The Risks of Isolation in Homeschooling — Issues for Social Workers
By Suzanne McDevitt, PhD
In Guyton, GA, Mary and Elwyn Crocker were withdrawn from school to be homeschooled. In December 2018, according to numerous news outlets, their bodies were found buried in their father’s backyard.
In Oregon, a van with Jennifer Hart, her partner Sarah, and their children sped off a cliff and into the Pacific Ocean two days after a visit from a child protective services (CPS) worker. A neighbor reported numerous visits from one of the children seeking food. The child said he was being deprived of food as punishment. The Harts had moved to Oregon after involvement with child welfare services in Minnesota.
In January 2018, a child in Perris, CA, escaped through a window to call police and report on a deactivated cell phone that she and her siblings were hungry and she thought one needed to see a doctor. The 13 Turpin children, who were chained to beds, deprived of food, and allowed to take a shower only once a year, were being “homeschooled.” In all of these notorious cases, occurring within the last year, the common denominator was homeschooling.
What is homeschooling and should it be a concern for child welfare professionals other than isolated cases? The Coalition for Responsible Home Education defines it as “an educational option that allows parents to teach their children at home instead of sending them to school.”
Beginning in the 1980s, for a variety of reasons ranging from religious concerns to dissatisfaction with the content of public school education, parents increasingly sought to provide their children’s education at home and lobbied state legislatures to revise education law to support homeschooling. By 1985, 50,000 children were homeschooled and the numbers grew steadily though the 1990s and 2000s, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. By 2016, 1.7 million children, about 3.3% of the school age population, were being homeschooled.
Nine out of 10 parents reported that concerns about school environments were a significant reason for their decision to homeschool, though it was primarily based on religion and not on issues of school safety. Most homeschooled students were white and almost as many families were poor as nonpoor. They primarily lived in either rural or suburban areas, rather than urban areas or small towns (Redford, Battle, & Bielick, 2017).
Strengths of Homeschooling
Some researchers (Ray, 2019) report significantly higher achievement among homeschooled children in contrast with their peers in public school systems, although national studies do not support that claim. Anecdotal information suggests a good experience for many children. Homeschool co-ops that can provide curriculum and sometimes small classes on particular subjects have become common. Many homeschooled children participate in extracurricular activities and sports.
State Education Policies
Through the efforts of homeschool advocates, state regulations on compulsory attendance have been modified to allow homeschooling in every state. These can vary dramatically from state to state. While some states, including Rhode Island, New York, and Pennsylvania require various reporting and testing mechanisms to keep homeschooled children on a par with public school attendees, in 10 states, including New Jersey, Connecticut, Illinois, and Idaho, parents do not even have to disclose their school age children to school authorities.
A picture of a family in that kind of system emerges from in Tara Westover’s recent bestselling memoir, Educated. When Westover was 7 and 8, she was working in her father’s Idaho scrapyard. When she was 9, her mother spent months trying to get the state to issue a delayed birth certificate. One problem was that no one could remember exactly when in September she was born. She and her siblings never attended school or saw a doctor. Her brothers taught her to read as a young child, though she could not recall exactly when. Though her family lived near her paternal grandparents and attended the local temple on Sundays, no one seems to have questioned the Westovers’ home situation.
Abuse/Neglect Prevalence and Child Welfare Involvement
Information on school status is not collected in most government reports on child protection. While the isolation that can result from homeschooling is of concern to CPS, so is a range of other issues. A recent study by the Office of the Child Advocate in Connecticut, however, as a part of the investigation of the death of Matthew Tirado—a 17-year-old child with special needs who was removed from school by his mother for homeschooling and subsequently died—may raise the profile of the issue, at least in Connecticut. A survey of children removed from public school for homeschooling between 2013 and 2016 in six Connecticut school districts found that of 380 children withdrawn for homeschooling, 138 (36%) lived in families that had previously had accepted reports made to the Connecticut Department of Children and Families.
A more academic study by pediatrician Barbara Knox, MD, and colleagues (2014) of 28 child victims of torture, identified through medical records, found that one-half were known to child protection agencies and 47% were being homeschooled. The “homeschooling typically occurred after closure of a previously opened CPS case.” No educational content was being provided and the physical abuse intensified after the homeschooling commenced.
Rachel Coleman, of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, a group of homeschool alumni that maintains a database of fatalities involving children being homeschooled, told the Iowa state legislature, “A history of past child services reports and intervention is the number one theme we see in the homeschool child fatalities we review.” Coleman told the committee members, “In many of these cases, homeschooling begins after the closure of a child services case or child abuse investigation.” Other themes include social isolation, food deprivation, adoption, and special needs. “When homeschooling occurs in an abusive home, the ordinary safeguards in place to protect school-age children disappear.”
Despite notorious cases and concerns such as those described above, at this time homeschooling has not been identified as a concern by national child welfare organizations such as the Children’s Defense Fund, the Child Welfare League of America, and ChildTrends, perhaps because their work is often focused on the problems of disadvantaged children.
State reporting on child abuse investigations does not include statistics on the number of cases identified with children who were being homeschooled at the time of the abuse. Some states, including Idaho, do not even mention the words “child abuse” in their federally required child fatality report.
Regulations governing homeschooling are set by each state and differ dramatically. Some states have virtually no regulations.
While a few states require instruction in specified subjects and regular standardized testing (e.g., New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, DC), others require much less. Some 40 states, according to the Educational Commission of the States, require some notification by parents of intent to homeschool, though six require only one-time notification. Ten, including Idaho, Connecticut, New Jersey, Michigan, and Illinois, require no notification at all. According to the Education Commission of the States, as of 2015, 13 states and the District of Columbia require homeschooling parents to have some qualifications, usually a high school diploma. Only two states, Pennsylvania and Arkansas, require any kind of background checks. In Arkansas, homeschooling is not permitted in homes with a registered sex offender. In Pennsylvania homeschooling is not permitted if the parent or any adult member of the household has been convicted of any of an extensive range of serious offenses, including sex offenses, drug use, human trafficking, and violent offenses, within the past five years. About one-half of the states have requirements for attendance, either in school days or instructional hours. Some states require proof of immunizations.
According to some accounts, a vigorous homeschool lobby has prevented the enactment of more stringent regulations. Recently, perhaps in response to horrific cases, several state legislatures, including California and Hawaii, have considered reregulation of homeschooling.
According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, 24 states include “failure to educate” in their definition of neglect. The language in the statute can vary and generally, according to the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, child protection is only involved when the school district’s attempts to produce parental cooperation has failed.
General Experiences of Child Welfare Agencies
National child advocacy organizations generally have not identified homeschooling as an area of risk for children. Anecdotal reports by former county child welfare administrators describe difficulties carrying out investigations made for reasons other than educational neglect and allude to lawyers from the Home School Legal Defense Association contacting agencies to attempt to block investigations. Shara Saveikis, MSW, executive director of Westmoreland County Children’s Bureau in Pennsylvania, recalls a case in her years as a caseworker: “The issue was the isolation of the children.” Saveikis says that “homeschooling itself is not the issue; it is the potential to isolate children that can be problematic.”
As Daniel Pollack, JD, MSSA, of the Wurzweiler School of Social Work at Yeshiva University cautions, “Homeschooling itself is neutral.” Only a small minority of families may misuse the practice. Yet as the percentage of the school population homeschooled grows, so does that small minority.
Parents may begin homeschooling without negative intent, but as Saveikis notes, “Being alone with a child day after day, with little or no supports, increases the stress of the homeschooling parent.” Stress is often a component in child abuse. Child welfare professionals may not be concerned with the homeschooling per se, but insofar as it isolates children not just from agencies but from the community in general it can pose significant risks to the well-being of children.
In addition, Coleman says, “Parents who use homeschooling as a cover for abuse frequently have concerning histories of involvement with child protective services.” A struggling parent may see homeschooling as a way to relieve the demands of what they regard as an interfering school. However, once the child is in the home 24/7, the resulting stress on the parent’s attention—and, in the case of a child who had previously received school meals, resources—will only compound the stress.
Child Welfare Professionals’ Awareness
The social work community might consider advocating for the reregulation of homeschooling. The welfare of children includes preparation for adulthood; covering established curriculum categories, however broadly they are described, should be provided to every child.
Agencies should develop an understanding of the educational law in their state, both in its regulation, if such exists, of homeschooling and its provisions for education neglect. Agency legal representation should be aware of and prepared to navigate a challenge to a request for a child protection investigation.
Agencies can foster cooperative arrangements with school districts to report families that withdraw their children with the stated intent to homeschool, particularly when the school has had concerns and made referrals to child protection agencies in the past.
CPS workers investigating individual families might be aware of the following factors: Does the homeschooling begin after a CPS notification by the school or after a case was closed? Do the children participate in extracurricular activities such as sports or school clubs? Does the family participate in homeschool co-ops, or church or community activities? How isolated are they? What is the quality of the relationship with the parent? Do children have any contact with members of the extended family? While financial limitations may prevent some activities, they should not result in complete isolation of the child.
The website of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education may be an additional resource: https://www.responsiblehomeschooling.org/.
— Suzanne McDevitt, PhD, is an associate professor at the Edinboro University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work. Caitlyn Wagler, BA, assisted with research.
Knox, B. L., Starling, S. P., Feldman, K. W., Kellogg, N., Frasier, L., & Tiapula, S. (2014). Child torture as a form of child abuse. Journal of Child & Adolescent Trauma, 7(1), 37-49.
Ray, B. D. (2019, January 7). Homeschool fast facts. National Homeschool Education Research Institute. Retrieved from https://www.nheri.org/research-facts-on-homeschooling/.
Redford, J., Battle, D., & Bielick, S. (2017). Homeschooling in the United States, 2012. National Center for Education Statistics, U. S. Department of Education. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2016/2016096rev.pdf.