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How Homeschooling Is Sometimes Used to Conceal Child Abuse

By Arianna Prothero — January 17, 2018 6 min read
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A horrific case of child abuse and torture out of California is highlighting once again how little regulation exists for home-schooling families.

Two parents in Southern California have been arrested for starving their 13 children and chaining them to beds. The children were reportedly being home-schooled.

Most states take a very hands-off approach to home schooling. And although there is no evidence that child abuse is rampant among the 1.7 million-strong home-schooling community, advocates from the Center for Responsible Home Education argue that a lack of regulation makes home schooling attractive to neglectful and abusive parents.

As part of the organization’s research and advocacy work, it launched a database to track severe and fatal abuse cases among home schoolers.

“We’re not talking about families that are really working to do it right,” said Rachel Coleman, the director of the CRHE.

Although Coleman was home-schooled her entire K-12 career, her advocacy work isn’t a reaction to her upbringing. She says she received a good education from home.

I spoke with Rachel about how common the California case is, as well as policy reforms CRHE is pushing for. Our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, is below.

Q. What are some of the themes that you have identified in your database?

A. I had a reporter ask me earlier this morning if I was surprised by [the California] case. My answer was no, not in the least. The case fits themes that we’ve seen over time, many other cases that we’ve seen just like it: food deprivation, imprisonment.

It’s really hard to starve your children to death if they’re in school. Somebody is going to see something. Somebody is going to say something. A teacher is going to notice that the kid is always hungry and at the very least they are going to feed the child.

Again, I don’t want to make it sound like this is a problem in every case, most home-schooling families this is not a problem at all. Their kids eat plenty of food.

But in abusive cases where parents home-school, it becomes one more way to control their children.

In fact, I ran the numbers the other day, and I believe it was 43 of the cases in our database involve food deprivation.

That’s one big theme we see. Some of the other things involve social isolation—it’s not uncommon to have the neighbors to say that they never had any contact with the kids.

One thing we try to do is to recommend requirements that responsible home-schooling parents already do. Because we don’t want to create more burden than is needed, we want to find a way to inconvenience the responsible home-schooling parents as little as possible, but to ensure that the method they’re using to educate their children is not also being used to abuse children and isolate them.

One way we recommend doing this is to require annual doctor visits. Doctors are mandatory reporters. A doctor would almost have certainly raised flags in this case and reported it to social services. These children were clearly malnourished and they were clearly not getting what they needed.

But currently there’s nothing to ensure that home-schooled children go to the doctor, ever.

Another way to do this is an annual assessment ... to require a standardized test administered by a certified teacher or a portfolio in the presence of the child. So the teacher would look through the portfolio and ask questions—not anything picky, just to be in the presence of the child.

The basic idea is to ensure that kids aren’t so completely isolated.

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Q. Are California’s home-schooling laws loose compared to other states?

A. There are 15 states that require a parent to turn in some sort of notice saying that they’re home schooling, but nothing else. No assessment, no one is checking up on those kids, no contact.

There are 11 states that don’t even require that. You don’t have to tell anyone if you’re home schooling. There’s no list. Texas is one of those states, where the family previously lived before they lived in California.

In the remaining 24 states, there is some form of assessment requirement, but this is really, really variable because a number of states require an assessment but they don’t require parents to turn it in or even to show proof that they did the assessment.

California in the lower half. In terms of the 26 states that don’t require anything beyond turning in an affidavit. So that does put it in the bottom half. But the fact that it’s not in the bottom tenth when it does almost nothing, shows the state of home-schooling laws in the country today.

But it’s often cases like this that spur change.

Q. News reports are sometimes referring to the parents in California as running a private school out of their home. Do some states require home schoolers to register as private schools?

A. In California, there actually is no home-school law, there never has been. What happened across the U.S. as people started home schooling, is they started looking for ways to home school under their current laws.

In some states the answer was they couldn’t so they created a home-school law. But in California parents argued that they could be individual private schools. Ultimately the courts in California said that was ok.

So, the home schoolers in California are home schooling under a law that was never designed for home schoolers. It’s the private school law. Technically, there aren’t any home schoolers at all in California, just a lot of tiny, individual private schools.

This is not the only state that does it this way. Texas is another state that does it this way, Nebraska, Indiana. That’s how the law evolved—it wasn’t thought out from the beginning.

Q. How common is abuse among home-schooling families?

A. We can’t know that abuse is more common home schoolers overall, it may not. But what we do know, when abuse occurs in a home-school situation, there are fewer safeguards to catch it. It’s less likely to be identified, and less likely to be stopped. And that can lead to an escalation.

A researcher at the University of Wisconsin, Barbara Knox, looked at cases that were so severe she called them child torture. And she found that 47 percent of the kids were pulled [out of public school] to be home-schooled. And another 29 percent were never enrolled. You can’t torture kids if they attend school, somebody is going to notice.

Q. Is there any evidence to suggest that a large proportion of home-schooling parents are home schooling their kids to hide abuse?

A. The problem, there aren’t any records kept on this issue. Child protective services don’t keep a record of whether a child attends school, is home-schooled or attends private schools. And many states don’t have lists of home schoolers.

The other part that’s tough to quantify is: how many cases of haven’t come to light? It’s extremely difficult to quantify.

We do have 381 cases in our database—most of those cases are from 2000 to present. And these are severe and fatal abuse cases.
So home schooling is clearly overrepresented in severe and fatal cases of abuse. And these cases are so horrific that one is too many.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.