so.

HSLDA seems to see child abuse as something that happens “out there” and to “other people,” not something that happens within its own member families and needs to be treated seriously. Further, HSLDA appears to view child abuse as something that always exists in extremes, in children with broken bones and starved bodies—and if its member families aren’t engaging in those sorts of activities, then they can’t be abusers, right? But what the organization refuses to admit is that it is a continuum, and that much of what it considers “reasonable” corporal punishment is considered by most Americans to be child abuse. And through all of this, HSLDA makes no attempt to draw a line between reasonable corporal punishment and child abuse or advise its member families on anything other than how to hide abuse—and by not speaking, they are complicit.

Finally, HSLDA seems oblivious to the fact that its opposition to bills criminalizing child abuse might actually aid and abet abusers to continue their abuse. After all, thanks to HSLDA it is now perfectly legal in Mississippi for a parent to whip a child bloody, or beat a child with a rod until he is covered with welts, all without even having to justify this activity as “reasonable discipline.” This sort of thing affects real people, real children, real lives.

April 20, 2013

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.


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.


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.

Browse Our Archives