Homeschooling has been around long enough now that we have a generation of adults who were educated outside of schools. That they would have varying views on the value of their education and upbringing was inevitable, but now a vocal group of young adult homeschoolers are speaking out about their upbringings in a decidedly negative light. The websites Homeschooling’s Invisible Children and Homeschoolers Anonymous address child abuse and neglect in families where children did not attend school. The aims of these websites include raising awareness and advocating for tighter regulation of homeschooling.
The Invisible Children website has an interactive map detailing child abuse cases. I clicked on my home state of Massachusetts and read about two cases. Both were horrific stories, but one of them was incorrectly recorded as occurring in Massachusetts. It actually happened in Pennsylvania, one of the most heavily regulated states for homeschooling. A quick perusal of news articles related to the other case, which did happen in Massachusetts, revealed that the family was not in compliance with state laws regarding homeschooling, and had already been reported to social services.
Over the years whenever I have read about a case of abuse connected with a homeschooling family, in almost all cases, the family was known to social services, and the family was not following state homeschooling laws. One might say that in many cases the children were not, in fact, homeschoolers, but rather that they were truant. One might also ask why social services organizations were not able to save the children (and often, women) from abuse that no one should ever have to suffer.
It’s hard to find exactly what tangible solutions they are proposing, but I did discover this on the Invisible Children website: “We would simply like to see convicted child abusers or sex offenders barred from homeschooling, light monitoring when families with a previous history of neglect or abuse begin homeschooling, and yearly academic assessments (via standardized test or portfolio review) to ensure that families who claim to be homeschooling are not doing so to hide abuse rather than to educate their children."
I don’t understand what distinction they are making between a conviction for child abuse and a previous history of neglect or abuse. In the case of the former, they say homeschooling should be prevented by law. In the case of the latter, they advocate “light” monitoring, but don’t explain what that means. If the latter doesn’t involve a conviction, then what does it involve? Any report filed with social services? In my 20 plus years as a homeschooler, I’ve known several wonderful, loving families investigated by social services because their neighbors reported them for things like extended nursing (which the American Academy of Pediatrics now advocates), children playing outside without a coat, or children playing in the backyard during “school” hours. Perhaps the creators of Homeschooling’s Invisible Children would argue these families should accept greater scrutiny graciously for the sake of the greater good. That ignores the real stresses and difficulties faced by families threatened with losing their children for nursing too long, or having a family bed, or other non-traditional parenting practices.
On the page about their position, the Invisible Children organization says it supports the recommendations given by the Nubia report, a 14-page report written about the tragic death of Nubia Barahona in Florida. The report includes very few mentions of homeschooling. The bulk of it addresses the failures in the social services system that led to Nubia’s death. Insofar as it does make a specific recommendation regarding homeschooling, it says, “DCF should work with the school system and Department of Education to devise an efficient alert system, with appropriate follow-up inspections, for at risk children removed from the school system and placed in ‘home schooling’.” In the context of the report, “at risk” appears to refer to children who have a significant track record with social services. The report concludes that one of the major factors in what happened to Nubia was a failure of communication among various agencies and social services professionals. All the red flags were there, they state. DCF failed, for a variety of complex reasons.
There is nothing in the report with which I disagree. As I read it, the report does not seem to be advocating any greater regulation of homeschooling, but rather sufficient communication with DCF when children who have already presented as neglected or abused are withdrawn from school. The report seems to stress that communication among existing systems is what failed. Although I don't take issue with the report's recommendations, based on the details it outlines, and the incompetence and failure of the system to use existing laws and protocols to protect Nubia, it seems safe to assume that a notification to DCF that Nubia had been withdrawn from school would not, by itself, have saved her. The problems that led to her death run far deeper than that.
The creators of the Invisible Children website want me to be pro-regulation and sympathetic to their cause of bringing the “truth” out into the open. I am all for the truth, but I do have doubts about knee-jerk calls for more regulation. Given the extent of child abuse that occurs in our culture in general, and the fact that most of the horrific child abuse cases they cite involve children who were already known to social services, why should I believe that being on the radar of more mandated reporters would protect the children? If more homeschooling regulation is meant to be “pro-child,” but causes false allegations of child abuse, social service investigations, and other intrusions into family life, what is the cost to the children and parents in dealing with the emotional stress involved, and what is the cost to already strapped social services organizations?
The call for academic assessments has troubling potential implications, too. Academic assessments are limited in the amount of information they can tell about a child’s education. One thing they certainly can’t tell is whether the child is being abused at home. The idea that any child who passes a standardized test is not being abused, and conversely any child who doesn’t pass a standardized test may be suffering abuse, is – well, at the risk of sounding like Mr. Spock, I’ll just say it’s illogical. The notion that children who don’t do well on standardized tests are being educationally neglected ignores a hugely important aspect of homeschooling – that children are being educated with a model other than the school model, and evaluating them based on school standards is not going to be appropriate in many cases.
In my effort to research what might actually help, I read an article by Heather Doney titled To Homeschooling’s ‘Old Guard:’ 20 Truths You Need to Hear. Since I could be considered a member of said “old guard,” this interested me. In the first paragraph I read that Doney doesn’t want to make enemies with old homeschooling parents like me, she just wants us to do the right thing. This put me in mind of the kind of conversation where someone says, “I don’t mean to offend anyone, but…” We all know how that kind of thing usually goes.
I persevered, because although this is tough stuff to look at, it's important. To those who believe greater regulation of homeschooling is the answer, please know that just because I don’t agree with your position, it doesn’t mean I’m not on your side. I want to stop child abuse as much as you do, I just have different ideas about how to approach it.
The first is to keep the issue of child abuse separate from homeschooling. Doney clearly states this is a bogus idea. After all, every case logged on the Invisible Children website involves a homeschooled child. This ignores the facts that in many of these cases the children were preschool age, or the families weren’t following existing homeschooling laws and were already on the radar of social services, and filing a report with social services is all a mandated reporter would do, anyway. Ignoring these complexities will never lead to effective policy, but it will contribute to black and white thinking about homeschooling families. It's even conceivable that implementing stricter regulations could have a negative effect, and actually contribute to the problem by giving the false impression of a solution and not addressing the deeper causes of child abuse.
Keeping homeschooling and child abuse separate does not deny that child abuse is a problem, it only denies that it’s not a problem particular to homeschooling. If child abuse is more prevalent in particular cultural pockets, then addressing the cultural issues that lead to it within those communities is appropriate, and absolutely necessary to solve the problem at its root, which increased homeschool regulation will never do. This would mean engaging community leaders such as clergy, politicians, and community organizers and asking them to help educate their community members about the effects of corporal punishment, humiliating punitive measures, and whatever entrenched practices are detracting from the well-being of families. I agree with Pat Farenga's thoughts on the topic expressed here. Seeking real solutions also means taking a hard look, as the Nubia report suggests, at why kids slip through the cracks even when all the red flags are there, and social services agencies have been notified there is a problem.
As far as engaging homeschooling leaders, I’m all for taking off the rose-colored glasses. Homeschooling parents should understand that all choices have advantages and disadvantages, and that homeschooling naturally makes their kids different (which can have a positive or negative spin, of course). Any childhood will have its challenges, and it’s a parent’s job to support and guide their kids through those challenges. In order to do that we have to see what the challenges are, and I agree with Doney that sometimes that’s hard for homeschooling parents, perhaps in part because the mere act of doing something outside the mainstream requires a high level of commitment, determination, and focus.
It's also hard for homeschooling parents to read stories by young adults who believe that being homeschooled did them a disservice. In fact, I'd go so far as to say it's more than hard -- it's every homeschooling parent's nightmare. If you're a homeschooling parent reading this, looking at the Invisible Children and Homeschoolers Anonymous websites, and getting a sinking, panicky feeling in the pit of your stomach, remember that young adults who had positive experiences with homeschooling are less likely to be talking about it, and more likely to be living their lives without focusing on how they got their educations. They blend in with the adults around them in work, social, and family environments. They don't need to talk about homeschooling because it's not a cause for them. Think of them as Homeschooling's Invisible Adults, but know that they do exist, happy, healthy, and whole.
One of the things Doney says in her article that concerns me is the fact that now that she and others like her are speaking out, homeschooling parents like me can no longer separate ourselves from her. She says, “The general public, the non-homeschoolers, (rightly) do not make such a distinction.” What does that mean? That the general public is going to lump us all together, and think homeschooling parents are all potential abusers? I hope Doney and her colleagues consider the potential harm their rhetoric could cause if homeschoolers (including children) become stigmatized in that way.
The viewpoint of Homeschoolers Anonymous makes more sense to me. Their missions of education and healing seem more productive and less knee-jerk and sensationalistic than Homeschooling’s Invisible Children. I do have some concern that the name Homeschoolers Anonymous and its inevitable association with 12-step groups and addictions of various sorts might contribute to pathologizing homeschooling, so I’m glad to see that they are transitioning to a non-profit organization called H.A.R.O, Homeschool Alumni Reaching Out. Ultimately, I think the kind of awareness they’re trying to build, the educational programs they're advocating, and the support and encouragement they’re offering to inspire people to share their individual stories will contribute more to the kind of deep cultural shifts needed to get change to come.