When Parents Have All The Rights, Children Have None. A Statement from the Interim Executive Director.


There’s a “parental rights revolution” afoot in America today. Republicans across the U.S. are introducing “Parents’ Bill of Rights” legislation which would enable parents to exercise veto power over every assignment in their children’s curricula and to prevent their children from getting medical assistance without their knowledge. Conservative groups urge their members to “fight for parents’ rights.”

As leader of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, an organization that advocates for homeschooled children and is run by homeschool alumni, I’ve seen all of this before. In the homeschooling movement, which has long been the home base of the most vocal parental rights activists, these ideas have resulted in the complete erosion of child welfare protections and, in some cases, in the deaths of children. Now parental rights extremism is coming for our public school system, and Americans should be very afraid.

For decades, the term “parental rights” was synonymous with the political activities of Michael P. Farris, the founder and current board chair of the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA). Farris created the advocacy organization ParentalRights.org to promote a constitutional amendment asserting that “The liberty of parents to direct the upbringing, education, and care of their children is a fundamental right,” restricted only when “a parental action or decision…would end life.” ParentalRights.org played a key organizing role in the passage of the Florida Parents’ Bill of Rights, which inspired the new federal bill.

Farris was most recently in the news because of a New York Times report alleging that he played a key role in attempts to overthrow the 2020 U.S. presidential election. But since the 1990s, his primary influence on American politics has been to promote the absolute supremacy of parental rights, to the exclusion of the rights and protections of children. Some of this work has spilled over into mainstream politics. For instance, Farris’s opposition to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has been ratified by every other country in the world, is largely responsible for preventing its ratification in the United States.

But homeschooled children have borne the brunt of Farris’s efforts. Under Farris’s leadership, HSLDA has led efforts to strip away basic legal protections for homeschooled children in every state. Today, it is legal in 48 states for a person convicted of crimes against children to homeschool their own children without any restrictions – even a requirement that their children have contact with mandatory reporters of child abuse. In most states, it is legal to deny one’s child any education at all; in eleven, parents do not even need to notify the local school district of their intent to homeschool their children. When homeschooling parents are arrested for abuse, HSLDA rushes to defend them in court. In 2005, an HSLDA attorney working for Farris said of a father who imprisoned his children in cages, “I think he is a hero.”

The results have been both predictable and tragic. In the absence of necessary legal protections, at least 156 children have been murdered in homeschool settings over the past twenty years, a rate higher than the national average among school-age children. Thanks to a lack of oversight, the thirteen children of homeschooling parents David and Louise Turpin endured horrific abuse for over two decades, including being chained to their beds for months at a time, before one escaped and called for help. After teachers at 14-year-old Teddy Foltz-Tedesco’s school noticed he was being abused and called child protective services, his mother and stepfather withdrew him from school and began homeschooling him to escape scrutiny. His stepfather later murdered him. Raylee Browning, an 8-year-old homeschooled girl in West Virginia, died of sepsis after drinking from a toilet because her father refused her access to water. After registering their son as homeschooled under Kansas law, the parents of 7-year-old Adrian Jones tortured him to death, then fed his body to pigs. Leelah Alcorn’s parents withdrew her from public school to homeschool her as punishment for being trans, cutting her off from all support at school. The isolation and abuse that followed caused her death. 

Most parents advocating for parents’ rights today would rightly be appalled by these stories. Yet in the aftermath of these cases, it was outraged parental rights activists who blocked legislative reforms that would have prevented such tragedies from occurring. “At what point should a parent have their rights and freedoms taken away by the government for the betterment of the child?,” asked a West Virginia parent during a successful campaign last year against Raylee’s Law. Another called the law “an infringement on parental rights.” “They think you’re trying to violate their rights, but we’re just trying to protect these kids,” Teddy’s father lamented last year, after a bill based on his son’s case failed repeatedly in the legislature. “It was crazy.”

The Parental Rights Movement, partially led by Michael Farris as head of the Alliance Defending Freedom, is set on ensuring that all children in the US regardless of educational method have no recourse or escape from abuse at the hands of their caretakers. The attacks on LGBTQIA+ students and teachers are spearheaded by the same people whose mission is to destroy public education at any cost. They are doing it under the guise of “good parenting,” and using the same debunked homophobic rhetoric from the “gay panic” of the 1980s that saved no one but killed many. 

No parent or guardian has the right to destroy the life and future livelihood of their children. That includes removing them from supportive communities and resources, depriving them of education by banning books and harassing teachers out of the profession, and removing every legal safeguard in favor of allowing complete control over children with little-to-no consequences for inflicting harm. 

Parental rights extremism is dangerous because parents, as a group, are not infallible paragons of virtue; they are people, like everyone else. Most are kind and loving toward their children; some are monstrously cruel. The goal of our laws should be to protect children’s wellbeing by balancing parents’ right to care for and guide their children with children’s right to remain free of abuse and neglect. Legislation that awards parents absolute control over their children – such as the Parents’ Bill of Rights – gives that power to all parents, including the monsters. America’s children deserve better than that. Children’s rights are human rights, and it’s our job to make sure they have them.

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