In Which HSLDA Conducts a Child Abuse “Investigation”

HSLDA's Scott Woodruff. Source:
HSLDA’s Scott Woodruff. Source:

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Libby Anne’s blog Love Joy Feminism. It was originally published on Patheos on January 6, 2013.

I recently came upon something posted on HSLDA’s site some years ago that I found interesting, in light of what I have written about HSLDA in the past. HSLDA releases stories of the cases it handles in various states, partly to keep its members apprised of what it does and partly to encourage people to stay members. Anyway, this incident happened in Kentucky. Here is how it starts:

Coming home at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday this summer, the Wall family were puzzled to see a sheriff’s car and another car parked in their driveway. As they exited their car, a social worker asked, “Are you James Wall?” After the father acknowledged he was, the social worker said, “We have received a call about possible child abuse in your family.”

The shocked parents gathered their family together immediately and prayed. Afterwards, they had their 15 year-old son take their 5 year-old daughter into their home.

The parents asked the social worker about the allegations. She refused to reveal them. The parents decided it was time to call HSLDA.

The family called our after hours phone number, and moments later HSLDA attorney Scott Woodruff was on the phone. Though she had refused to tell the family the allegations, she told Woodruff that the hotline said the son had bruises on his neck and arms and was being locked in his room.

This is how this sort of thing usually works: Someone sees suspicious bruises or other cause for concerns and calls child protective services.

Child protective services determines whether the report sounds credible and then sends someone to investigate. What Woodruff should have done at this point is simple. He should have said, “Thank you, I wanted to ensure that it was not a homeschooling issue, and it appears that it is not. You may proceed with your investigation, we will not interfere. Have a good day!” Is that what he said? Let’s take a look!

Woodruff then spoke privately to the family and found there was absolutely no truth to the allegations.

I’m less bothered by the fact that HSLDA stayed involved even when they learned that the allegations had nothing to do with homeschooling than I am by the fact that Woodruff felt that, with no training whatsoever, he could determine, over the phone, almost certainly speaking only with the parents, whether or not there was abuse occurring.

I imagine the conversation went something like this:

Woodruff: “Is there any truth in the allegations?” 

Wall: “No.” 

Woodruff: “Okay, I thought I’d ask.

If this is all HSLDA thinks is involved in determining whether or not child abuse allegations are true, just imagine what life would be like for abused kids if HSLDA were in charge of child protective services. A social worker would show up at the door, knock, and then say “We have a report that Johnny has suspicious bruises and are worried that you are beating him. Is there any truth to this?” Then the parent would say “No, that’s not true,” and the social worker would say “Okay, thanks! Have a nice day!” and leave.

But you’re probably wondering what happened next in the saga of the Wall family of Kentucky. And so, now that HSLDA has conducted its own “child abuse investigation” and determined that the charges are false, let’s move on.

He [Woodruff] advised the family to not permit the social worker to come into their home and not permit her to question their daughter. Instead, the family should allow the social worker to see their daughter and to ask the parents questions, and the son questions, in their presence, but only questions relating to the two allegations.

The family accepted this advice, and the social worker was soon convinced the allegations were groundless. Woodruff stayed on the phone until the social worker and sheriff had left the premises.

How do circumstances like this actually allow a social worker to conduct an effective investigation? 

Children very rarely disclose abuse in the presence of their parents, and in this case the family did not even permit the little girl who was the subject of the report speak with the social workers, even in their presence. It is of course completely possible that there was nothing to the charges, but bruises on the neck are not something that generally occur by accident. These charges involved a thorough investigation, and that is not what they got, thanks to HSLDA’s interference.

Do you all remember this?

Scott Somerville, an attorney with the Home School Legal Defense Association in Virginia, said he talked with Michael Gravelle before the story broke in the media, and he believes this is a family trying to help special children.

When a social worker visited the house last week, there was no resistance to an inspection, said Somerville, whose organization represents home-schooling families on legal matters.

“They had nothing to hide,” Somerville said. “He told me why they adopted these children and told me the problems they were trying to solve.

“I think he is a hero.”

Here is another case where an HSLDA attorney deduced from a phone conversation that allegations were false and there was no abuse. And guess what? There wasabuse, and lots of it. The children were kept in cages rigged with alarms at night, and had their heads held under water in the toilet as punishment. There was additional physical abuse, too.

Interestingly, these two cases took place in the same year—2005. The odd thing is that Somerville here uses the fact that the family let social workers into their home as evidence of their innocence, even as Woodruff told the other family to bar social workers from their home, never considering that by his colleagues on criteria this might indicate that they had something to hide. It’s interesting to note that while HSLDA urges parents not to let social workers into their home, they also interpret a family’s willingness to let social workers in as a sign of innocence.

That seems rather contradictory.

Now, Somerville didn’t talk to Gravelle until after social workers had investigated and gained entrance. What would have happened if Gravelle had talked to Somerville when the social workers arrived at his door, and Somerville had given Gravelle the same advice Woodruff was dispensing? Gravelle would have barred the social workers from coming inside and would have refused to allow social workers to speak with his children, the subjects of the report. If Gravelle had talked to an HSLDA attorney, that attorney would very likely have sent the social worker away without allowing him or her to effectively investigate the charges. In other words, if HSLDA had been involved at the beginning rather than after the fact those children might still be living in cages.

HSLDA claims they don’t defend abusers.

But given the way they conduct their own “child abuse investigations,” how would they even know if they did defend an abuser?

6 thoughts on “In Which HSLDA Conducts a Child Abuse “Investigation”

  1. lanamhobbs January 7, 2014 / 8:34 am

    HSLDA sickens me. They need to get out of the way and let children get help.


    • Nature Lover January 8, 2014 / 7:56 am

      I grew up in a public-schooled household. When I was about 7 , CPS was called to our house for some reason. It never occurred to my parents to call a lawyer or prevent the social workers from talking to us. My parents stuck around long enough to be sure we were comfortable with the worker – I was a bit shy at first with strangers – then left the room.


  2. Benjamin Keil January 7, 2014 / 9:34 am

    I find the author’s case unpersuasive for two reasons. First, the author has no particular knowledge of how the HSLDA interview with the parents did (or didn’t) go – so it’s authorial speculation (or, as the author straightforwardly calls it, “imagination”) that “Woodruff felt…he could determine, over the phone, almost certainly speaking only with the parents, whether or not there was abuse occurring.”

    Second, and more importantly, the author misunderstands HSLDA’s role – and hence its duties. HSLDA is *legal council* and the family in question was their client – hence, HSLDA’s duty is not in fact to conduct an investigation into whether or not child abuse occurred. HLSDA’s duty as lawyers is to represent their client’s interest to the best of their ability. Thus, HSLDA’s legal advice was to grant a limited interview in constrained circumstances – circumstances sufficient to hopefully satisfy the investigator but not likely to result in criminal or civil action against the family. As it turns out, HSLDA’s legal advice was good: The investigator was satisfied (no charges were filed) and the client’s best interests were protected.

    I’m no lawyer, but if investigators showed up to my family home and I called someone who was a lawyer, I’d want precisely the kind of advice that HSLDA’s lawyer gave. After all, lawyers don’t investigate – they protect their client’s best interests. On the facts presented by the author, it seems that that’s precisely what HSLDA’s lawyer did.

    ~Benjamin Keil


  3. kelli January 7, 2014 / 10:41 pm

    My family needed to call hslda for legal advice when a social worker came to our house because we contacted a doctor regarding some troubling needs for a child of ours. Hslda gave limited advice, but they told us to participate with the interview and be respectful in conduct, and request that children who were not involved be shown to the cps worker and introduced but not interviewed at this time to prevent confusion or hurt at this time. The social worker agreed and was so kind and supportive and fair, even allowing us to choose a place for the concerned child to stay during an investigation and avoiding temporary foster care. Hslda concluded that they would not offer any other advice unless our homeschooling rights were affected,which they were not. They advised we seek different councel that would better fit our needs.
    I just wanted to share our first hand account regarding the appropriate advice and proper and professional involvement from hslda.


  4. Peter January 17, 2014 / 6:33 pm

    The lawyer is probably giving the same advice and taking the same stance on the situation that any other lawyer on retainer would give. You have to take a step back to see what is so odd about these relationships. Why on earth do parents keep lawyers on retainer to protect them from CPS? Outside the homeschooling community this would seem odd. No one else does it.

    This isn’t 1980. Homeschooling is no longer in legal limbo. There’s little point in securing legal retainer related to homeschooling. These parents have retainer to protect themselves from abuse allegations. Imagine your average public school parent telling you they were securing a retainer to protect them from child abuse allegations…Just in Case!


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