Homeschooling and Child Abuse

I can't believe I typed that headline, but there it is. The elephant in the room no one wants to talk about has now gotten so large that it can no longer be ignored: Children who were physically, mentally, or spiritually hurt by their parents while homeschooling are now adults who are speaking out about their experiences. A new national television network, Al Jazeera America, picked up on the controversy and asked me to represent homeschooling in light of calls to regulate it more heavily, due to reports of horrible child abuse done under cover of homeschooling. There are 10 states that have no homeschooling regulations at all, according to this news report, which I've embedded below for viewing.

I tried to argue that to truly deal with child abuse we need to address the parenting concepts and techniques that are widely promoted and used by these families, and this is a job best done by religious and parenting leaders, not the government. There is a role for the law—why not have reasonable checks and balances for protecting children from parents who have existing records of violent or negligent behavior?—but keeping the law tight and focused on the issue of preventing child abuse is where the difficulty lies. This is why I think the spiritual and parenting communities need to step up in these states and present themselves as a response to the idea that one can simply regulate this behavior to eliminate it. These leaders should engage their fellow leaders in public and in the media to demonstrate other ways to help children learn and grow at home and in school besides paddles, switches, and fear. This must happen regardless of what changes we make to homeschooling laws: the reality is when these children return home from school, they are going home to the same parents who were not allowed to homeschool them. The cycle of abuse is ultimately not broken by regulating who is allowed to homeschool; this is why we need deeper, more personal efforts to create genuine change in people's homes, not just cosmetic bureaucratic compliance.

No one can choose their parents, and dissatisfaction with how one is raised and where one is schooled due to your parents' beliefs are not necessarily grounds for child abuse. However, by noting not every serious gripe against one's parents amounts to child abuse, I don't want to diminish efforts to call attention to this issue. I suggest you do a perusal of Homeschooling's Invisible Children and HARO, where there are many examples of genuine abuse, some of them quite harrowing.

Further, the public perception that education—as provided by certified educators—is a need for children that they should not be denied is fueling an expansion of the concept of educational neglect. This is particularly troubling for people who do not want to follow school curricula and prefer to use self-directed learning with their children.

For instance, when I spoke on the The Dr. Drew Pinsky Show on the topic "Extreme Parenting" (there is that overlap of parenting with homechooling issues again), I was accused of abusive behavior live on television (right around 2:46 on the video) because we didn't use standard school curricula. Nonetheless, all our daughters learned to read, earn their own money, attend college, and so on, but that point is lost upon hardcore schooling advocates. The concept of educational neglect is being directly linked to that ugly charge—child abuse—and it can be and is used against homeschoolers, unschoolers, and anyone solely because we do not make children do conventional schooling.

A sad irony, to me, is educational neglect can be ameliorated or remedied, but violence leaves lasting marks on people. Paddling (corporal punishment) is currently permitted in public and private schools in 19 states; as long as state-sanctioned violence in the name of education is socially acceptable, is it any wonder some parents willing seek to take this technique to the next level in their homes?

This is among the many issues we face that make it very difficult to parse religion, parenting, and education into separate spheres. However, when it comes to making laws we need to be very careful that we do make clear distinctions in these areas. The temptation to quickly deal with an uncomfortable issue, such as child abuse, often reduces the issue to a simple call to pass a law or regulation so "we will have done something about it," only to further push the real abuse deeper into the personal areas where religion, parenting, and education overlap.

Oct. 2 UPDATE: Some have asked if I'm pushing for background checks for all homeschoolers before they can homeschool: No, I am not. What I'm trying to say is that if you have an existing public record of abuse why can't that be considered when you apply for homeschooling? It may not necessarily be used to stop you from homeschooling, but it could flag you for a surprise home visit or some supervision while you homeschool. I'm thinking of the FL kids who were featured in the show, whose parents poured bleach on them, etc. By declaring themselves as homeschoolers they were somehow put out of the reach of social services to whom they had been reported; that is something I think homeschoolers in FL can address responsibly without diminishing their freedoms. I see the background check issue here as more about how social services and privacy laws can be made to work better than as a homeschooling legal issue. Further, I know people's lives have been damaged or ruined by CORI checks that have dated or incorrect information, child abuse allegations that were spitefully created in divorce proceedings, etc. and this is something we need to bring out more during such discussions. I couldn't get all those thoughts together while watching horrific photos of child abuse just before I was asked questions on national TV about homeschooling's role in such doings.