While many homeschooling parents provide their children with positive, child-centered learning environments, it has become increasingly clear in recent years that there are also parents who misuse states’ homeschooling laws by using them to isolate or abuse their children. CRHE has been tracking cases of severe or fatal abuse that occur under the guise of homeschooling since 2013.
By examining cases of abuse and neglect, we can identify and analyze particularities of abuse and neglect in homeschooling settings. For this essay, 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.
We want to curb this abuse by creating better safeguards for children’s welfare. We believe all homeschooled children should have a positive experience. By analyzing abuse cases to identify themes, we can work toward a future where homeschooling is used only as a positive and healthy educational option.
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. In some cases, fundamentalist beliefs about child discipline may contribute to physical abuse.
Some young adults who were homeschooled some years and attended public school other years have recounted that their parents toned down their abuse when they attended public school because they knew their abuse would be seen and reported by teachers if they went too far.
In a study published in 2014, Barbara Knox, a pediatrician at the University of Wisconsin, found that 47% of the school-age child torture victims she studied were removed from school to be homeschooled; 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. Their isolation was accompanied by an escalation of physically abusive events.”
Some homeschooling parents who are 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, homeschooling parents have become convinced that their children are possessed by demons; in other cases homeschooled children have led a life of severe punishment for small infractions after their parents unfairly determined that they were “rebellious.”[/read]
Verbal & Emotional Abuse
Homeschooled children who are verbally or emotionally abused may have nowhere to go for respite or a break from their abuse. They may also have no one to contradict their parents’ abusive and manipulative messages. Children homeschooled by narcissistic or mentally unstable parents may be especially at risk.
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 mentally ill parents who are undiagnosed or have failed to seek help for their conditions, or by parents who are substance abusers. When children are homeschooled by narcissistic parents, the already devastating results of having a narcissistic parent can be intensified. In other cases, children may be homeschooled by parents who are unstable or explosive. Spending every minute of every day with an unstable, explosive, or narcissistic parent can do incredible damage to a child’s mental health and emotional well-being at a time when they are still developing psychologically. Being homeschooled by parents who are substance abusers can also exacerbate problems or lead to abuse or neglect.[/read]
Confinement & Food Deprivation
Homeschooling gives abusive parents the ability to deprive their children of food or confine them permanently. In some cases, children have been starved to death or kept locked in their rooms for years. This is one way abuse in homeschooling situations differs substantively from abuse of children who attend school.
Homeschooling gives abusive parents the ability to deprive their children of food or confine them permanently. This is one way abuse in homeschooling situations differs substantively from abuse of children who attend public school. 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. It would be difficult for children attending public school to be literally starved to death by their parents, but the same is not true for homeschooled children. The story is similar for physical confinement. Children who attend public school by definition cannot spend their entire lives locked in a room or chained to a bed, but in the hands of abusive parents homeschooled children can.
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. There are also plenty of cases that are less severe than these but 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.[/read less]
Isolation & Totalistic Families
In some cases, homeschooling families become cult-like as abusive parents’ desire for absolute control melds with extreme religious ideas. These situations may be characterized by brutal beatings, long-term rape and incest, and a brainwashed fear of the authorities, though less severe situations may be no less harmful.
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 Godand “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. In these sorts of cases, homeschooling becomes a tool used to remove outside influences, isolate 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 known 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 have also been a small number of cases where homeschooled children were so isolated that they developed their own language or only spoke in grunts. 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.[/read]
Children who are sexually abused in homeschooling situations may not have access to age-appropriate sex education that might give them the tools needed to understand and report their own abuse. Further, children homeschooled by sexually abusive parents may not have a respite or escape from their abuse.
Sexual abuse in homeschooling situations is compounded by the fact that children homeschooled by sexually abusive parents do not have access to age-appropriate sex education that might give them the tools needed to understand and report their own abuse. In some especially isolated families, incest and rape takes place without the children understanding that what is happening is wrong. In other cases, children know that what is happening to them is very wrong and want it to stop, but lack access to trusted adults who might be able to help them. Further, when sexually abused children are homeschooled by their abuser, they may literally have no place of escape. In some cases, these children may commit suicide. 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.[/read]
Adoption & Special Needs
A disproportionate number of cases of severe abuse and neglect involve children who are adopted or have special needs. Some of the cases involve both, as well-meaning couples adopt large numbers of special needs children and then find themselves unable to properly care for all of them.
A disproportionate number of cases of severe abuse and neglect involve children who are adopted or have special needs. Some of the cases involve both, as well-meaning couples adopt large numbers of special needs children and then find themselves unable to properly care for all of them. Sometimes special needs 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. 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 special needs 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 housecleaning 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.
When parents are caring and willing to access resources and support groups, homeschooling can be a positive or healthy environment for special needs or adopted children. In some cases, homeschooling may work in the best interests of special needs children by giving them access to individualized instruction, and in other cases homeschooling may help adopted children recover from past abuse or trauma and bond with their new families. But in cases where parents are abusive or neglectful towards their special needs or adopted children, homeschooling can compound this maltreatment.[/read]
Medical Neglect & Identity Abuse
With no school to require children to have physicals or vaccinations, some homeschool parents deprive their children of needed medical care or reject modern medicine altogether. Some homeschooling parents also refuse to obtain social security numbers for their children as a result of anti-statist views.
In some cases, homeschooling parents deprive their children of key identification documents. These parents may home birth and then, as a result of anti-statist views, refuse to obtain a birth certificate or social security number for their children. While this sort of thing is likely to be caught and corrected when a child attends school, homeschooled children’s lack of identifying documents may go unnoticed indefinitely. Some of these children are able to correct this problem upon adolescence or adulthood, but in other cases their parents continue to withhold information they need to establish their identities. Some may find themselves unable to obtain driving licenses or marriage licenses, and may have their career options severely curtailed by their lack of identifying information. In cases where homeschooling parents do not take their children to regular doctor appointments, children may also lack medical records.
Homeschooling parents 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 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, homeschool teens have responded by creating their own transcripts and diplomas, thus bypassing their parents’ ability to hold them back, but not every homeschooler is capable of doing this.
Some homeschool parents deprive their children of medical care, or are opposed to modern medicine altogether. Some believe in faith healing, or practice unassisted home births. The results are sometimes fatal. In addition, without a school requesting medical records, there is nothing to ensure that homeschooled children visit a doctor, and some may go their entire childhoods without once being examined by a medical professional. 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 as a result of the number of children who are unvaccinated.[/read]
Trafficking & Missing Children
In some cases, children homeschooled by abusive parents may go missing and have their disappearances unreported for years afterwards. Because these children are not in school, there is no teacher to notice their absences. Other children may be trafficked, sold over the internet through disrupted adoptions, or hidden by kidnappers.
In some cases, children homeschooled by abusive or neglectful parents may go missing and have their disappearances unreported for years afterwards. Because these children are not in school, there is no teacher to notice their absences. In some cases other family members become concerned at a child’s sudden absence, but do not report the child as missing. Reporting a friend or family member is often difficult, and the parents may claim they handed a child over to other relatives, or that they turned the child over to his or her birth parents, or that the child ran away. Sometimes the 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 are sometimes 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 father prostituted his three adopted sons, recruiting johns online. In all of these cases, 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 and they are expected to work full time, often in family businesses or doing various manual labor. This practice is especially common among FLDS Mormon children, who have been homeschooled since 2000, when their prophet Warren Jeffs ordered his followers to withdraw their children from public school. These children are frequently not paid for their labor, and are thus both deprived of an education and exploited. This is a problem that needs addressing.[/read]