Protect Homeschooled Children from Maltreatment

On October 24, 2016, 16-year-old Natalie Finn died of starvation in Des Moines, Iowa. She was found wearing an adult diaper and lying on the linoleum floor of her bare bedroom.

The body of seven-year-old Adrian Jones was found on November 25, 2015 in a barn in Kansas City, Kansas. Adrian was kept in a shower stall, beaten, starved, and eventually killed and his body fed to pigs. Six other children were removed from the home.

Three days before her ninth birthday, a little girl was wheeled into a Kentucky hospital in a catatonic state, with a body temperature of 86, and covered with bruises. She had been tortured nearly to death over by her father and stepmother.

All of these children had something in common: They were homeschooled.

About 1.8 million children, or 3.4 percent of the school-aged population, were homeschooled in America in 2012, the most recent year for which data are available. Clearly most of their parents are not abusive and want to provide the best education for their children, often at great personal sacrifice.

Nevertheless, the Coalition for Responsible Home Education (CRHE) has collected nearly 400 cases of severe or fatal child abuse in homeschool settings. Many of the families had a history of past child abuse reports and child welfare involvement, according to CRHE Executive Director Rachel Coleman’s testimony before Iowa’s Government Oversight Committee. All too often, she said, the homeschooling began after the closure of a child welfare case.

We rely on teachers and school staff to report their concerns about children with injuries or disclosures about abuse and neglect. “When homeschooling occurs in an abusive home,” Coleman testified, “the ordinary safeguards in place to protect school-aged children disappear.”

CRHE has three recommendations to protect home-schooled children from abuse:

  • Forbid homeschooling by parents who have been previously convicted of any offense that would disqualify them from teaching or volunteering in a public school. Only two states bar homeschooling based on criminal offenses, but according to CRHE, neither enforces them in a meaningful way.
  • Bar homeschooling in households where any adult has had a child removed from the home due to substantiated abuse allegations. Also monitor homeschooling families who have a history of child abuse reports or open CPS cases.
  • Require that homeschooled students have contact with mandatory reporters several times each year.

This can save children’s lives. In 2011, an Ohio 11-year-old asked her online charter teacher to call 911. The police found that she and her two siblings were being beaten with belts and tied naked to their beds with chains and the  girls were being raped by their stepfather. The children were removed from the home.

After the death of Natalie Finn, followed by the escape of Malaiya Knapp from her abusive home, Iowa Senator Matt McCoy introduced a bill to require quarterly checks for homeschooled children.

After the Kentucky case mentioned above, Senate Democratic Leader Ray Jones introduced legislation to bar parents with a substantiated incident abuse or neglect to withdraw a child from school without court approval.

The Iowa bill did not make it out of committee, and the Kentucky Judiciary Committee refused to consider McCoy’s bill.

Homeschooling advocates have a powerful lobby – according to a recent article in the Washington Post Magazine, The Home School Legal Defense Association is one of Washington’s most effective lobbying groups  – and the current political climate in their favor. On the state level, home-schooling interests seem to be powerful as well.

It is hard to understand why responsible homeschooling parents and their advocates would protect that small number among them who are using homeschooling as a pretext to isolate and maltreat their children. I asked Coleman for her thoughts on the matter.

“Many homeschooling parents (though not all) see oversight of homeschooling as a violation of their parental rights,” she said in an e-mail. “At the same time, these parents frequently argue that abuse is not a homeschool problem–that when abuse does occur in homeschool settings, it’s because child services dropped the ball. [But they ignore the reality] that abusive parents use homeschooling to conceal their abuse.”

I hope that the vast majority of loving homeschool parents will tell their legislators and lobbyist to support sensible controls that protect children from suffering and even death at the hands of their parents.

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