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Homeschooling, Risk, and Grand Canyon

“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.


  1. Really insightful, Roger. When I read this I was curious if these people lived in any sort of community. For which then made me think of a speech by a police chief at an event geared towards ending DV. In summary, he was advocating for a return to more neighborhood policing. A community approach to curbing violence. There have been a few cases in NC where human trafficking cases have been detected b/c a neighbor had an “off” feeling about a home. I wonder if this child had anyone outside of that home that got this intuitive hit. The adage that “it takes a village to raise a child” comes to mind. It saddens me that his village failed him. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Cate says:

    I appreciate the provocative way you titled this piece. Along with home school as a guise for abuse and neglect, some parents have so misused the concept the term applied to their situation is “no schooled”. It’s become necessary for each state to provide oversight to home schoolers for each of these reasons. Sadly there isn’t enough funding for social services to visit children & families known to be at- risk, much less seek out new cases. Breaks my heart to read the newspaper.

  3. Thanks, Cate- in fairness, of course, there are excellent homeschoolers and homeschool situations. But the trend regarding oversight is only going in the direction of less, not more, regulation. Texas, for instance, is incredibly hands-off. Advocates call it freedom. I can agree with that and respect it, but freedom comes with great risk, and that risk needs to be considered where children are concerned.

    This evokes a deeper peeve I have with conservatives, frankly: Conservatives generally believe that liberals are the ones with silly pipe dreams; the ones with soft heads and pie-in-the-sky views. Conservatism, and it’s accompanying disdain for regulation and oversight, involves just as much fantasy and Pollyanna thinking. It’s great to believe in people and assume that they’ll act rationally, ethically, competently and reasonably. See the stock market, food safety disasters, the savings and loan debacle and about 10000 other examples for how well that’s gone.

    Along the same lines, it’s great to want to give people the freedom- along with the fates of their children, by the way, who cannot yet define or choose their own limits of freedom- to live their lives as they choose. But it’s insulting to insist that this view is inherently more sober or mature. It is necessarily neither.

  4. Thanks, Somer, for the comment. In the case I consulted on, the children were part of a community, but it was somewhat transient in that the environment was mostly military and military support. The case out of Washington DC was an inner-city situation. I agree that community involvement can be extremely positive, and I wish it was more utilized in more places.

  5. Laura says:

    I was a social worker in a large urban Child Protective Service unit, so I have some experience with the horrific violence you describe. But I want to add some balance to this discussion.

    Claims linking homeschooling to child abuse appear from time to time. It has never been proven a contributory factor in any way. The vast majority of school-aged children who die by a parent or caregiver’s hand DO attend school. Signs of neglect and abuse go unnoticed, or if reported, are dismissed.

    Furthermore, as I’m sure you are aware, the majority of child abuse victims are under the age of five. Children this young don’t, any more than homeschooled children, “report to an institution- public or private- on a daily basis where signs of abuse or neglect might be noticed.”

    I don’t in any way downplay the horrible wrongs perpetrated on any child by abusive caregivers. I simply mean to caution against linking abuse to a family’s decision to educate their children.

    Laura Grace Weldon
    author of Free Range Learning: How Homeschooling Changes Everything

  6. Thank you, Laura, for your comment. I agree with you that there is not a causal link between homeschooling and child abuse- only, in certain circumstances, an additional risk simply because homeschooling occurs by definition in a private residence. You make an excellent point also about child abuse victims five and under. You’re correct, of course- these babies and children would be at home anyway, regardless of the schooling situation.

    I want to be clear again that I would never attempt to draw a link between a decision to homeschool and some proclivity to abuse a child. My point is that, if a parent were intent for whatever reason on abusing a child over a certain age and wanted to keep that child out of a situation where the abuse might be detected by members of the community, pulling the child out of school and using homeschooling as a ruse could be effective. As it’s been pointed out, though, this isn’t homeschooling. It’s fraudulent homeschooling. The two are not comparable. Again, thanks for dropping by.

  7. Christine says:

    Quick question, how would we know if there is a causal link between child-abuse and home-schooling? If you never send your kids to school, there is are no mandatory reporters who will likely come into frequent contact with your child. In fact, unless a home-schooled child has a medical emergency, there is nothing in place to stop severe abuse. And here is what know as a former “insider.” As soon as Christian School teachers started to get prosecuted for failure to report abuse, the conservative Evangelical community began embracing home-schooling. They said out loud and in their church services that they would need to begin home-schooling if they were going to continue raising kids “God’s way,” which is code for using the childrearing method of regularly hitting kids in ways that sane people consider abuse but they do not.

  8. Thanks for your comment- I tend to agree with you that homeschooling certainly seems as if it could be problematic where detecting abuse is concerned, and that’s why I wrote that post. I got a fair amount of responses on it from some home-school advocates around the country who made some fair points regarding the reality of homeschooling, which according some apparently decent studies more often than not results in kids who are just as well rounded, well educated and safe as kids in public or otherwise ‘formal’ school settings. In fact, homeschoolers will readily point to stats regarding the harm that can come to children in a public or other formal school setting, and they tend to rest their case there.

    Regardless, I do believe that when we empower people with very little oversight to shelter their children from the greater community, we are taking a chance. Folks who tend toward libertarian principles or otherwise choose to ‘err’ on the side of freedom from government intrusion seem comfortable with that risk. I am generally not, however. Adults can choose to take risks by ‘living off the grid’ or things to that effect. Children cannot make those choices, and therefore merit some protection from the community and society when demonstrably needed. But again- how do we know if a need is there if the child is homeschooled and shut away from the community? I agree with your sentiment and share some of your concerns.

    With regard to the religious aspect, I don’t know what to tell you except that I try not to paint any group with too broad a brush. I believe there are elements within the conservative Christian community who believe in corporal punishment and perhaps put too much stock in it. I would say that anyone, regardless of his or her faith, who beats his/her children severely, is somewhere between sick and evil and needs to be stopped. I also know some Evangelicals who are terrific parents. But I understand the trend you’re identifying- religious zealousness is not something I subscribe to in any faith. Again, thanks for joining the conversation!

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