CRHE to World Magazine: Don’t Downplay Abuse and Neglect

Today WORLD Magazine—an evangelical Christian news magazine established in 1986—published an article titled “Homeschool debate: How to keep a few bad apples from spoiling the bushel,” written by Daniel Devine. CRHE corresponded extensively with Devine prior to this article’s publication as he conducted multiple interviews with CRHE co-founder Heather Doney and other members of CRHE.

We are grateful to Devine for bringing attention to the problem of child abuse in homeschooling families, and for the time he took to interview Doney and speak with executive director Rachel Coleman and HARO executive director (and CRHE board member) Ryan Stollar. However, we are disappointed by what seems to be biased and irresponsible reporting by Devine or by his editors at WORLD. The failure to fact-check the statistics quoted and cited in the article, the implicit endorsement of community self-policing, and the use of decontextualized quotes from the websites of CRHE and HARO result in an article presenting only one side of the story and communicating, intentionally or not, a lack of respect for the experiences of abuse survivors among the homeschooling alumni community.

Abuse and the Homeschooling Community

The WORLD Magazine article downplays child abuse and neglect in homeschooling communities in several ways. Devine cites data from published studies purporting to show that the national rates of child abuse are between 4% and 7%, arguing that, by contrast, “only 1.2 percent of Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) members called for help in dealing with child protective services investigations” in 2004. However, these numbers do not actually tell us anything about the rate of child abuse and neglect in homeschooling families, and what few statistics we do have suggest that abuse and neglect are not less common in homeschooling families. Devine admits that the figure he cited “isn’t scientific,” but he nonetheless draws conclusions from it. There are several problems with this.

There is good reason to believe that abuse and neglect in homeschooling families is severely under-reported. Homeschooled children are not seen regularly by mandatory reporters in the way children who attend public school are, which alone would decrease abuse and neglect reports. Further, HSLDA excludes from membership families with prior contact with social services, automatically eliminating those families most at risk for abuse or neglect from its statistics. In addition, the rhetoric of many homeschool organizations, including HSLDA, is anti-social services, which discourages homeschool parents from reporting concerns about other families in their homeschool communities. HSLDA’s own pages on child abuse continue to discourage members from reporting suspected abuse and neglect and run contrary to best practices. Too often, abuse in the homeschooling community only comes to the public’s attention when a homeschooled child dies.

Homeschooling’s Invisible Children (HIC), a CRHE-affiliated site, exists to document these deaths, along with other abuses that occur in homeschooling communities. HIC, which Devine mentions in passing but does not expand on, has assembled a database of hundreds of criminal cases of neglect and abuse, including 92 cases of homeschooled children who have died from abuse and neglect from 2000 to the present. This number is comparable to the number of children who die of abuse and neglect in the general population, when taking the children’s ages and the number of students being homeschooled into account—and the HIC database is still very incomplete, drawing only on publicly available news articles and court cases. Our findings suggest that death from child abuse and neglect is at least as common among homeschooling families as in the general population, and is very likely more common.

Of course, not all abuse is captured by the high fatality rate. Physical, verbal, emotional, and sexual abuse are all major issues in homeschooling communities. We know that HSLDA’s staff is aware of these problems, as they have been consulting with us at CRHE for months on ways to improve their child abuse resource pages. For HSLDA staffers to dismiss abusive or neglectful homeschooling families as “fake homeschoolers” is extraordinarily callous—and it is also false. Abusive and neglectful homeschooling parents tend to follow their states’ woefully inadequate homeschooling laws and are often involved in their local homeschooling communities. They are not “fake,” they are very real.

Finally, we are disappointed that Devine chose to quote homeschooling leaders with vested interests in HSLDA without providing the perspective of social workers, employees of the educational system, or experts on child abuse such as Boz Tchividjian of GRACE. These individuals could have provided a more balanced view of the often closed and insular world of Christian homeschooling, allowing the article to escape its ‘he-said-she-said’ narrative.

Educational Neglect in Homeschooling Families

Devine cites Dr. Brian Ray of the National Home Education Research Institute as claiming that most studies “show the average homeschooler scoring in the 65th to 80th percentile on standardized tests.” Devine uses Ray’s statement to argue that educational neglect is not a problem in homeschooling circles. But this explanation fails on several levels.

Devine neglects to mention that most of the studies Ray cites were conducted by Ray himself. Ray has consistently demonstrated a lack of understanding of statistical survey methods—his samples are drawn from the most successful and activist homeschooling families and he makes no effort to correct for background factors. In other words, these studies do not include those homeschooled families who are most at-risk of educational neglect, meaning that they cannot be used to speak to the prevalence of educational neglect in homeschooling circles. The results of one of the few studies not conducted by Ray were published in 1999 by Lawrence Rudner. “This study does not demonstrate that home schooling is superior to public or private schools,” Rudner wrote. “It does not indicate that children will perform better academically if they are homeschooled.” CRHE provides more detailed critiques of Ray’s research studies on our Research Analysis page.

Our own original research on non-biased samples from Alaska and Arkansas suggests that there is very little difference between the average academic performance of homeschoolers and that of traditionally-educated students. Further, a growing body of evidence suggests that homeschoolers tend to underperform other students in math. Data from Alaska suggests that homeschooled students are 6 percentage points less likely to be proficient or above in math, a discrepancy that increases when looking at female students alone, and there is some data to suggest that homeschool graduates may be underrepresented in college attendance. Further research needs to be conducted, but no extant research suggests that homeschooled children perform better than their traditionally-schooled peers or that educational neglect is not a problem in homeschooling circles.

It’s important to remember that the problem is not so much “the average student” as it is those children who fall through the cracks. While many homeschooled children do quite well, those raised in neglectful families lack the resources provided to other neglected children who are educated in schools. Many states have no protections for homeschooled children whose parents fail to provide them with the educational resources necessary to learn, which means that children in families that badly need accountability may not only perform poorly but in fact fail catastrophically. Further, the process for reporting a homeschooling family for suspected educational neglect is often complicated and lacks transparency, suggesting that educational neglect in homeschooling communities is severely underreported. We at CRHE are contacted regularly by concerned aunts, uncles, and grandparents of children who are being educationally neglected under the guise of “homeschooling”—including families that are represented by HSLDA.

Problems with Self-Policing

Devine also spoke affirmatively of self-policing within homeschooling communities. While we are absolutely in favor of self-policing, we become concerned any time self-policing replaces outside accountability and genuine legal protections. Not every homeschooling family is involved in a homeschooling community, and many homeschooling communities have a culture that works against effective self-policing. Most homeschooling families are inclined to ignore warning signs based on the idea that parents know what’s best for their children and the perception that homeschooling families are immune from abuse, or even simply at less risk. This is a major problem.

Devine wrote about ICHE’s efforts at self-policing in homeschooling communities in Idaho, but those very efforts suggest that self-policing is an inadequate response to this problem. Under an agreement with the Idaho Coalition of Home Educators (ICHE), the Idaho Department of Health & Welfare forwarded reports of educational neglect in homeschool settings to ICHE, which then investigated the complaint. Yet Devine reports that ICHE found every single one of the 15 tips they received between 2000 and 2004 to be unsubstantiated, and writes that the system was discontinued in 2006 due to lack of reports. We would like to know what criteria ICHE used to determine the legitimacy of the reports, given homeschooling organizations’ general pattern of downplaying educational neglect. Our own conversations with officials in Idaho, as in other states, suggest that state officials are often at a loss to address educational neglect in homeschooling settings—their hands are tied by lax homeschooling laws and by the lack of clear reporting systems.

As Devine notes, in 2008 ICHE helped the Department of Health & Welfare draft guidelines for social services workers to use when dealing with homeschooling families. Those guidelines contain a section titled “Additional Perspectives from Home Educators” that correctly informs social services workers of the flexibility and innovation practiced by many homeschooling’ families. Though the guidelines repeatedly mention what is not a sign of educational neglect, they neglect to identify what is a sign of educational neglect. Our own guidelines provide such a list, but we have yet to find a single homeschooling organization that advises social services organizations or concerned relatives on how to recognize educational neglect in homeschooling settings rather than simply how not to recognize it.

Further, Devine’s article fails to mention the problems that did occur in Idaho’s homeschooling families during these years. In 2005, police following up on a report found Thomas and Jessica Halbesleben’s seven children alone in an unsanitary home, several suffering from medical neglect. The children, who ranged in age from 1 to 13, had experienced years of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse. Halbesleben claimed to be homeschooling, but the children were ignorant of basic math and spelling. The court found that Jessica Halbesleben had removed her children from school to prevent teachers from reporting the abuse that was occurring in the home, and that the extra time at home had exacerbated the sexual abuse, including incest between the siblings. The Halbeslebens were convicted of several counts of felony injury to a child. Thomas Halbesleben had previously been convicted of felony child endangerment in 1998, but Idaho law does not prevent convicted child abusers from homeschooling. And this is not the only case we have collected of abuse and neglect in an Idaho homeschooling family during these years.

Though we encourage homeschooling communities to create official abuse prevention policies and to educate their members on non-corporal discipline, these methods are no substitute for reporting suspected child abuse and neglect to social services—only the government has the legal authority to take judicial action to protect children. As we see in this very article, communities have an incentive to dismiss the systemic issues as merely some “bad apples.” Homeschooled children—all of them—deserve better than that.

CRHE’s Position and Moving Forward

Given all of the aforementioned problems, it seems almost trivial to complain about specific mischaracterizations of CRHE. However, WORLD did discuss our policy recommendations inaccurately: we advocate flexible yearly assessments, which may include standardized testing but could also include portfolio assessments and a variety of other methods, some of which are already being used in many states. We are not calling for the strict regimen of testing implied in the article. We also believe that parents who do not have a GED or a high school diploma should be able to homeschool—as long as they are under the supervision of a certified teacher or other similarly qualified individual. While we understand that some nuance must necessarily be lost to the space constraints of print journalism, we do not believe these constraints necessitate the misrepresentation of our positions.

We are glad that WORLD magazine is broaching the subject of abuse in the homeschooling community, but are disappointed with their treatment of CRHE and HARO in this article. We hope that further articles on homeschooling alumni’s outreach will be handled with more attention to the experiences of the homeschooled alumni and less space for the talking points of the homeschooling leadership.

To end on a positive note, we are very excited about HARO’s survey on Christian homeschooling, which has received over 2100 responses as of noon on Aug. 22. It is our hope that these survey results will give us more insight into homeschool graduates’ experiences. We believe that gaining an accurate view of what homeschooling really looks like involves talking to homeschooled students and alumni, not simply the homeschooling leaders. After all, none of the homeschool leaders cited in WORLD were homeschooled students themselves.

The CRHE Board

Kathryn Brightbill
Rachel Coleman
Kierstyn King
Ryan Stollar

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