“Grand Canyon,” from 1991, is one of my favorite movies of all time. In it, Mary McDonnell’s character says in exasperation to Kevin Kline’s, “there are people ready to shoot you if you look at them. And we are getting used to it.”
That time was, by most markers, the terrifying crest of the crime wave that began sometime around the year I was born. Although it looked hopeless, it did recede, and continues to do so at a gratifying rate. This is thanks to many factors including some heroic policing, public investment, and the efforts of social workers, prosecutors, civic groups and faith-based organizations nationwide.
Also dropping are child abuse rates, and to the extent I’ve been able to assist in this effort I’m deeply gratified. But recently a spate of sickening stories have me again scratching my head. The new, terrifying zeitgeist in child abuse seems to be torture, caging, and starvation, accomplished behind closed doors. In a particularly horrific, four victim case of out Washington DC in 2008, and at least one case I consulted on recently, the slow murder was carried out under the guise of homeschooling. I’m at the point, especially after the latest rapid fire examples of kids kept caged and hidden, where I’m ready to declare that there are children being starved to death by our neighbors and under our noses, and we are getting used to it.
The case I consulted on involved an otherwise healthy 10 year-old boy, literally starved to death by his mother and step-father. The post-mortem photographs of the child were nothing short of shocking to the group reviewing the case, and we don’t shock easily. The child was visibly emaciated and obviously near collapse if not death. For the final months of his life, though, as his condition steadily worsened, he wasn’t noticed by anyone outside of his household. That’s because he rarely left the house. Since school was ostensibly at home, there was no need for him to do so.
At the outset, please understand I am not against homeschooling. Two college friends of mine, a couple, have homeschooled four children with great success. This is primarily because Kathleen, the primary educator, is brilliant, nurturing and highly educated herself. The issue with homeschooling, as with many practices, is less essential and more procedural. If done right, homeschooling seems to work quite well according to some studies.
But when the wrong parent or parents homeschool, the results can be far worse than “just” a badly educated child. An abusive parent who homeschools has more than a captive audience; he or she also has essentially a caged one. Homeschooled children don’t report to an institution- public or private- on a daily basis where signs of abuse or neglect might be noticed. Mandatory reporting laws now exist in every state and require teachers and others in the community who professionally interact with children to report suspected abuse or neglect to authorities. Those laws won’t reach into a homeschool setting, however. Every state has different ways of regulating the homeschool response to compulsory education laws. But none, to my knowledge, require parents of homeschooled children to provide, to any civil authority, any sort of recurring evidence that a child is simply healthy and growing normally in terms of physical well-being (as opposed to academic, moral or civic).
Of course, homeschooling advocates with libertarian tendencies would most certainly bristle at such a requirement. The idea of having to essentially present one’s child to the government (in some shape or form) at regular intervals is something a large segment of the population would view with alarm and suspicion. Additionally, homeschooling advocates will point (fairly) to the disturbing statistics on how much harm visits children in traditional school settings each year. Where homeschooling requirements are concerned, they’ll point to studies suggesting that more stringent regulations on homeschoolers aren’t scientifically proven to produce better results. The argument then goes that the trend toward parental freedom to educate children as parents see fit is a positive one.
This debate is worth having, as is the one sparked by libertarians and the like-minded who believe that most things run or mandated by government are grossly inefficient at least and harmful at worst. And beyond this, a growing number of Americans seem to simply favor freedom over regimentation even in the face of the accompanying risks.
Fair enough, but children are not abstract statistics, ideals, or the products of breezy discussion. They are breathing human beings who need at rock bottom a certain calorie count every day and who bleed, bruise, suffer and perish when injured profoundly enough.
Government can’t and shouldn’t be expected to have the primary responsibility for child rearing, and I’m not about to suggest any model to replace what we generally know as the family unit. It’s simply an undeniable fact that when we extend to parents more and more freedom over the fates of their children with no backstop in the form of a communal place for them to assemble at least periodically, we risk losing them to an unobserved and sometimes shockingly cruel fate. Traditional schools and the laws that empower them are no panacea to child abuse, but they at least allow for an opportunity for abuse to be detected.
In the case of the child I consulted on recently, his parents gave written statements that demonstrated vividly their utter inability to educate anyone, themselves included. The image of their child, unspeakably gaunt, graying and lifeless on a morgue slab, bespoke their view of him as a living being. What liberty may seem to philosophically demand, or what trends may be suggesting in academia are immaterial to him now, and they won’t bring him back. A teacher or fellow student at a traditional school certainly might have harmed him as well, but more likely they might have alerted others to his circumstances before it was too late. Instead, he died behind doors closed to the community around him. At home.