CRHE was founded in 2013 to address a problem: the use of homeschooling to isolate or abuse children. While there are homeschooled children who experience a positive, child-centered learning environment at home, this is not always the case: some parents take advantage of states’ minimal homeschooling laws to isolate or abuse children. CRHE has been tracking cases of severe or fatal abuse that occur under the guise of homeschooling since 2013.
There are several things to note:
In the vast majority of states, there are currently no protections in place for children who are homeschooled. This is the case despite a 2014 study finding that 47% of children who experience child torture were removed from school to be homeschooled (and another 29% were never enrolled in school), and a 2018 Connecticut study found that 36% of children removed from school to be homeschooled were subject to past child welfare reports.
For further reading on this overall problem, see:
On this page, we identify and analyze some of the particularities of child abuse and neglect in homeschooling settings. We draw from a variety of sources, including entries in our Homeschooling’s Invisible Children database, stories shared on Homeschoolers Anonymous, the HA Basic Survey, various state child abuse fatalities reports, and an assortment of news reports. All told, we have examined hundreds of cases. By analyzing abuse cases to identify themes, we hope to work toward a future where homeschooling is used only as a positive and healthy educational option, and not as a way to conceal abuse.
The themes we cover here include: physical abuse, verbal and emotional abuse, food deprivation, confinement, isolation and totalistic families, sexual abuse and exploitation, identity-based discrimination, medical neglect, withholding identity documents, and human trafficking.
Table of Contents
When abusive parents use homeschooling to isolate children and conceal abuse, children may be denied contact with mandatory reporters or others outside the home. This allows parents to escalate their maltreatment without fear of this abuse being noticed or reported. Some individuals whose educations included time spent both in homeschools and in public schools have reported that their parents toned down their abuse when they attended public school; as homeschool alumni Elizabeth recounts, her parents knew that teachers would notice and report the abuse if they went too far. While school attendance does not prevent abuse, it can serve as a deterrent.
Most people think of physical abuse as involving beating or punching; however, many known cases of physical abuse in homeschooling environments are much more extreme. In a study published in 2014, Barbara Knox, a pediatrician at the University of Wisconsin, made the case for identifying “child torture” as a new category of child abuse involving abuses like chipping a child’s teeth with pliers, scalding a child with hot water, branding a child with a cattle prod, using a vice grip on a child’s genitals, forcing a child to eat their own feces, etc. Knox found that 47% of the school-age child torture victims she studied were removed from school to be homeschooled, and another 29% were never enrolled in school. Knox wrote that “This ‘homeschooling’ appears to have been designed to further isolate the child and typically occurred after closure of a previously opened CPS case. Review of these cases found no true educational efforts were provided to the homeschooled children.” Knox also noted that being removed from school to be homeschooled was associated with an escalation of physical violence against these children.
In some cases, parents may be motivated to homeschool by fundamentalist religious beliefs that include an emphasis on the use of “the rod” to control and discipline children, sometimes combined with the belief that children are born evil or that children’s wills must be broken. The deaths of three homeschooled children (Sean Paddock, Lydia Schatz, and Hana Williams) have been linked to the teachings of fundamentalist homeschooling child training guru Michael Pearl. Other homeschooled children have also died or been brutally abused at the hands of fundamentalist Christian parents espousing what they argued was “biblical” discipline. In some extreme cases, parents have become convinced that their children are possessed by demons; in other cases children have led a life of severe punishment for small infractions after their parents unfairly determined that they were “rebellious.”
Parents who use homeschooling to isolate and abuse children frequently cut off their children’s contact with individuals outside of the home, or limit children’s contact to a circle of like-minded families predisposed to overlook potential warning signs. The results can go well beyond a lack of access to mandatory reporters who might recognize and report their abuse: Public school can offer abused children a safe place away from home, adults who believe in them, and friends whose healthy family lives can provide a reality check. In some cases, children who are homeschooled in abusive situation may not even know that what they are experiencing is not normal.
While physical abuse may leave visible scars, other kinds of abuse leave scars no less damaging. While often understudied, emotional abuse causes as much harm as other forms of abuse, and can have long term effects. The effects of emotional abuse in homeschooling situations are compounded by the fact that homeschooled children who are verbally or emotionally abused—told they are stupid or worthless, yelled at and berated, or otherwise manipulated or controlled—may have nowhere to go for respite or for a break from their abuse. In some cases, they may have no one in their lives to contradict the abusive and manipulative messages they receive from their parents, or to provide them with some sense of stability or normalcy. They also may not understand what is normal or acceptable behavior for a parent, as they may not have healthy examples to compare their parents’ behavior to or anyone telling them that what is happening to them is not normal or okay.
Some children are homeschooled by parents with untreated mental health conditions, or parents who are unstable or explosive. When children are homeschooled by narcissistic parents, the already devastating results of having a narcissistic parent can be intensified. The same is true when children are homeschooled by parents who are unpredictable or have anger management problems. Remember, children who are homeschooled do not get a break, and may not have access to any space that is not dictated and controlled by their parents. Spending every minute of every day with an unstable, explosive, or narcissistic parent, and having that person represent a child’s only access to education, can do incredible damage to a child’s mental health and emotional well-being at a time when they are still developing psychologically.
Homeschooling gives abusive parents the ability to deprive their children of food or lock them up in a way they could not if their children attended school. In some cases, children have been starved to death or kept in their rooms for years. In our years of research on this issue, we have found that cases where school-aged children are starved to death are almost always homeschool cases. After all, teachers are trained to notice and report children who are constantly hungry, and free lunch programs provide needed sustenance for children who might otherwise go without food. Homeschooled children do not have access to these protective factors. In fact, one homeschooled boy attributed his survival of extreme food deprivation to the meals he had received in public school prior to being homeschooled. The story is similar for confinement: children who attend public school by definition cannot spend their entire lives locked in a room or chained to a bed, but homeschooling gives parents precisely this level of control.
There are stories of homeschooled children locked in cages, forced to wear shock collars, or bound with zip-ties. There are stories of homeschooled children chained to their beds, severely malnourished, and starved to death. Access to food is wielded as a weapon, and physical restraint becomes a means to intimidate and control. Children homeschooled by abusive parents have died of starvation or been found so malnourished that their growth is permanently and significantly stunted. Some parents put locks or alarms on their refrigerator or kitchen cupboards. In some cases children have been kept in cages at night, locked in their rooms with a bucket to relieve themselves,imprisoned in a bathroom for months, or allowed out of their rooms for only one meal each day. On the flip side, some homeschooling parents deprive their children of access to clothing and shelter, forcing them to live outdoors and putting them at risk of death from hypothermia. Though not all cases of food deprivation and imprisonment are this severe, even short-term deprivation of basic life necessities is still incredibly damaging to children’s health and well-being. When it comes to both physical confinement and access to food, abused homeschooled children are at the mercy of their parents.
In some cases, homeschooling families become cult-like as abusive parents’ desire for absolute control melds with extreme religious ideas. Marcus Wesson taught his 16 children that he was God, and “married” and fathered children with several of his underage daughters. He ultimately shot and killed nine of his children in the midst of a standoff with the authorities. Homeschooling offers individuals like Wesson the ability to isolate, control, and brainwash their children, and while Wesson’s case is extreme, it is repeated in various forms across the country. These situations are often characterized by a father who believes he hears directly from God, brutal beating used to keep the wife and children in line, long-term rape and incest, and a brainwashed fear of the authorities. Other situations are less extreme but no less totalistic. Homeschooling becomes a tool used to remove outside influences, isolate children completely, and wield total control. Children in these situations not only do not have access to help, they also often know nothing outside of their family, with its emphasis on control and its extreme religious teachings and fear of outside authorities. In some cases, homeschooled children in such families have been forced to take up arms and engage in stand-offs with police or social services.
Even apart from the controlling cult-like or totalistic family, some homeschooled children may experience social isolation or have little opportunity to interact with individuals outside of their families. Social isolation has been found to be a contributing factor to child abuse. Sometimes social isolation is extreme, and the discovery of heinous abuse or fatality in a homeschooling family is followed by the revelation that none of the neighbors had ever seen the children in question. There are some cases where homeschooled children have been so isolated that they developed their own language or only spoke in grunts; children have been so deprived of socialization that they did not know how to eat an apple or use a crosswalk. Social isolation can also be harmful at much less extreme levels. Children who only leave the house a few times a week, or who have a limited number of friends, may find themselves socially stunted. In some cases, these children may develop social phobias that affect them for the rest of their lives or require therapy to overcome.
Homeschooled children who are sexually abused frequently lack access to age-appropriate sex education which might give them the tools needed to understand and report their own abuse. As with physical abuse, sexual abuse in homeschool environments may be more extreme. In some especially isolated families, incest and rape take place without the children understanding that what is happening is wrong. In several cases, homeschooling parents have deliberately impregnated their children, viewing them as surrogates, or permitted or forced children to sexually abuse their siblings.
In other cases, children know that what is happening to them is wrong and want it to stop, but lack access to trusted adults who might be able to help them. The lack of safeguards for homeschooled children also makes them a target for sexual predators who groom them for abuse while serving as their tutor or coach. Further compounding things, when sexually abused children are homeschooled by their abuser, they may literally have no place of escape. In some cases, these children may see suicide as their only option. Homeschooled children who suffer from sexual abuse often have their ability to get help hindered both by their own ignorance and by their lack of contact with individuals they can trust.
Many cases of abuse in homeschool settings involve caregivers singling out one or more children for abuse, while their other children are treated better or are forced to participate in the abuse. While it’s often difficult to discover the caregivers’ motivations in these instances, some homeschooling parents’ abuse is clearly targeted based on factors unique to the particular child—their race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, parentage, etc. (One homeschooled child was even targeted for abuse because his adoptive mother “didn’t like redheads”). This form of targeted abuse is often perpetrated by parents who do not share their child’s identity, underlining the importance of providing children with access to peers and mentors who share their identities.
Some home educators in adoptive or mixed-race families discriminate against children who do not share their race or ethnicity. Homeschooling caregivers have targeted children for abuse due to their race, used racial slurs against their adopted children, murdered a stepchild after calling her racial slurs, or abused their adopted son more severely than his sister due to the children’s race. There are several cases of white biological parents murdering their non-white biological children, as well as cases of white parents who abuse or murder their adopted children of color while sparing their white biological children. Race has clearly played a role even in some cases where all children in a family experienced similar abuse.
There are also cases of home educators discriminating against children due to their actual or perceived gender or sexual orientation. Home educators have abused boys more severely than girls, murdered a 4-year-old because they thought he was gay . Leelah Alcorn’s parents withdrew her from school to intentionally deprive her of a community that supported her gender transition, resulting in her suicide.
A disproportionate number of cases of severe abuse and neglect involve children who are adopted or have disabilities. Some cases involve both, as well-meaning couples adopt large numbers of children with disabilities and then find themselves unable to properly care for all of them. Sometimes disabled children are left in unsanitary conditions and not given the care they need. Some are kept in cages, ostensibly for their own protection, and others are given insufficient food and become malnourished. Disability is a known risk factor for abuse, and some homeschooling parents intentionally target disabled children, depriving them of medication or singling them out for abuse with claims that a child “deserved it”.
In some cases, adoptive homeschooling parents come to dislike their adopted children and single them out for abuse, whether verbal, physical, or both. Sometimes an adopted or disabled child is homeschooled and abused while their siblings are sent to school and treated well. In some cases, adopted children may be treated as servants and expected to do childcare and house cleaning rather than completing homeschool lessons.
In some cases, adopted children who face abuse at the hands of their homeschooling parents were brought from overseas. These children’s backgrounds are often especially traumatic, involving war or long-term stays in orphanages. Adopted children, and most especially adopted children from overseas, may need special treatment and adjustment that their adoptive parents may not be properly prepared for. This is not a distinctly homeschooling issue. However, adopted children who are homeschooled may have a more limited support network than those who attend school. Some fundamentalist Christian leaders have encouraged overseas adoption as part of families’ Christian mission to the extent that they have created what might be called “orphan crazes” among their followers. Some of these families may be unprepared for or unaware of the challenges of international adoption, and some of these adoptions have ended up failing while others have ended in abuse. In some cases parents may start out honestly wanting to do their best, but end up becoming abusive. Ignorance can be as damaging as malice.
Some homeschooling parents deprive their children of needed medical care or reject modern medicine altogether. In some cases, parents may believe in faith healing, or practice unassisted home births. The results can be fatal. While children who attend public school may in some cases have parents who believe in natural healing or in forgoing medical care, every state requires parents to submit proof of well-child visits or vaccinations (note that obtaining an exemption to this latter requirement often includes a signature from a doctor, ensuring at least some contact with medical professionals). However, when a child is homeschooled, there is no school to request medical records, and thus nothing to ensure that they ever visit a doctor, and some may go their entire childhoods without once being examined by a medical professional. In some cases, children may reach adulthood with fatal conditions that could have been treated while they were children. Most states do not require homeschooling parents to submit their children’s immunization records, and some homeschooling communities have recently seen measles or whooping cough outbreaks.
In some cases, homeschooling parents choose not to obtain a birth certificate or social security number for their children. While this problem may sound obscure and likely is rare compared with other forms of abuse, the effects can be devastating. Over the years CRHE has been contacted by many formerly homeschooled individuals who need help proving their identity. Most public schools require parents to submit a copy of their child’s birth certificate when they register them from school, which ordinarily would catch cases where parents choose a home birth and decide not to obtain a birth certificate. However, homeschooled children’s lack of identifying documents may go unnoticed indefinitely. In fact, some parents may continue withholding the information homeschool graduates need to prove their identities, due to anti-statist views or a desire to control their children. In some cases, homeschool graduates have found themselves unable to obtain driving licenses or marriage licenses, or have had their career options severely curtailed by their lack of identifying information. In cases where homeschooling parents chose not to take their children to the doctor, children may also lack medical records, exacerbating the problem. Note that control of identity documents is a practice often associated with human trafficking.
Homeschooling parents also have complete control over their children’s education, and in abusive situations that control can become a weapon. Some homeschooling parents commit educational neglect, leaving their children uneducated either by intent or by oversight. In other cases abusive or neglectful homeschooling parents may withhold a child’s high school diploma or transcript in an effort to control or limit their children’s ability to attend college or enter the workforce. While parents whose children attend school can refuse to provide college assistance or to sign a FAFSA for their children, homeschool parents can deprive their children of a high school diploma and transcript altogether. Homeschooling parents also determine their children’s grades, and abusive or neglectful homeschooling parents may use this to sabotage their children. In some cases, homeschooled teens have responded by creating their own transcripts and diplomas, bypassing their parents’ ability to hold them back, but this solution is not ideal and is of questionable legality.
Children who attend school are seen by teachers and other school staff daily. Because this is not the case for children who are homeschooled, some parents claim to be homeschooling in order to cover up the fact that a child is dead. In some cases, children homeschooled by abusive or neglectful parents may go missing and have their disappearances go unreported. Because these children are not in school, there is no teacher to notice their absences, and there is no law to prevent parents from claiming to homeschool children who are in fact dead. In some cases, parents fail to report the child’s absence so that they can continue collecting government checks based on a child’s disability. These children are often never recovered, and may be found dead. In some cases, abductors claim to be homeschooling in order to conceal their victims from discovery.
Various child trafficking issues sometimes come into play in abusive homeschooling situations, especially among children who are adopted. Homeschooling is frequently involved in cases where adoptions are “disrupted” and children are “re-homed,” often without proper paperwork or documentation. Homeschooling makes it easier to transfer these children from home to home without questions arising about who their legal parents are, or how they came to live with the family now raising them. In some cases, adolescents adopted from overseas are ostensibly “homeschooled” but are in practice put to work doing the babysitting and housecleaning. In one case, a homeschooling parent prostituted his three adopted children. Homeschooling makes it easier to traffic children, whether that be for their labor or for sex, or simply from home to home.
Abusive and neglectful homeschooling situations sometimes also involve child labor violations. In these cases, homeschooled children’s education ceases at age 12 or 14 as they are expected to work full time, often in family businesses or doing various manual labor. This practice has been especially common among FLDS Mormon children, who have been homeschooled since 2000, but it is not limited to this sect. These children are frequently not paid for their labor, and are thus both deprived of an education and exploited. This is considered a form of human trafficking.