Iowa Legislature Hears from Homeschool Organization with a History of Opposing Child Welfare Measures

For Immediate Release: Opposition to homeschool accountability contributes to child abuse deaths like those of Natalie Finn and Sabrina Ray

Canton, Ma., 06/05/2017—On Monday, June 5, the Iowa legislature’s Government Oversight Committees are holding a joint hearing on child welfare. This hearing was triggered by the deaths of two homeschooled adopted Iowa teenagers, Natalie Finn and Sabrina Ray. “We are pleased to see the Iowa legislature investigating what can be done to prevent future such tragedies,” said Rachel Coleman, executive director of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education (CRHE), a national nonprofit organization founded by homeschool graduates that advocates for homeschooled children. “But we were concerned to learn that Scott Woodruff of the Home School Legal Defense Association, well known for its opposition to accountability, is the only outside expert scheduled to speak to the committees about homeschooling.”

The Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) does not speak for all homeschooling parents. “HSLDA member families make up only around 6% of the total homeschool population,” Coleman notes. HSLDA has a controversial reputation within the homeschooling community; many parents vehemently oppose the organization’s methods or its opposition to homeschool accountability and services. Additionally, HSLDA’s curious position as both a pro-homeschooling advocacy organization and a legal clinic for homeschooling parents makes it an odd choice for providing testimony at a hearing on child welfare.

In 2013, HSLDA opposed a Pennsylvania bill that would have required a risk assessment when a child was withdrawn from school to be homeschooled within 18 months of a founded abuse or neglect report. The organization claimed “[t]here is no connection between homeschooling and child abuse,” despite the bill being based on recommendations issued by the state’s Task Force on Child Protection. After the bodies of two homeschooled children were found in a Detroit freezer in 2015, a Michigan bill was introduced that would have required parents to notify the state annually that they were homeschooling and to have their children meet twice a year with a mandatory reporter such as a teacher, doctor, or member of the clergy. HSLDA again opposed this child-welfare legislation.

HSLDA is no stranger to allegations of abuse among homeschooling families. HSLDA assists member families facing abuse allegations and advises homeschooling parents to prevent their children from speaking with social workers. In a 2005 case, HSLDA responded to allegations that homeschool father Michael Gravelle was keeping his eleven adopted children in cages by praising Gravelle. “They had nothing to hide,” HSLDA’s Scott Somerville told the press. “He told me why they adopted these children and told me the problems they were trying to solve. I think he is a hero.” Gravelle and his wife were later convicted of two misdemeanor and four felony counts of child endangering and five misdemeanor counts of child abuse.

CRHE regularly receives reports from homeschool graduates who were taught to distrust and fear social workers based on materials their parents received from HSLDA. In several cases, homeschool graduates have told us that they reported their parents after leaving home, only to see their allegations come to nothing; they blame their parents’ membership in HSLDA. Homeschool graduate Sarah Henderson remembers that when her father was accused of child abuse when she was nine, he called HSLDA. After providing advice and moral support, HSLDA connected Henderson’s father with a local lawyer willing to take on the case for an affordable rate. The charges were dismissed, and the family moved to avoid further scrutiny. A decade later, after she had left the home, Henderson called in another child-abuse report. This time, her father was convicted. He had let his HSLDA membership lapse.   

“HSLDA is not part of the solution,” said Coleman. “Until it changes its approach to child abuse and neglect, it is part of the problem.” In a 2014 study of child torture by Barbara Knox, a child abuse researcher at the University of Wisconsin, 47% of school-age victims were homeschooled. “Lax homeschool laws allow abusive parents to turn to homeschooling to isolate their children,” said Coleman. “The time to hide our heads in the sand is long past.”

To view Coleman’s testimony before Iowa Government Oversight Committee Members on March 6th, click here. For her written testimony, click here. To read Coleman’s response to Scott Woodruff’s January 26th letter to Sen. Sinclair, click here.

The Coalition for Responsible Home Education is a national organization founded by homeschool alumni and dedicated to raising awareness of the need for homeschooling reform, providing public policy guidance, and advocating for responsible home education practices.

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