In late April, the Connecticut Office of the Child Advocate released a report based on data from six school districts, finding that 36% of students removed from school to be homeschooled from 2013 to 2016 lived in families subject to past accepted reports of child abuse or neglect. This report followed a case where a child was removed from school to be homeschooled despite past abuse allegations, with tragic results. The study was conducted as part of the Office of the Child Advocate’s investigation of the case.
We have been asked whether we found these findings surprising. We did not. This is not the first time we have seen numbers like these. A similar study conducted in another school district in another state — but not publicly released — had comparable results.
One of first themes we noticed when we began logging cases in our HIC database involved families who pulled their children to homeschool after the closure of a child protective services investigation, to avoid further scrutiny. This research does not reflect concern about parents who remove their children from school to provide them with an innovative, child-centered, educational environment in the home. Instead, it points to inadequate laws that offer no safeguards and are easily manipulated by parents with abusive motivations.
Child protective services cannot conduct an investigation if there are no allegations, and no allegations can be made if a child is isolated from contact with adults outside of the family, as often happens in cases where parents remove their children from school after the closure of a child protective services case. We need a screening system to catch these cases.
One question that has followed the report released by the Connecticut Office of the Child Advocate (OCA) is this: How many of these children lived in families subject to allegations that were substantiated? We wondered this too! When a report of child abuse or neglect is screened in, it is typically investigated and found either “substantiated” or “unsubstantiated.” When we started asking questions, however, we learned that the system works slightly differently in Connecticut.
As in other states, allegations of child abuse are either accepted or screened out. However, in Connecticut, unlike in many other states, accepted reports then enter a two-tier system: lower-risk families are assigned to a Family Assessment Response (FAR) track and connected to services while higher risk concerns (such as allegations of physical or sexual abuse) are investigated and the allegations are either substantiated or unsubstantiated.
The FAR system was created in 2012. While accepted reports made before 2012 received a substantiated or unsubstantiated designation, after that year roughly 40% of accepted reports have been tracked into the FAR system and thus have not received either a substantiated or unsubstantiated designation. To avoid confusion over this change, the OCA report focused on children in families subject to multiple reports rather than on whether the reports were substantiated.
The OCA obtained lists of all students withdrawn to be homeschooled between 2013 and 2016 from six school districts and compared the names with records from the Department of Children and Families. They found that 36% of the 380 students removed from school to be homeschooled lived in families subject to at least one prior accepted report of abuse or neglect. The vast majority of these children (88%) lived in families subject to multiple reports or a single report that was substantiated. Furthermore, the majority of these families (75%) were subject to an accepted report dated 2013 to the present.
The OAC released the following breakdown of all students removed from school to be homeschooled in these six school districts during this period (chart created by CRHE):
Here is the same data in bullet points:
There is currently no screening system to catch cases like these or to otherwise prevent fraudulent homeschooling. Removing a child from school to homeschool them after a concerning history of child abuse and neglect allegations, cases, and even convictions is not prohibited by law, and families that do so do not receive additional monitoring.
To our knowledge, there have been only two studies of the rate of past child abuse allegations among homeschooled children, each conducted locally — the OCA’s study, and a second that we are aware of in another state, but whose findings have not been released publicly. However, there are a few other data points that can be useful in considering this issue.
In 2014, Barbara Knox and a group of researchers published a study of child abuse so severe it could be rightly termed child torture. Of the school-age cases Knox examined, 47% of victims were removed from school to be homeschooled. Knox writes that this homeschooling “appears to have been designed to further isolate the child” and that it “typically occurred after the closure of a previously opened CPS case.” Knox also found that these students’ removal from school “was accompanied by an escalation of physically abusive events.” Knox’s finding that the children in her study were generally removed from school “after the closure of a previously opened CPS case” should raise concern.
In April, six children of Jennifer Hart and Sarah Hart died when their family’s van plummeted from a cliff in an apparent murder-suicide following years of abuse. The children had been removed from school years before, days after the conclusion Sarah Hart’s prosecution for physical abuse. By isolating their children, Jennifer Hart and Sarah Hart were able to carry out years of physical and emotional abuse undetected. Removing children from school after the conclusion of child protective services scrutiny can offer parents a way to avoid being subject to future reports.
Children who have been the subject of previous abuse or neglect reports are at elevated risk of future abuse. The Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities (CECANF), which was commissioned by Congress in 2012 to make recommendations for decreasing child maltreatment fatalities, found that “a call to a child protection hotline, regardless of the disposition, is the best predictor of a later child abuse or neglect fatality.”
Parents with a concerning history of child protective services reports should not be permitted to use homeschooling to remove themselves and their children from the radar of child protective services. And yet, this is what we currently see on a regular basis. These cases are not hypotheticals or rare instances. The OCA’s report suggests that homeschooling is used to conceal child abuse far more frequently than has been commonly thought.
An estimated 1.7 million children are being homeschooled today. If the OCA’s findings hold true across the country, the implications are massive: We are looking at hundreds of thousands of children who are very likely in abusive situations. Creating a screening system that flags cases where children are pulled from school after a history of child protective services involvement is crucial.