Children have rights that are independent from those of their parents. For example, children have the right to be cared for and to not be abused. Children also have the right to access information and develop their talents. All children, including children who are homeschooled, have the right to a good education and a safe home environment.
When parents homeschool, they take on responsibilities towards their children that are ordinarily carried out by a wider community. Systems designed to prevent the abuse or neglect of school-aged children frequently assume that these children will attend school. This is why teachers are mandatory reporters, for example, and it is also why teachers have background checks. When children are homeschooled, they are removed from school-based systems designed to prevent abuse and neglect; as a result, the parent assumes greater authority and responsibility over the child’s life.
In a school environment, children have the ability to participate in a wider community in a way that is not heavily controlled or monitored by their parents; this means children can make and maintain friendships and relationships with adult role models that are not dependent on, or curated by, their parents. In contrast, parents who homeschool have full and direct control over their children’s social life: in order for a homeschooled child to have access to other children and adults, their parents must allow this contact to occur, and often must facilitate it through transportation or scheduling.
In some cases, home educators may use their ability to fully manage their child’s social sphere to protect or empower their child, whether by removing their child from harassment or abuse they may have suffered in school, or by nurturing their child’s independence and allowing their child more agency and control over their own life and education than they would have experienced if they attended school. In other cases, however, homeschooling parents use their ability to fully control their children’s lives in ways that cause their children harm.
CRHE was founded in 2013 by homeschool graduates concerned by a growing number of high profile cases of child abuse that involved homeschooling. To date, we are the only child advocacy organization founded and run by individuals who were homeschooled which focuses on the rights of homeschooled children. CRHE was born out of a desire to make homeschooling a safer, more positive environment for all homeschooled children.
We understand that talking about child abuse in homeschool settings may make some home educators uncomfortable. It is not pleasant to learn that a method of education you have chosen — a method of education you may love — can also be used to harm children. However, we believe that home educators have a responsibility to all children in their communities. By learning to recognize abuse — and learning about factors that can contribute to or exacerbate abuse — you can help make your homeschool community a safer place for children.
Privacy laws, combined with the fact that most child welfare agencies do not track children’s educational status, make it challenging to study the rate of child abuse among homeschooling families. What do we know, however? These studies are worth a look:
These studies tell us two things. First, in cases of particularly severe abuse involving school-aged children, a disproportionately large number of cases involve homeschooling. This is likely because some abusers realize that they can use homeschooling to isolate their children and hide any evidence of their abuse. Second, the number of families with a history of child welfare involvement who are choosing to begin homeschooling is substantial. (Past child welfare reports are the number one predictive factor of future abuse.)
In some cases, abuse may not occur until after a family begins homeschooling. The CDC lists social isolation as a “family risk factor” for abuse and neglect. While some already abusive parents may begin homeschooling as a way to conceal abuse from the outset, other families that begin homeschooling for unrelated reasons may become more socially isolated over time, elevating the risk of abuse. Child abuse often correlates with factors like isolation and stress; a family that might not have been abusive in one set of circumstances may become abusive in another. If you encounter a family that isn’t plugged in or seems isolated, you should look for ways to engage them in your homeschool community.
One of the first projects the Coalition for Responsible Home Education undertook was to create the Homeschooling’s Invisible Children database, where we log cases of severe and fatal abuse and neglect in homeschool settings. This ongoing database relies almost entirely on stories that are covered in the news. We have used this database both to call attention to this issue, and to find commonalities among these cases so that we may identify and recommend solutions. Please take some time to read the product of this research, Themes in Abuse in Homeschooling Environments.
Abuse is not limited to one type of family or one set of beliefs. To give you an idea of how abuse in homeschool settings can play out, we will briefly examine two very different cases.
Jennifer and Sarah Hart, a progressive secular couple who attended music and yoga festivals, were the adoptive parents of six children: Markis, Hannah, Devonte, Jeremiah, Abigail, and Ciera. In 2010, a teacher reported bruises on 6-year-old Abigail. Sarah pled guilty to misdemeanor domestic assault and served a suspended sentence. After the end of court supervision, the Hart parents withdrew the children to homeschool them.
In 2018, a neighbor reported that one of the children had come to his home begging for food. After a social worker left a note on the door with plans to return, Jennifer and Sarah took the children and left home in their van. A week later, they drove the van off a cliff in California, killing all six children. An investigation found that this act was premeditated.
While the timing suggests that Jennifer and Sarah withdrew their children from school in order to prevent future disclosures and investigations, to all appearances, the Harts looked like your ordinary left-of-center homeschooling family. What’s more, the couple crafted a picture-perfect image, sharing photos of them with their six smiling children across social media. They posted pictures of their children painting and engaging in nature activities, as well as pictures of their children attending rallies. They gushed over their children in their posts.
It would be a mistake to assume that abuse is not taking place because a family looks picture-perfect, or because a parent seems especially dedicated.
While the Hart children’s social contact with children and adults outside of their home was limited, they did have occasional contact with a small circle of other families. During these visits, Jennifer and Sarah carefully monitored their children. In addition to deliberately crafting their family’s image, Jennifer and Sarah Hart convinced the adults around them to ignore warning signs by telling people that their children suffered from various disabilities or disorders. Many abusive parents undermine others’ willingness to listen to their children’s cries for help by claiming that their children are chronic liars.
For our second example, we turn to Larry and Carri Williams, a conservative evangelical Christian couple with seven biological children and two adopted children.
Larry and Carri were already homeschooling their other children when they adopted Hana from Ethiopia at nine years old, so they began homeschooling Hana as well. Carri developed an intense dislike of Hana, and did little to hide her disdain for the child. She complained about Hana to her knitting group, saying that Hana was rebellious and ungrateful, and that she could not wait until she could kick Hana out of the house.
While Larry and Carri did not homeschool Hana to hide abuse, their decision to homeschool her ultimately had that effect, leaving her without access to a safe adult. Because Hana was homeschooled, there were no teachers or school friends’ parents for her to turn to for help or for respite from her parents’ increasingly cruel treatment. By homeschooling Hana, Larry and Carri were able to control who she had contact with, leaving her vulnerable and alone.
In 2011, when Hana was 13, Carri shut her outside in cold rain as a punishment. Hana died of hypothermia. Hana’s death was cruel, long, and painful, and it should not have happened. At any point along the way, an adult who knew the family could have stepped in to help, but no one did. Even adults who listened to Carri disparage her child ignored the warning signs that something was wrong and did not step in to help Hana.
Adults often fail to act even when they see warning signs. We have spoken with parents who suspected abuse in the homes of their homeschooling acquaintances, but did nothing due to the belief that it was not their place to interfere. This failure to act can and does leave children in harmful situations. Home educators should remember that they may be the only safe adult outside of the home some children come in contact with.
If you want to learn more about what abuse can look like in homeschool environments, you should read our full exploration of Themes in Abuse in Homeschool Settings.
If you suspect maltreatment that meets your state’s legal definition of abuse or neglect, you should make a report to your local child welfare authorities.
Remember that maltreatment does not have to rise to the level of legal abuse for it to be harmful. Children need the support of safe mentors and a community that affirms their rights and agency every day, and not only in moments of extreme harm or deprivation.
Don’t forget to read the other articles in this section!
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