Homeschooling & Human Trafficking

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Homeschooling & Human Trafficking

By Dr. Chelsea McCracken

At first glance, the relationship between homeschooling and human trafficking may seem far-fetched. However, trafficking may be a useful lens through which to view the negative experiences of some homeschooled children and alumni. 

This discussion does not constitute legal advice. Our goal is to examine federal trafficking law in relation to homeschooling; to look at different forms of and definitions of trafficking; and to explore patterns of homeschool experiences that may constitute child trafficking. If you need legal advice, you should reach out to and meet with a lawyer. 

Labor trafficking: Background and definitions

Children have always worked, but the growth of industrial capitalism in the late 19th century led to a movement to abolish child labor. The changing nature of children’s labor, and the growth of the idea that children had more than a merely economic value, led to “concerns over the lack of education the toiling children received” (Schuman, 2017a; 2017b). The child labor reform movement eventually culminated in the passage of the Keating-Owen Child Labor Act of 1916 and later the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which outlawed child labor. Since then, the denial of educational opportunities to working children has been one of the primary guiding principles behind child labor laws. For example, U.S. federal code stipulates that the labor of minors must not “interfere with their schooling or with their health and well-being” (29 CFR § 570.31). 

Children who are working legally are victims of labor exploitation if they are not treated fairly, while children who are working illegally—that is, working underage or in ways that are harmful to their health, development, or education—are victims of child labor. Both of these groups of working children may qualify as victims of labor trafficking if force, fraud, or coercion is present (Development Services Group, 2016).

The first US federal legislation criminalizing labor trafficking was the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 (Owens et al., 2014). The act codified the definition of one of the two “severe forms of trafficking in persons” as “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery” (22 U.S.C. § 7102). Following the passage of this legislation, all fifty states also developed their own laws against trafficking, with slightly different definitions and standards of evidence (National Conference of State Legislatures, 2018).

The key identifying feature of labor trafficking is the presence of force, fraud, or coercion. According to Owens et al., 2014, p. 81-82, this may include:

1) depriving/disorienting (isolation, restricted communications, manipulation of debts, monitoring or surveillance)

2) threats or use of violence (physical, sexual, psychological, financial, reputational, harm to family)

3) demeaning and demoralizing (verbal abuse, humiliation)

4) diminishing resistance (substandard living conditions, denial of food, water, or medical care, weakening with drugs or alcohol)

5) intimidation and control (abuse, atmosphere of violence, displaying weapons, rules and punishments)

6) deception concerning consequences (overstate risks of leaving, overstate rewards of staying, feigning power or ties to authorities or hit men and gangs)

7) use or threatened use of law (threats to get victim deported, arrested, or turned over to police or immigration) 

The definition of trafficking does not include an exception for when a person is trafficked by a family member. In fact, nearly half of cases of child trafficking begin with family member involvement, and children trafficked by their families are more likely to be trafficked for labor than for sex—68% of children trafficked by family members are trafficked for labor, as compared to only 31% of all trafficked children being trafficked for labor (International Organization for Migration, 2017). 

Homeschooling parents who use threats of violence, deprivation of necessities, or psychological manipulation to force children to engage in labor that is harmful to their education or health are committing labor trafficking, according to federal and state definitions. Though few of these cases are currently prosecuted as instances of trafficking—one study suggests that state-level officials often prosecute human trafficking cases under other statutes, such as those related to child abuse (Clawson et al., 2008, p. 24)—such prosecutions may become more common as state and federal officials become more aware of their prosecutorial options.

Labor trafficking & homeschooling

Labor trafficking of homeschooled children often follows several common themes. Some trafficked children are forced to provide unpaid domestic labor as servants for their families instead of being educated, as in the cases of Esther Combs, Pridine Fru, Gregory Jean, Jr., and Shenna Grimm, all of whom were homeschooled. Many children homeschooled in the stay-at-home daughter movement may fall into this category, and adopted children are particularly vulnerable to this form of exploitation. For example, two homeschooled girls reported that they were falling behind in their studies because they were forced to provide child care while their parents worked. Both parents were charged with human trafficking.

In other cases, homeschooled children are forced to provide economic support for their families by working long hours outside the home or in the family business to the detriment of their education. One homeschooled boy was forced to work eight hours a day doing work his father had been contracted to do. His father told him, “This IS your ‘schooling’—learning how to work”. In another instance, a homeschooling family forced their daughters to sell homemade items door-to-door for six hours per day, torturing them with extreme punishments if they failed to make their quota. The girls’ mother was charged with forced labor under federal statutes. 

Children who are homeschooled in religious or social groups that exercise a high degree of control over their members may also be vulnerable to labor trafficking. In these cases, homeschooling may be used in part to hide the group’s illegal labor practices from outsiders. For example, an Idaho FLDS family used starvation and imprisonment to force the homeschooled boys in their care to build furniture; the boys earned no money from the furniture sales. In another instance, the McCollum Ranch group in North Carolina subjected at least 16 of their children to slavery, including forcing two teenage boys to work in their fish market for more than 40 hours a week. Ten adults in the group were charged with crimes including human trafficking. 

Homeschooling parents may also force children to perform extreme manual labor as a punishment. 

Homeschooled children are especially vulnerable to labor trafficking. Children who attend school spend 6-7 hours per day under the supervision of adults who may notice if their labor is being exploited at the expense of their education, or if they are being coerced or threatened. Furthermore, the hours these children spend in school are hours when their labor cannot be exploited. However, homeschooled children lack this protection. 

As one boy whose labor was exploited by his father wrote, “All of this work was made possible only because we were homeschooled, because we could be worked 8-10 hours a day any time of the year.” The same prominent homeschool protection agency that in 2019 scoffed at the idea of a link between homeschooling and trafficking claimed in 2006 to be working on a federal bill to overturn child labor laws so that homeschooling parents could put their children to work. In 2018, lawmakers in New Hampshire considered a bill that would have exempted homeschoolers from child labor laws entirely. These efforts demonstrate a troubling eagerness to legalize the labor trafficking of homeschooled children.

Sex trafficking & homeschooling

While anecdotal reports suggest that labor trafficking is the most common type of trafficking linked to homeschooling, there is also some indication of a relationship between sex trafficking and homeschooling. US federal codes define one of the two “severe forms of trafficking in persons” as “sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age” (22 U.S.C. § 7102). A 2018 focus group of sex trafficking prevention stakeholders in Houma, Louisiana identified homeschooled children as a group at risk of sex trafficking.

One reason for this may be that some abusers have used lax homeschooling laws to cover up sex trafficking. For example, one couple sold their 14-year-old homeschooled daughter to a family friend in exchange for financial assistance. The girl had no identifying documents and gave birth to two children before a neighbor reported concerns to the authorities. Another man purchased a 5-year-old girl from her mother in Vietnam and kept her as a sex slave in the United States for approximately 15 years, homeschooling her so that she could not report the abuse. A homeschool father sold sex with his adopted 10-year-old son on Craigslist; his children had recently been pulled from school to be homeschooled so that they could not report ongoing sexual abuse. The father was charged under Ohio law with compelling prostitution. In another case, a Canadian man pulled his children out of school to homeschool them. He sold sex with his 16-year-old daughter to strangers he met online; he videotaped and participated in the assaults. He was charged with human trafficking under Canadian law. Several of the labor trafficking cases mentioned above also involved sexual abuse.

Many other cases involving the sexual abuse of homeschooled children—while they may not meet the legal definition of trafficking—still include elements evocative of trafficking. For example, in some cases homeschooling parents have volunteered their children to be raped by an outside party, or have used homeschooling to cover up a rape by an outside party. In other cases, homeschool teachers or leaders have forced children to appear in pornography, abducted them, or taken them across state lines in order to sexually assault them. Abductors have also claimed to be homeschooling their victims in order to prevent them from seeking an escape from repeated sexual assaults.

Like other abuse victims, homeschooled children who have been abused by their parents are particularly at risk of being trafficked. Elizabeth Thomas was homeschooled and abused by her mother, but after her mother lost custody, Elizabeth’s public school teacher groomed and abducted her. Another homeschooled girl, S., was sexually exploited by a man whom she asked to rescue her from her sexually abusive father. J., who was homeschooled and sexually abused by her father, became a victim of sex trafficking at age 16. Sex trafficking prevention efforts need to include homeschooled children.

What to do in cases of trafficking

If you have experienced trafficking, or you believe someone you know has experienced trafficking, you may call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 to report it.  This article does not constitute the giving of legal advice.  

Homeschool alumni whose experiences meet the criteria for trafficking may be eligible for services for human trafficking survivors. Whether an individual qualifies for services will depend on the criteria used by the agencies that provide services, however.

  • The National Conference of State Legislatures provides a comprehensive overview of services that may be available to trafficking survivors, including housing, benefits, and civil suits for back pay. These resources vary according to state law.
  • The Office for Victims of Crime maintains a searchable database and a state-by-state list of local services available to trafficking survivors.
  • The Justice Resource Institute’s Project REACH provides psychosocial needs assessments for trafficking victims. To request services, contact Dr. Elizabeth Hopper at (617) 232-1303 x211, or at ehopper@jri.org.
  • Trafficking survivor Rebecca Bender has created a free online educational program for victims of trafficking, including courses, peer mentors, an online community, and professional coaching. Survivors of all forms of trafficking are welcome to apply; note that some parts of the curriculum are faith-based.

Further reading

Clawson, H. J., Dutch, N., Lopez, S., & Tiapula, S. (2008). Prosecuting human trafficking cases: Lessons learned and promising practices. ICF International. Retrieved from: https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/223972.pdf

Development Services Group. (2016). Child labor trafficking: Literature review: A product of the Model Programs Guide. Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Retrieved from: https://www.ojjdp.gov/mpg/litreviews/child-labor-trafficking.pdf

International Organization for Migration. (2017). Family members are involved in nearly half of child trafficking cases. Retrieved from: https://www.iom.int/sites/default/files/our_work/DMM/MAD/Counter-trafficking%20Data%20Brief%20081217.pdf

National Conference of State Legislatures. (2018). Human trafficking overview. Retrieved from: http://www.ncsl.org/research/civil-and-criminal-justice/human-trafficking.aspx

Owens, C., Dank, M., Breaux, J., Bañuelos, I., Farrell, A., Pfeffer, R., …McDevitt, J. (2014). Understanding the organization, operation, and victimization process of labor trafficking in the United States. Urban Institute. Retrieved from: https://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/publication/33821/413249-Understanding-the-Organization-Operation-and-Victimization-Process-of-Labor-Trafficking-in-the-United-States.PDF

Rizen, C. M. (2015). Are juvenile gang members victims of labor trafficking? Children’s Legal Rights Journal, 35(2), 163-176. Retrieved from: https://lawecommons.luc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1087&context=clrj

US Department of State. (2018). Trafficking in persons report. Retrieved from: https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/282798.pdf