Talking To Kids About Social Services, Part II

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HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Libby Anne’s blog Love Joy Feminism. It was originally published on Patheos on June 12, 2014.

Part One

I wrote yesterday about the fear of social services I received from my parents and from the wider homeschooling community. Once I grew up I realized that this fear was both irrational and counterproductive. Social services was not the enemy, and social workers do important work protecting children from abuse and neglect. Sure, social services isn’t perfect, and they sometimes make mistakes. But what good does teaching children to be afraid of social services do? Absolutely none at all. When I had children of my own, then, I determined to do things differently.

I wanted Sally and Bobby to see social services not as an enemy but as a friend.

Several months ago we got from a store and Sally refused to get out of the car. She was tired and was comfortable where she was. She was four at the time, and I needed to take her inside and get on with my list of things to accomplish for the day. My options, as I saw them, were to either pick Sally up and carry her into the house or to convince her to come inside voluntarily. I decided to try the later and save the former for last resort.

“I can’t leave you out here,” I told her. “I’m your mom and it’s my job to take care of you.”

“I don’t care about that, mom!” Sally insisted. “I don’t mind if you leave me out here!”

“Okay, let me see if I can explain this,” I said, and I got down on her level. “Kids don’t know everything yet, and sometimes they can get hurt. Kids can get lost or hit by cars or stolen or drown or any manner of things. So parents’ job is to protect their kids and take care of them. That’s me—that’s my job.”

I took a deep breath and considered whether to go on.

I didn’t want to give her my childhood fear of social services, but I wanted her to understand that I really truly and honestly am required by law to take care of her, and that leaving her outside in the car alone is literally not an option. Sally likes understanding how the world works and having reasons for things, and she tends to be fairly mature for her age. So I went on.

“There are laws that require me to take good care of you,” I told her, “and if I don’t take good care of you I will get in trouble. There is an agency called social services that helps make sure children are taken care of. If parents do not take good care of their children, social services will come and tell them they have to take good care of their children. And if parents still do not take good care of their children, social services will find them a new mommy and daddy so that there is someone to take care of them.”

Sally considered for a moment.

“Okay, I’m coming inside, mommy,” she finally said, climbing out of the car. “You have to take good care of me, because that’s your job.” And she looked at me and smiled. “It’s your job to take good care of me!”

Sometime later we were at an outdoor event when Sally asked if it was fine if she go off on her own. I told her that I was okay with her moving around a little bit but that she had to stay close enough that I could see her and would know where she was. I reminded her that it’s my job to protect her and take care of her.

“That’s right mommy, it’s your job to protect me!” she said. “And you can’t protect me if you can’t see me!” And with that, she laughed as though she’d told a joke—and she stayed close enough for me to keep tabs on her throughout the event.

I was glad to see Sally being more understanding of times I had to tell her “no” because what she was asking was not safe. Sally had definitely taken to heart that it was my job to take care of her. But I still worried that she might take the bit about social services finding new mommies and daddies for kids who were not taken care of the wrong way, and end up feeling afraid.

Some time after this I was carrying a load of groceries from the car into the house, and Sally was dawdling and lagging behind.

“Come on Sally!” I called over my shoulder. “Hurry up!”

“I’m coming, mommy!” Sally called out as she picked up per pace and jogged to catch up. “Because you have to take care of me, mom, or they will find me a new mommy and daddy, and I don’t want a new mommy and daddy!”

And there it was. Had I messed up, I wondered?

Was I giving her the same fear I had had? After the groceries were safely on the counter and we were both in the house, I pulled Sally aside.

“Sally, daddy and I try very hard to take good care of you,” I told her. “If social services came here to check on you, they would see that we take good care of you. Social services only takes children away from their parents if their parents are not taking care of them at all, or if their parents are hurting them. Does that make sense?”

Sally paused to think. “Those kids need new mommies and daddies, because they need someone to take care of them!”

“That’s right,” I responded. “Social services comes to check things out if someone calls them and says, ‘that child’s mommy and daddy are not taking care of her, she needs help.’”

“And then they help?” Sally asked.

“Yes,” I told her. “They try to help the family, and they only find kids new mommies and daddies if their parents still refuse to take care of them. If social services ever comes to our house and a social worker wants to talk to you, don’t worry about it, they’re just trying to make sure you’re taken care of and happy. They’re nice people and they want to make sure kids are safe. If that ever happens you can just answer their questions, okay? It is their job to make sure children are taken good care of, and that’s a good thing, because it is good for children to be taken care of and not get hurt. Does that make sense?”

“Oh!” Sally exclaimed, “If they come to our house, they will say, ‘do your mommy and daddy take good care of you?’ And I will say, ‘yes, they do!’” And then they will say, ‘that is good, we like mommies and daddies to take care of their kids!’ Right mommy? Right?”

“Wow, um, yes, that’s absolutely right,” I responded. I’m telling you, you just never know with this kid. She does voices and everything. And with that, our conversation was over and Sally was off to play.

It has been some time now since this second conversation, and Sally has not expressed any fear of social services. Indeed, her comment as she ran to catch up with me—the comment that prompted our second conversation—was less one of fear than one of stating facts. Sally is a very logical and ordered child, and tends to be matter of fact like that.

I have to remind myself not to let my own childhood fear of social services determine my interpretation of Sally’s comments.

That it is my job to take care of her, and that I’m required by law to do so, has continued to help at moments when Sally would really like to be outside alone, or to wander around on her own at an event, and I can’t let her. It means that Sally understands that I don’t let her do those things because it is my job to take care of her and I’m required to do so, and not because I want to kill all of her fun.

Now I’m not saying any of this as a prescription. I don’t know for sure whether I’ve handled this topic correctly, or whether I should have held my tongue and found some other way to coax her out of the car that time several months ago—say, offering her a cookie once we got inside, or emphasizing all the things I had to get done in the house that evening. I do know that I just looked around the internet and couldn’t find a single guide to talking to your children about social services. Perhaps that means most people say nothing, and maybe that’s what I should have done too. But with my background of fear, and my parents in my children’s lives, I think part of me wanted to offer Sally a healthy perspective rather than leaving her with a vacuum.

End.

Talking To Kids About Social Services, Part I

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“I grew up afraid of social services.”

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Libby Anne’s blog Love Joy Feminism. It was originally published on Patheos on June 11, 2014.

I grew up afraid of social services.

Social workers were something of a bogeyman in the homeschooling community, and my parents bought into it completely. In fact, in a recent conversation on the topic with my mother, she insisted that social workers today do in fact take children away from their parents for nothing more than homeschooling. That she still says this today says a lot about just how high fear of social workers was in our home when I was a child.

In fact, my parents walked us children step by step through what we should do if a social worker came to the door when they were not home. We were not to let a social worker in the door under any circumstances, and we were to call the Home School Legal Defense Association and get a lawyer on the line immediately. My mom had the phone number on the inside of a cupboard by the phone.

I’ve spoke to others raised in the same background as me who actually had drills that involved them hiding in the attic, or in a basement. While we didn’t do this, I well remember hearing conversations about the horrible things social workers do—strip-searching children to search for bruises or interviewing children without their parents present. The homeschooling literature I read was full of references to the evils of social services.

When I was a teen, I read a novel by Michael Farris titled Anonymous Tip. In it the main character’s daughter is taken away from her based on a false tip called in by a malicious ex. When the social workers realize that the tip was false, they fake evidence to keep the little girl away from her mother. One of the social workers was a Wiccan, and her boyfriend worked for the ACLU.

The novel helped cement my fear and dread of social services.

I think to really get across what we’re talking about here I’m going to have to share a story of a terrifying event that took place when I was about fifteen. In fact, this moment may well be the most scared I’ve ever been in my life.

I was home alone with a few of my siblings while my mom and the others were at a friend’s house. I tried to call the weather phone number to get the forecast, but our phone was old and not all the buttons went through. I had dialed 911 without realizing it. As soon as the 911 operator came on, I hung up because it was a person rather than the weather recording I had expected. And then I realized too late that I had just hung up on the 911 operator.

I called my mother in an absolute panic. I was incredibly afraid. I knew that there was a strong likelihood that a police officer would come to our house to check if everything was alright, and there I was home alone with a few of my siblings. Looking back, my fear was entirely misplaced. My mother assured me that it would be fine, that I should simply tell the officer what had happened. I don’t think she realized the depth of my fear, or where it was coming from. The fear I was given of social services bled over into this experience.

As it happens, everything was fine. Two police cars did make their way up our driveway that morning, and a police officer got out and talked to me at the door. I told him what had happened—that I had dialed 911 on accident and hung up as soon as I realized I had the wrong number—and that was enough. But a police officer coming to the door to ask me questions and check the situation out while my parents were away was too similar to a social worker doing the same for me not to be terrified.

Fear—we’re talking real, visceral fear.

So far, this blog post could well be titled “How Not to Talk to Kids about Social Services.” My parents and the homeschooling community taught me to see social workers as the enemy and to fear social services in such a visceral way that it made my stomach hurt. This is how not to do it. Is social services perfect? No. But social services is set up to protect children from abuse and neglect, and it does a lot of good for a lot of kids. Social services should be seen as an ally, not an enemy, and teaching children to fear an agency set up to help protect them serves to prevent children who really need help from seeking it or speaking out—and result in a lot of unnecessarily frightened children.

Tomorrow I will write about how I talk about social services today with my own children. Is it necessarily to talk to children about social services? Maybe not, but given my background and the fact that my parents are a part of my children’s lives, I would rather give my children a positive foundation for understanding these things than leave them with a vacuum.

Part Two >

Christian Homeschooling and Child Abuse Denialism

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HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Libby Anne’s blog Love Joy Feminism. It was originally published on Patheos on June 2, 2014.

If you’re a long-time reader, you’re likely aware my series on HSLDA and child abuse, which includes their fight against child abuse reportingtheir stonewalling of child abuse investigations, and their defense of child abuse. You’ve probably also read my viral “HSLDA: Man Who Kept Kids in Cages ‘a Hero.’” If you read Homeschoolers Anonymous, you probably know that Doug Phillips, former HSLDA attorney and founder of the now-defunct Vision Forum, stated in 2009 that “We understand that the core problem with Child Protective Services is its existence.”

What you may not be aware of is that in 1985 Mary Pride published a book titled The Child Abuse Industry: Outrageous Facts About Child Abuse & Everyday Rebellions Against a System that Threatens Every North American Family

Who is Mary Pride? If you’ve ever homeschooled, you’ve almost certainly heard of her. She has had so much influence in homeschooling circles that has been dubbed “the queen of the homeschool movement.” Historian Milton Gaither has dubbed Pride as one of homeschooling’s two most influential curriculum reviewers. Pride first published her Big Book of Home Learning in 1986 and has updated it regularly since. It now has four volumes. Pride is also the publisher of the “wildly popular” Practical Homeschooling magazine, with as many as 100,000 subscribers, and has published numerous other popular homeschooling how-to books. Pride is also the author of The Way Home, published in 1985 and credited with launching the Quiverfull movement (not to be confused with the Patriarchy movement).

And then, of course, there is The Child Abuse Industry. According to R.L. Stollar, the book is “a remarkable read that calls for a ‘Second North American Revolution’ — namely, having babies, abolishing no-fault divorce, going to church, eliminating foster care, homeschooling, re-instituting “biblical” executions of criminals, and getting rid of abuse hotlines.” Stollar is currently writing a multi-part review, which I will definitely promote when it comes out.

Here are ten quotes from Pride’s book, courtesy Stollar’s post on Homeschoolers Anonymous:

10. “The major problem is that the public has been convinced that child abuse is a major problem.”

9. “Are one out of four adult women (or one out of three, or two—the statistics keep getting wilder) really the victims of savage lust perpetrated in their youth?Isn’t it possible to organize a bridge party without staring at an abused woman across the table? Where do these wild statistics come from?”

8. “Never vote for a candidate whose campaign promises include ‘doing more for children.’”

7. “Child abuse hysteria is a self-righteous coverup for anti-child attitudes.”

6. “If [child abuse prevention programs] are allowed to proliferate, we will produce for the first time an entire generation of males who have been trained to consider raping their sons and daughters as passably normal behavior.”

5. “If sex has nothing to do with having babies, you can have sex with anyone or anything. Including children.”

4. “We need to stop allowing the unsupported testimony of childrenwho are of an age where they can barely distinguish fantasy and reality.”

3. “Don’t hotline anyone.”

2. “A retarded daughter told contradictory tales of sexual abuse by her step-brother and other male relatives… So here we have a girl who probably made up the story in the first place.”

1. “Age segregation increasingly alienates children and adults. Children are the ‘new n*****s.’” (not censored in Mary Pride’s version.)

My interest piqued by Stollar’s quotes, I cracked open my copy of HSLDA’s Chris Klicka’s 2006 book, Homeschool Heroes: The Struggle and Triumph of Homeschooling in America. I opened to the chapter on social workers.

At Risk from Social Workers

. . .  Homeschoolers are at risk. They are not at risk because they have big families or teach their children at home or neglect their children in any way. They are at risk because the child welfare system has lost control. Many social workers are trained in a philosophy that is antiparent, antifamily, and antireligious.

I can’t say I’m surprised, but here it is again. Look, I know that social services isn’t perfect, and that it’s badly in need of better funding. But that’s not what this sounds like it is about. According to Klicka, the issue isn’t that social services is underfunded and understaffed, but rather that social services is antifamily. This is the same sort of line Mary Pride was promoting in her book.

HSLDA is both a policy advocacy and legal defense group. HSLDA defends member families if they have any problems in their interaction with local public schools or social services. The organization’s website describes it like this:

Why does HSLDA help member families in the initial stage of a child abuse investigation?

HSLDA’s mission is primarily to advance homeschooling rights. Sometimes homeschooling parents get reported to CPS because people misunderstand homeschooling. They may see children playing outside during school hours and think that the parents are allowing them to be truant. Other times, families are reported for other types of suspected abuse or neglect. Investigations of all such allegations begin the same way: a social worker visits the family’s home, or contacts them requesting to set up a visit.

HSLDA advises our members in these initial contacts with social workers in order to ensure that their constitutional rights are protected. Once the allegations are revealed, we continue to represent our members if the allegations relate to homeschooling.

In other words, according to HSLDA’s website, they advise member families any time there is a social worker at the door, but only represent member families going forward if the allegations involve homeschooling. Along these same lines, an announcement on HSLDA’s facebook page last year asserted that “HSLDA does not and will not ever condone nor defend child abuse.” But some of the stories Klicka relates from his years working for HSLDA tell a different story.

There’s this one, for instance:

A homeschool father in Michigan picked up his two-year-old child by the arms, taking her into the house while she was crying and was reported for child abuse by a nosy neighbor. I set up a meeting with the social worker and counseled the family on what htey should say. I told themI told them to explain their religious convictions concerning raising their children from “a positive standpoint” avoiding Bible verses like if “you beat him with the rod, he will not die.” Or, if you “beat him with the rod,” you will “deliver his soul” from hell. Not a good idea. Social workers just don’t understand those verses.

Instead I told them to explain their beliefs by emphasizing verses such as Matthew 18:6 that states that if you harm or offend a child, it is better that a millstone be tied around your neck and you be thrown in the deepest part of the ocean. In other words, their religious convictions demand that they not do anything that will harm their children. When the family began presenting these religious beliefs to the agent, he became visibly uncomfortable, and suddenly announced that he would close the case.

And this one:

In Fairfax County, Virginia, a pastor gave a seminar on child discipline that included the requirement in the Bible to spank. A parishioner had to discipline her child while a neighbor was visiting a few days later. She spanked the child in the other room and then explained to the neighbor a little of what she had learned from the pastor.

The neighbor, who happened to be against spanking, reported the pastor to the child welfare agency for “bruising their children and for twenty-minute spanking sessions.”

To clarify, this suggests the pastor spoke in his sermon of bruising his children and carrying out twenty-minute spanking sessions.

The social worker who then initiated the investigation told me she thought she might have a religious cult on her hands that abuses children. I expressed my disbelief to the social worker that she was seriously investigating what an anonymous source claimed she heard from a person who heard it from another person. That is thrice removed hearsay. I told her that her evidence was flimsy and set the parameters for a meeting.

In preparation for the meeting, I told the homeschooling pastor and his wife not to recount any specific incidents of spanking since the social worker had nothing on the family that would stand up in court. I told them that they should emphasize again the positive verses such as Matthew 18:6. Since the social worker had no evidence, the only evidence she could acquire would be from what information she could gather from the pastor and his wife. Since the parents carefully avoided all specific examples and spoke in general terms, the social worker had nothing and had to close the case.

Perhaps those at HSLDA would argue that they never defended someone against child abuse in court. But in this layman’s eyes, this constitutes defending child abuse. I mean, did they even ask the pastor if it was true that he bruised his children and spanked them in twenty-minute sessions? Or did they de facto believe he was innocent and not bother checking, as seems to be their habit? I’ve expressed my frustration with this before.

And there is a similar distrust of children’s testimony with Klicka as with Pride:

Another family in Bradington, Florida, was visited by social workers. Allegations were made by one of their seven adopted children, who was the only one not being homeschooled. He had made up a story and told it to his science teacher, who had then passed the information to a social worker. I was able to talk to the social worker and keep them out of the home and away from the children. The case was finally listed as unfounded. The mom said, ‘This is why I spend twenty-six cents a day. People are crazy not to join HSLDA. I have an attorney ready to help me at a moment’s notice.’

There is also advice on how to hide abuse and avoid being reported:

Know Your Family Doctor

We have had numerous situations where doctors turned homeschoolers in to social workers because they found a bruise or mark on the child . . . I learned early on that each family needs to know their doctor well. If the doctor is familiar with the patients and trusts them, they do not have to turn them over to a child welfare agency, even if they have a mark or bruise. It is completely the doctor’s discretion.

The orientation toward social services is the same in Klicka’s book as in Pride’s—one of opposition. They are the enemy. In fact, Klicka began his chapter on social workers with I Peter 5:8-9—”Be sober; be vigilant; for your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” The assumptions about the veracity of the parents’ and children’s testimony is the same—parents’ word can be trusted, children’s cannot.

We need to be careful not to assume that all homeschoolers engage in this sort of denialism and defense of child abuse. I do not know whether the themes explored here extend beyond the leaders of the conservative Christian homeschooling subculture, and we should not assume that we do. But with that subculture, this is a problem. With these sorts of narratives, how can we expect those within this subculture to even self-police, much less report suspicions of abuse?

From Pride’s The Child Abuse Industry to Michael Farris’s thrill-horror novel Anonymous Tipthis is a problem. 

Oh, and also? If there are Christian homeschoolers out there who are upset by what I’ve said here, the correct response is to go about condemning the words of these Christian homeschool leaders and creating a new narrative, a narrative that affirms reporting suspicions of child abuse and doesn’t de facto trust parents’ word over that of their children. Condemning me for saying these things or arguing that I am anti-homeschooling would be the incorrect response.

A Quick and Dirty Primer on HSLDA

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A Quick and Dirty Primer on HSLDA, By Kathryn Brightbill

Kathryn Brightbill blogs at The Life and Opinions of Kathryn Elizabeth, Person.

Did you find your way to Homeschoolers Anonymous because of the press coverage of the Wunderlich and Twelve Tribes cases in Germany? Or did the Romeike case in the United States send you hunting for more info on this HSLDA group that keeps showing up in news stories?

Then this story is for you.

It is in no way meant to be exhaustive, just to provide basic information for people who did not grow up in the homeschooling world and are unfamiliar with HSLDA’s activism.

Early Days

HSLDA was founded by Michael Farris in 1983. At that time, homeschooling as a movement was in its infancy, and because parents were concerned about the legality, the idea of a legal defense and advocacy organization dedicated to homeschooling was an attractive one.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, HSLDA was involved in liberalizing the homeschooling laws in states across the US, mobilizing homeschoolers to bombard their legislators with phone calls, telegrams in the early days, faxes, and emails. During this time period most of the restrictions and regulations on homeschooling were removed so that in many states there is now minimal oversight of homeschooling families to ensure that children are receiving an education.

In 1991, HSLDA went international with the formation of HSLDA Canada.

A turning point came in 1994 when HSLDA used the power of its network of homeschooling parents to fight against H.R. 6, a federal bill that said that non-public schools applying for federal funds must have teachers certified in the subject matter in which they teach. For reasons that are not entirely clear since the bill was about non-public schools that received federal money—an issue completely unrelated to homeschooling, HSLDA decided that H.R. 6 meant that the federal government would require homeschoolers to be certified teachers. Although many other homeschool leaders disagreed with HSLDA’s analysis and did not see any threat to homeschooling in the bill, nevertheless, HSLDA mobilized tens of thousands of homeschoolers to contact congress and in the process discovered just how powerful a political network they had built.

HSLDA Branches Out: Non-homeschool-related activities

When you are an organization that is run by conservative members of the religious right (Farris was an attorney with Concerned Women for America who fought against the Equal Rights Amendment, former HSLDA attorney Doug Phillips is the son of Constitution Party presidential candidate and former Nixon administration member Howard Phillips, to give a few examples), and you have built a powerful grassroots network that will do your bidding, the temptation to limit your work to homeschooling is evidently too great to resist.

Coming on the heels of the H.R. 6 fight in 1994, HSLDA touts their involvement in killing the US ratification of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), a human rights treaty.

The only UN member states that have not ratified CEDAW are Iran, Palau, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Tonga, and the United States.

In 1995, HSLDA took a case in Virginia, In re Brianna, where the parents were charged with neglect for refusing to vaccinate their child. HSLDA successfully argued that the parents should be given a religious exemption from providing childhood vaccinations to their child. HSLDA’s timeline of events does not indicate that this case had any connection to homeschooling.

In a case where the only relationship to homeschooling was that the party involved was a former homeschooler, HSLDA and Michael Farris took on the case of Michael New, a soldier who refused to wear a UN beret as part of United Nations peacekeeping actions. In a 1995 Court Report cover story, the case was described as, “Michael New v. the New World Order,” a reference to fundamentalist Christian beliefs about the End Times and the United Nations as ushering in a one world government that would lead to the rise of the antichrist.

In 1997, a constitutional amendment drafted by HSLDA, the “American Sovereignty Amendment, H.J.R. 83,” was introduced by Congresswoman Helen Chenoweth (R-ID). The amendment, which did not go anywhere, would have changed the Constitution so that treaties were no longer on the same level as the US Constitution. The text of the amendment is not available online, but it is evident from HSLDA’s own description that it would have had significant effects on the United States’ ability to meet its treaty obligations.

By 2003, HSLDA decided to organize young homeschool students into Generation Joshua to create a generation of young, politically active kids who could provide the manpower on the ground in conservative political campaigns. Generation Joshua was designed to build a second generation of kids to carry forth the culture war battles of their parents.

In 2004, despite the fact that it has not even the slimmest connection to homeschooling, HSLDA backed a constitutional amendment to ban both same-sex marriage and civil unions.

Another way that HSLDA expanded their reach beyond homeschooling was with the 2007 launch of ParentalRights.org, an advocacy organization devoted to expanding parental rights free from government interference. This includes advocating for a Parental Rights Amendment that would subject all laws relating to parental decisions on the upbringing, care, and education of their children to the highest level of judicial scrutiny, a standard that is extremely difficult to overcome, and which would remove almost all legal protections from children.

HSLDA was also instrumental in blocking United States ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, despite the fact that the treaty mirrors the Americans with Disabilities Act.

On the treaty front, HSLDA has also led the fight against the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Among their objections to the treaty is that it would prevent minors from being sentenced to life in prison—something that the international community agrees is unacceptable but that the US still practices. They also object to the fact that the convention uses the best interest of the child standard in determining matters involving children, even though the best interest of the child standard is the guiding standard in American family law already. Furthermore, they oppose the idea that children should have a right to be heard in decisions relating to their interests.

The only countries that have not ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child are Somalia, South Sudan, and the United States. HSLDA bears much of the responsibility for America’s failure to ratify the treaty.

HSLDA and Abuse

Starting from 1992 on, HSLDA’s timeline lists their involvement in an increasing number of cases where homeschool families were accused of child abuse unrelated to homeschooling itself. Further, HSLDA’s timeline credits their work with member families in defeating Virginia Senate Bill 621, a bill that did not involve homeschooling but rather the standard of proof in child abuse investigations.

They also brag on their timeline about their role in killing a 1997 bill in New Hampshire that would have defined isolation of children as a form of abuse, because they believe it could apply to homeschoolers. This certainly suggests that HSLDA believes that some homeschool parents isolate their children to the point that a bill designed to protect children from abuse would apply, and thinks this is okay.

This is particularly relevant given the accusations against the Wunderlich family—HSLDA says that the family wasn’t abusive, but HSLDA doesn’t think that extreme isolation is abuse.

In his 1996 novel, Anonymous Tip, a story intended to dramatize the position that Child Protective Services are a threat to families, Michael Farris repeatedly has his protagonists insist that spankings that leave bruises are not necessarily evidence of abuse.

For more on HSLDA’s handling of child abuse cases, see Libby Anne’s extensive documentation on HSLDA and abuse, including their fight against child abuse reporting, the time they called a man who caged his children a “hero”, and their opposition to Florida’s proposed law that would have defined leaving bruises and welts on children as abuse.

This is not to say that HSLDA supports child abuse. As Libby Anne explains, it is entirely possible to abhor abuse while still taking actions that end up protecting abusers.

Michael Farris’ other non-homeschooling activism

An overview of HSLDA would be incomplete without noting at least some of Michael Farris’ other activism during his time with HSLDA. In addition to an unsuccessful 1994 run for Lt. Governor of Virginia, Farris was the founder of the Madison Project, a political action committee that bundles small donations in support of right wing candidates. Furthermore, his support of right wing candidates extended to backing John Ashcroft for President in 1998 and Mike Huckabee in 2008 (chastising other leaders of the right for not backing Huckabee sooner), and has mobilized Generation Joshua in support of Ken Cucinelli’s run for governor of Virginia.

As already mentioned, before founding HSLDA, Farris worked with Concerned Women For America in fighting against the Equal Rights Amendment that would have guaranteed equal constitutional rights for women. Also in the early 1980s, he worked with the Moral Majority in Washington state to try to get sex education materials removed from libraries.

Farris has also taken to fighting other broader culture war issues after the founding of HSLDA. Writing an amicus brief on behalf of Patrick Henry College in the Hollingsworth v. Perry (Prop. 8) United States Supreme Court case, he argued that if the government recognized marriage between two people of the same sex it would make it harder for Patrick Henry College to continue with their current (discriminatory) policies.

More recently, he spoke at the founding meeting of Trail Life, USA, the scouting group that was formed as an alternative to the Boy Scouts after the Boy Scouts stopped kicking gay kids out of the Scouts. The head of the Trail Life organization has gone on record stating that he believes that parents accepting their gay children is a form of child abuse. Farris, for his part, seems to agree with the head of Trail Life that gay children should be subjected to reparative therapy, a form of therapy condemned by every major psychiatric organization because it is psychologically harmful to the point of being abusive.

In Conclusion

While HSLDA may have started as a homeschooling advocacy organization, over time they have shifted and expanded their focus, fighting against international treaties, expanded child abuse legislation, and fighting for broader religious right causes. They are an organization founded and led by religious right activists who treat homeschooling as yet another front in the ongoing culture wars.

#HSLDAMustAct: History and Related Media

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April 17, 2013

On April 17, Love Joy Feminism’s Libby Anne — a former homeschool student, former attendee of Patrick Henry College’s summer camp on Constitutional Law taught by Michael Farris, and now-parent of two children; also, one of HA’s blog partners — began a five-part series looking at the relationship between HSLDA and child abuse. Of particular concern to many people who have read this series is that HSLDA has slowly but surely moved from homeschool advocacy to — by their own admission — reform of child welfare laws, including opposing anonymous tips, mandatory reporting, and mainstream definitions of child abuse. The five parts to this series are: (1) HSLDA and Child Abuse: An Introduction; (2) HSLDA’s Fight against Child Abuse Reporting; (3) HSLDA’s Stonewalling of Child Abuse Investigations; (4) HSLDA’s Defense of Child Abuse; and (5) HSLDA and the Deregulation of Homeschooling. Part five of the series was published on April 24.

April 20, 2013

The blogger from the Eighth and Final Square, inspired by Libby Anne’s series on HSLDA and child abuse, writes a post about her own homeschooling experience. It is entitled, “we were taught to fear the people who could help.” The author says she, too, was “instilled with a fear of CPS.” As a survivor of abuse herself, she says, “I wonder what would have happened if HSLDA wasn’t around, and the kids had been allowed to talk to CPS workers alone.”

April 22, 2013

Homeschoolers Anonymous started crossposting Libby Anne’s series on HSLDA in conjunction with a week of personal stories that explored the relationships between homeschooling, HSLDA, and the CPS: fears of the CPS, failures of the CPS, and how the CPS could have actually helped those who suffered abuse in homeschooling.

April 23 – May 2, 2013

After finishing her series on HSLDA and child abuse, Libby Anne continues to focus on issues of homeschooling, abuse, and HSLDA. She creates a legislative alert about one of HSLDA’s legislative alerts, urging people to counteract HSLDA’s efforts to stop SB 32, a bill “designed as a way to monitor and protect the well-being of children who are known to be at risk for child abuse or neglect based on prior incidences.” She argues that it is “simply false to suggest that there is nothing about homeschooling that might be attractive to neglectful or abusive parents.” She cites a plethora of horrific stories to explore the idea that, while “most homeschool parents are dedicated, responsible and loving,” “when abusive parents homeschool, the consequences for their children can be absolutely disastrous.”

May 6, 2013

On May 6, Libby Anne writes a post entitled, “HSLDA: Man Who Kept Children in Cages ‘a Hero.'” In this post, she points out that Scott Somerville, an HSLDA attorney, called Michael Gravelle, a man charged with molesting his biological daughter, putting his adopted kids in cages, and later punching and shaking his own wife, a “hero.”

Later that day, someone posts Libby Anne’s article on HSLDA’s wall:

Picture 12 May 7, 2013

The very next day after someone posts Libby Anne’s article on Somerville’s hero comment on HSLDA’s Facebook page, HSLDA chooses to respond via a Facebook status:

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The full text of their response is as follows:

It has come to our attention that HSLDA has recently been accused of condoning child abuse. HSLDA does not and will not ever condone nor defend child abuse. 

HSLDA receives hundreds of calls each year from parents who are under investigation by CPS, often based on false, anonymous, trivial, or malicious reports. The vast majority of these are determined by CPS or a court to be unfounded and are dismissed. Because of this, we do not immediately assume that everyone who is the subject of an investigation is guilty of child abuse or neglect. 

As a service to our members, we help homeschool families navigate the legal landscape in the early stages of an investigation before all the facts come to light. This could include helping families know their constitutional rights, helping them understand the legal process, or referring them to a local attorney. If the allegations include homeschooling, we generally will either assist their local attorney to defend homeschooling or represent the family on homeschool matters.

Of the three examples mentioned in a recent article, we did not represent two of the families and in the third we were involved on the question of homeschooling alone after the other issues were resolved by the court. 

We believe that every child deserves a healthy upbringing and that parents have the high honor and duty to meet that child’s needs. For 30 years we have been zealously advocating for the right of thousands of parents to responsibly homeschool their children. To the extent that any statements we may have made could be misunderstood to suggest that we condone the abusive actions of some we repudiate them wholeheartedly and unequivocally.

Libby Anne promptly responded to HSLDA’s response: “I’ve Had Enough: My Reply to HSLDA’s Response”.

Also in response to HSLDA’s response, R.L. Stollar, co-creator of Homeschoolers Anonymous, issued a challenge to HSLDA on their Facebook page: “HSLDA, will your leaders take a public and universal stand against child abuse and launch a public awareness campaign for your members on how to recognize and report child abuse in homeschooling?”

Stollar’s challenge to HSLDA was quickly mirrored by others. Heather Doney, one of HA’s blog partners, wrote, “Demanding an Answer from HSLDA,” where she says, “We deserve to know where the HSLDA stands. We deserve to know that they are thinking about this issue and that they are doing something about it. I, for one, am requesting an answer. Don’t make us wait too long, HSLDA.”

May 7 – 11, 2013

Homeschoolers Anonymous officially launches the #HSLDAMustAct campaign on May 8.

Rebecca Gorman, a former homeschooler, creates the official Change.org petition for the #HSLDAMustAct campaign.

A new website, Homeschooling’s Invisible Children, was launched by former homeschoolers to “to raise awareness of the horrific abuse and neglect that can take place when unfit caregivers use homeschooling as a cover for criminal child maltreatment.”

On May 9, HA announces the official petition in the post, “25 Reasons To Sign The #HSLDAMustAct Petition.”

Here is a full list of posts from bloggers covering the whole Libby Anne/HSLDA issue and the #HSLDAMustAct campaign since May 7:

Wide Open Ground: “Dear HSLDA and Homeschool Parents, What About My Friend Who Died?” and “HSLDA: Discourse Problem Between Fundamentalist and Outsiders”

Anthony B. Susan: “The HSLDA and Abuse: More Denial and Deflection”

Becoming Worldly: “S***t HSLDA’s Homeschool Parents Say”

Ramblings of Sheldon: “HSLDA: We Would Rather Stand Behind Abusers Than Their Victims”

The Home Spun Life: “Homeschoolers, Christians, HSLDA: We Must Do Better, Kids Are Being Abused”

No Longer Quivering: “Petition: HSLDA Address the Problem”

ThatMom: “HSLDA accused of turning blind eye to child abuse: you decide”

Kathryn Brighbill: “HSLDA and Child Abuse” and “Of Fundamental Rights, HSLDA, and Homeschooling”

Anonymous Wonderings: “On Homeschooling”

On May 10, the Christian Post took on the issue but framed it only as a Libby Anne vs. HSLDA issue: “Home School Legal Defense Association Accused of Protecting Child Abusers.” The Christian Post did not attempt to contact Libby Anne; they tried to contact HSLDA, but HSLDA did not respond. They also did not mention the petition.

May 12, 2013

As of Sunday, May 12, the #HSLDAMustAct petition has over 300 signatures from around the world. The signees are almost entirely from the homeschooling community itself. Former homeschool students, former and current members of HSLDA, and former and current homeschooling parents have all signed it. Signees are from everywhere from California to Louisiana to Pennsylvania, from the U.S. and Canada to Germany and Spain.

Also as of Sunday, May 12, HSLDA has still not responded to the #HSLDAMustAct campaign.

Conclusion

We will leave you with these thoughts from Lisa from The Home Spun Life:

“I have been a financial supporter of HSLDA for many years now and I am asking that they become more transparent with how they practice law, how they defend homeschooling, AND how they protect children in a homeschool that is abusive.

I know children are abused in a variety of types of homes. From poor to wealthy, from Christian to atheist, from public school to homeschools. Abuse happens. It’s tragic! We can’t only speak up about abuse when it happens in a public school. We have to speak up no matter where it happens. And we have to learn how NOT to respond to abuse allegations in the homeschool community.

Defending our freedom to choose our children’s education should never trump their freedom to live in a healthy and safe environment.

To the HSLDA,

As a supporter of yours, I am asking for you to clarify your mission to defend homeschool freedom. I am asking that you inform us and SHOW US how you are defending this freedom WHILE defending children in an abusive homeschool environment. HOW do you separate the defense to protect homeschool freedom WHILE NOT enabling abusive parents to further their abuse under your “protection”? HOW are YOU holding abusive parents accountable? HOW are YOU cooperating with local authorities to HELP victims?

We must do better. We must speak up.”

Why We Fear the Child Snatchers: An Anonymous Story

Why We Fear the Child Snatchers: An Anonymous Story

HA note: The author of this piece has asked to go nameless to ensure anonymity.

I decided to write this post anonymously, to respect my family’s privacy regarding the subject I will be addressing.

*****

I wrote a post for Homeschoolers Anonymous. My parents know. They are supportive. They understand, after years of homeschooling, that there are some crazy people who believe some really crazy things in homeschooling.

I love that they not only understand that, but readily acknowledge it. My parents, like many other homeschooling parents, got sucked into the system. But they broke free, as I did as well.

We’ve been talking a lot lately about HA, in fact. It’s been good. Healing, really. It’s one thing to get affirmation from your peers that you’re not crazy (a watershed moment). But getting affirmation from your parents?

Priceless.

Anyways. So word got around that I contributed to HA. I was never secretive about it. But some people assumed that, since I contributed to HA, I was accusing my parents of child abuse.

Which is weird, because I never said that. I would never say that.

Sure, my parents got sucked into an abusive culture. But I would never say they abused me.

But some people started talking. And that talk got around to my mom. Someone approached her and asked her if she was doing ok.

“What do you mean?”

“You know, with your kid accusing you of child abuse.”

My mom freaked out. She immediately came to me and told me about this.

“I support what you’re doing, but I am terrified!”

“Terrified of what?”

She told me about the previous conversation.

I said, “I never accused you of abuse.”

She said, “I know. But they could take away your brother!”

I have a younger brother, still a minor, thought almost legally an adult.

“What do you mean?” I asked. “Who would take him away?”

“The CPS! Someone who doesn’t like us could read what you wrote and the CPS could take him away!

I was confused.

“But I don’t understand. I only wrote one thing for HA, and I said you were good parents. I said I found the culture abusive, not you.”

“But they could misinterpret that and use it against us! I support HA, but I need to protect your brother, too!”

“Who is they this time? I don’t understand.”

“The CPS!”

“But… All us kids love you. I would defend you in court. Why would it even go to court? You have one kid at home who isn’t even being homeschooled anymore. And he hasn’t been spanked in probably half a decade. And he’s the most socially adjusted kid in the family. Seriously, there’s nothing to worry about.”

“You don’t know the CPS like we do.”

At this point I was no longer confused. I was simply not following. My family has never interacted with the CPS during my homeschooling experience.

“What do you mean, know the CPS?”

“You might not be aware of this, but the CPS hates homeschoolers. They take kids away.”

Well, I was aware of that line of thinking. But in my entire life of being homeschooled from K-12, we never knew a family that got threatened by the CPS on the grounds of homeschooling. All we knew about such situations was from HSLDA’s e-lerts and Court Reports. In my adult years, I know CPS employees. I even know former homeschoolers that work for the CPS.

But my mom was nonetheless terrified. Despite all her kids but one being graduated with undergraduate (and even graduate) degrees, and the last kid not even being homeschooled, despite the fact that none of us were abused, despite the fact that the CPS wouldn’t even bother with an allegation based on an anonymous tip based on a misinterpretation of a blog post based on general issues not specific to my family, my mom was terrified.

My mom was not terrified because she is gullible. My mom is very thoughtful and perceptive. In all honesty, I understand her fear. See, we were daily bombarded by HSLDA e-lerts telling people the CPS had it out for homeschoolers. CPS workers were the minions of Satan — even worse, they were the minions of secularism. We were trained by my parents how to answer “worried” (read: secular, Satanic busybodies) individuals — neighbors, distant relatives, the grocery store clerk who saw us with our mom during “school hours.” Everyone I knew, universally, feared the CPS. If homeschoolers actually had campfires and told ghost stories in the dark of night, they would tell stories of the CPS — those diabolical child snatchers who rose from the pits of Hell to eat the souls of Christian youth. 

This isn’t by any means an experience unique to me. Consider this post from The Eighth and Final Square, entitled, “we were taught to fear the people who could help”:

When we were kids, we heard the horror stories…the kids who were taken away from their parents because they were spanked; the kids who were taken away from their parents because they were playing outside during school hours; the kids who were taken away from their parents because they were Christians; the kids who were taken away from their parents just because they homeschooled. Even Frank Peretti wrote a book about a single dad whose children were taken away because he was a Christian and the demon possessed people thought he molested them.

From a very young age (actually, probably when I started school), we were instilled with a fear of CPS. We were told we had to make our beds or CPS would take us away because we had no sheets. We were told we had to keep our rooms clean because CPS would take us away if our rooms were messy. When those threats didn’t work, my dad took further measures.

This blogger’s dad even preyed upon that fear as a manipulation tactic:

He was trying to get us to do something better or more than we were doing already. We were in the living room. I’m sure he had lectured us, and I don’t even remember what led up to it, but he said something like “because you didn’t do ‘x’ I’m going to call CPS on you and they’re going to take you away.” We were immediately terrified, but I thought he was making a sick joke. Then he went into the other room, to get the phone off mom’s desk. By then, Ben, Joe, and I were completely freaking out and sobbing. One of the boys, I think it was Ben, hid behind the couch. I don’t remember what mom was doing, and my memory of looking at dad is a little fuzzy because of my terror and the tears, but I think I remember him laughing, or at least smiling.

It’s hard to shake this sort of fear when it is daily reinforced from all the people you look up to in life. Years later, it still leaves residue on your brain:

At the end of August (I escaped July 4/5th), an anonymous tipster called CPS on my parents and when I heard about it the terror came rushing over me again. Even though I had just escaped from all sorts of abuse and toxicity, I was terrified my younger siblings would be taken away from my parents and would be separated. Of course my parents followed standard HSLDA procedure (don’t let them in, call HSLDA right away, don’t let them talk to the kids individually alone), and nothing came of it. I wonder what would have happened if HSLDA wasn’t around, and the kids had been allowed to talk to CPS workers alone. Probably still nothing, because even if they hate it, they are still brainwashed to defend my parents. I was.

This fear that so many of us share is not based on reality.

This is based on HSLDA consistently and vehemently telling us to fear the CPS.

Feel free to call the CPS extremists and vigilantes. But the CPS is extreme and vigilant about one thing: protecting kids. And we do them no good by vilifying them. The business of protecting kids is one of the most complicated, intense, and bureaucratic jobs out there. From my experience, the CPS is more in danger of being inadequate than it is of being overreaching. Even HSLDA attests to this, painting (accurately or not) the more publicized “homeschool abuse” stories as CPS failures rather than homeschooling failures.

And for the record, HSLDA has done good stuff, too. So don’t worry about telling me they’ve done good stuff. I know. I’ve read just about every HSLDA e-lert and Court Reports that exists. HSLDA does good stuff, too. There. I said it.

But this is one of the not-so-good legacies HSLDA is leaving — convincing innocent families that the CPS is a bunch of marauding child snatchers. Convincing kids that their potential lifelines are the stuff from which nightmares are made.

So thank you, Michael Farris, for inadvertently convincing my parents that me speaking out about my homeschooling struggles could get my brother taken away.

HSLDA and Child Abuse: HSLDA’s Defense of Child Abuse

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HA note: The following series will run each weekday this week. It is reprinted with permission from Libby Anne’s blog Love Joy Feminism. Part four of the series was originally published on Patheos on April 22 2013.

*****

Also in this series: Part One, Introduction | Part Two, HSLDA’s Fight Against Child Abuse Reporting | Part Three, HSLDA’s Stonewalling of Child Abuse Investigations | Part Four, HSLDA’s Defense of Child Abuse | Part Five, HSLDA and the Deregulation of Homeschooling

*****

4. HSLDA’s Defense of Child Abuse

This post is part of a series examining the role of the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) in aiding and abetting child abuse. I have previously looked at HSLDA’s efforts to prevent the reporting of child abuse and their efforts to stonewall child abuse investigations. In this post I will turn to HSLDA’s defense of child abuse.

HSLDA has made a name for itself defending parents’ right to spank their children and spends a good bit of its time and energy monitoring and opposing new child abuse legislation—an odd activity for an organization nominally devoted to protecting the legality of homeschooling. While HSLDA literature continually talks about the importance of defending parents’ use of “reasonable” corporal punishment, the organization has never taken the time to define just what constitutes“reasonable” corporal punishment. Similarly, while HSLDA occasionally makes statements condemning child abuse, I’ve noticed a bit of a pattern—these statements are always followed with the word “however.”

Hiding and Ignoring Child Abuse

In its literature, HSLDA (to my knowledge) never defines “reasonable” corporal punishment, never warns its member families not to abuse their children, and never tells its member families how to handle child abuse they might see in other families in their homeschooling communities. HSLDA’s attorneys are not pioneers in stopping child abuse in homeschooling families; they are pioneers in disabling child abuse protections. Never once does HSLDA touch on how to solve the child abuse problem, perhaps because they don’t see it as a significant problem or perhaps simply because they see it as something “other” people do, not problem some of their own member families might have. While you could argue that HSLDA sees child abuse detection and prevent as important but not as a homeschooling issue, this makes no sense when you consider the amount of time HSLDA spends working to disarm protections for abused children.

Let me give an example of the sort of advice HSLDA gives regarding child abuse and child protective services—In a document titled “The Social Worker at Your Door: 10 Helpful Hints,” HSLDA attorney Christopher Klicka advised parents as follows:

a. Avoid potential situations that could lead to a child welfare investigation.

b. Do not spank children in public.

c. Do not spank someone else’s child unless they are close Christian friends.

In other words, Klicka is aware that HSLDA member families physically discipline their children in ways many people would consider abusive, and even find concerning enough to actually call Child Protective Services. But instead of addressing where the line between “reasonable” corporal punishment and child abuse is located, he merely advises HSLDA member families to avoid the use of corporal punishment in public. This displays a remarkable lack of care about the very real problem of child abuse, as well as an inability to consider that any of its member families might actually discipline their children in ways that are abusive and should be stopped.

Further, Klicka advises HSLDA member families to restrict their use of corporal punishment on children outside their families to the children of “close Christian friends.” This statement seems to imply that without this suggestion, HSLDA member parents might spank children outside of their families without their parents’ permission and be reported to Child Protective Services for doing so—and also that close Christian friends will de facto be okay with them spanking their children without asking first. After all, why not say “Do not spank someone else’s child unless you have their permission“? Or even, why not say “Do not spank someone else’s child” and leave it there?

There is also the problem of omission—for all of the advice HSLDA gives on how its member families can recognize, avoid, or stonewall child abuse investigation, the organization never takes two seconds to inform its member families how to recognize and avoid child abuse or even how to handle or deal with child abuse in their homeschooling families or communities. One wonders if there are any circumstances at all in which HSLDA would ever recommend that its member families involve CPS.

What Is Child Abuse?

HSLDA’s member manual states that “HSLDA believes that child abuse is a terrible crime and that true abusers should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.” Note the use of the word “true.” The more I read, the more convinced I become that HSLDA does not define child abuse in the same way as most Americans. For example, HSLDA is on record defending foster parents’ rights to use corporal punishment on their foster children, something most Americans would find disturbing. Further, it’s worth noting that the sentence above is one of the many times HSLDA briefly condemns child abuse and then starts the next sentence with the word “However” (see page 3, column 2 of the link).

The only time anyone at HSLDA comes close to discussing what actually counts as child abuse is in discussing a 2008 California law that would have added to the penal code a list of actions for jurors to consider when determining if a form of discipline is “unjustifiable.” In a Washington Times op ed, HSLDA president J. Michael Smith explained that HSLDA had no problem with most of the items on the list—stating that these things were indeed child abuse—and that the organization only opposed the law because it took exemption to the listing of hitting children with objects. Here are his words:

This bill amends Penal Code section 273(a), which makes it a crime to cause unjustifiable pain, harm or injury to any minor child. If the bill passes, spanking with an object such as a stick, rod or switch would be lumped in with throwing, kicking, burning, or cutting a child.

Striking a child with a fist. Striking a child under 3 years of age on the face or head. Vigorously shaking of a child under 3 years of age. Interfering with a child’s breathing. Brandishing a deadly weapon upon a child. These are all factors that a jury could use to conclude that a defendant in a criminal case has inflicted unjustifiable physical pain or mental suffering.

What the bill would do is to equate discipline administered via an implement with the above conduct, which obviously is abusive behavior toward a child.

Now of course, this is no actual laying out of a comprehensive definition of child abuse—Smith merely goes down the items listed in the bill. Further, I’m less than willing to trust what HSLDA spokespeople say in public forums given that Farris claimed in an article for popular readership that requiring social workers to have either parental consent or a warrant to enter a home was be no biggie because the vast, vast majority of people voluntarily let social workers in, even as the organization advises its members to never never never let a social worker into their homes without a warrant, ever. Still, it does appear that HSLDA does view some actions—such as violently shaking a small child or striking a child with a fist—to be child abuse. Whether it warns its member families against these actions or ever takes the time to define “reasonable” corporal punishment, however, is another story.

For the record, I am personally against any form of physical punishment of children, and am raising my two young children without laying a hand to them. In contrast, many conservative Christians, including those who founded and run HSLDA, believe strongly that the Bible demands that parents use corporal punishment on their children (they take “spare the rod, spoil the child” stuff literally). Most Americans fall somewhere in between these two positions: they believe that some form of corporal punishment can be employed without crossing the line into child abuse, but also that spanking should consist merely of swatting a child’s buttocks with an open hand and that this form of punishment is usually unnecessary. The question I want to ask here is not whether or not corporal punishment is acceptable but rather where HSLDA draws the line between “reasonable corporal punishment” on the one hand and child abuse on the other. The reason I titled this post as I have is that HSLDA appears to define child abuse differently from the average American.

Given that HSLDA never defines “reasonable corporal punishment” or gives any sort of comprehensive definition of child abuse, I want to take a look at the organization’s positions regarding three different proposed state child abuse statute changes over the past five years. Their positions and advocacy on these bills represent a small fraction of HSLDA’s monitoring of child abuse statute changes across the nation—something the organization watches very closely and doesn’t hesitate to use its e-alert system to mobilize its members in lobbying—but should give us a sample of how HSLDA talks about and defines “reasonable” corporal punishment and what it does or does not include as child abuse.

HSLDA in California: Don’t Restrict Disciplining with Objects!

We’ll start with the HSLDA’s opposition to the proposed 2008 revision of California’s child abuse statute referenced above. At the time, the state’s statutebanned causing children “unjustifiable physical pain or mental suffering.” The new bill kept this same language but added the following:

In a prosecution under this Section in determining whether or not a defendant willfully caused any child to suffer, or inflicted unjustifiable physical pain, or mental suffering, a jury may consider any of the following:

a) The use of an implement, including, but not limited to, a stick, a rod, a switch, an electrical cord, an extension cord, a belt, a broom, or a shoe.

b) Throwing, kicking, burning, or cutting a child.

c) Striking a child with a closed fist.

d) Striking a child under the age of three on the face or head.

e) Vigorous shaking of a child under the age of three.

f) Interference with a child’s breathing.

g) Brandishing a deadly weapon upon a child. However, the above conduct is not sufficient by itself to prove guilt, and its weight and significance, if any, is for the jury to decide.

HSLDA explained its opposition to this change as follows:

The instructions to a jury which are mandated by the current version of A.B. 2943 would state that a jury may consider that physical pain or mental suffering inflicted upon a child is unjustifiable if it is caused by any of the seven kinds of actions…. The first of the seven actions listed is “the use of an implement, including, but not limited to, a stick, a rod, a switch, an electrical cord, an extension cord, a belt, a broom, or a shoe.” This first action includes the act of spanking with an object other than using one’s hand.Because these items would be listed in the Penal Code, the police and district attorney would likely consider all spanking with an implement grounds for bringing charges against the parents. Then a court trial would determine if the parents are guilty of criminal child abuse. Parents would have the difficult task of proving that the spanking was justifiable to the satisfaction of the court in order to avoid being sent to jail for up to one year or receiving other penalties. The case also could be referred to Child Protective Services (CPS) and Juvenile Court, which could result in the possible temporary or permanent loss of custody of their children.

In other words, HSLDA opposed this bill because it listed beating child with a stick, rod, or electrical cord as a factor the jury should take into account when determining whether or not the actions of a parent accused of child abuse were justifiable. Indeed, HSLDA has a pattern of opposing laws that would ban hitting children with objects, even without banning spanking itself. We can safely conclude that HSLDA does not consider hitting children with objects to be child abuse.

But there’s another reason I started with this example, and that’s because of the way HSLDA uses this sort of case in an attempt to induce fear in its member families, distorting the facts and engaging in hyperbole in order to do so. I mean just look at the title of HSLDA president J. Michael Smith’s Washington Times op ed’s title: “California May Ban Spanking.” This bill absolutely would not have banned spanking, and it would not have even banned the use of a paddle—it would instead have merely stated that when determining whether the pain a parent inflicted on a child was unjustifiable, the jury should consider whether an implement should be used. But none of that mattered to HSLDA, which saw a chance to hold the specter of a complete ban on spanking over the head of its member followers.

HSLDA in Mississippi: “Reasonable Discipline” Exemption Not Enough

Next we move to the Deep South. In January of 2012 HSLDA opposed a change to Mississippi’s child abuse statute. Let’s start by looking at the original text of this section of Mississippi’s code:

(2) (a) Any person who shall intentionally (i) burn any child, (ii) torture any child or, (iii) except in self-defense or in order to prevent bodily harm to a third party, whip, strike or otherwise abuse or mutilate any child in such a manner as to cause serious bodily harm, shall be guilty of felonious abuse of a child and, upon conviction, shall be sentenced to imprisonment in the custody of the Department of Corrections for life or such lesser term of imprisonment as the court may determine, but not less than ten (10) years. For any second or subsequent conviction under this subsection, the person shall be sentenced to imprisonment for life.

In other words, if you burn or torture a child, or whip or strike a child so as to cause that child serious bodily harm, you can be prosecuted for child abuse. Brice Wiggins, a Republican state senator, became convinced that the statute did not do enough to penalize child abuse, and introduced a bill to entirely rewrite this section of the code. So let’s look at how his 2012 bill would have amended the code:

(2) (a) (i) A person shall be guilty of felonious abuse of a child if the person intentionally and in a manner causing bodily harm shall:

1. Burn any child;

2. Torture any child;

3. Strangle or choke any child;

4. Disfigure, scar or mutilate any child; or

5. Whip, strike or otherwise abuse any child except as a result of reasonable discipline, in self-defense or in order to prevent bodily harm to a third party.

(ii) A person who is convicted of felonious abuse of a child shall be sentenced to imprisonment in the custody of the Department of Corrections for life or such lesser term of imprisonment as the court may determine, but not less than ten (10) years. For any second or subsequent conviction under this subsection, the person shall be sentenced to imprisonment for life.

(iii) Reasonable discipline shall be a defense to any criminal charge brought under this subsection.

The new statute would prohibit striking or whipping a child so as to cause “bodily harm,” rather than “serious bodily harm” as in the previous statute, but would also insert an exception to this prohibition for “reasonable discipline.” Or to put it another way, while parents before could legally strike or whip their children so as to cause bodily harm whether or not it was done as part of “reasonable discipline” (just so long as they didn’t cause serious bodily harm), under the new revisions parents could only strike or whip their children so as to cause bodily harm as part of “reasonable discipline.”

HSLDA opposed this revision, explaining as follows:

Summary: This bill would make it a felony to “whip, strike or otherwise abuse any child,” thereby causing bodily harm to the child. The maximum penalty would be life in prison. “Reasonable discipline” would be an exception to this offense, but what is reasonable would be left up to judges to decide.

HSLDA’s Position: This bill has the potential to send a parent to prison for life for spanking a child. This bill should be opposed.

First note the fear mongering: “This bill has the potential to send a parent to prison for life for spanking a child.” This makes absolutely no sense—listing a “reasonable discipline” exemption to a law that banned striking a child so as to cause bodily harm clearly indicates that striking your child so as to cause harm can be reasonable discipline. Else why the exemption? In other words, contrary to what HSLDA told its member families, the bill would actually have codified spanking as “reasonable discipline.” HSLDA’s actions here were nothing short of lying and conniving fear mongering—and HSLDA did kick up a good bit of fear as conservative media outletspicked up the story, quoting HSLDA spokespeople and running alarmed headlines like “Miss. Bill Could Mean Life Imprisonment for Parents.” Given that HSLDA makes its money off of selling legal insurance, scare mongering is where it’s at its best. In fact, some have suggested that the organization may intentionally beef up the legal alerts it sends out right around the time it does its membership drive.

HSLDA claimed to oppose the bill because “reasonable discipline” was not defined and would be left up to judges to interpret. What this indicates to me is that HSLDA is aware that its member families define “reasonable discipline” appreciably differently from most Americans—or at least differently from Mississippi judges. What HSLDA wanted was for the law to allow its members to strike or whip their children so as to cause bodily harm without having to prove to judges that their actions constituted “reasonable discipline,” or at the very least an expansive and detailed definition of what constituted “reasonable discipline.” And HSLDA got its way when a new version of the bill was introduced early this year—a bill HSLDA did not oppose. Here is how this bill amended the statute to read:

(2) Any person shall be guilty of felonious child abuse in the following circumstances:

(a) Whether bodily harm results or not, if the person shall intentionally, knowingly or recklessly:

(i) Burn any child;

(ii) Physically torture any child;

(iii) Strangle, choke, smother, or in any way interfere with any child’s breathing;

(iv) Poison a child;

(v) Starve a child of nourishments needed to sustain life or growth;

(vi) Use any type of deadly weapon upon any child;

(b) If some bodily harm to any child actually occurs, and if the person shall intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly:

(i) Throw, kick, bite, or cut any child;

(ii) Strike a child under the age of fourteen (14) about the face or head with a closed fist;

(iii) Strike a child under the age of five (5) in the face or head;

(iv) Kick, bite, cut or strike a child’s genitals; circumcision of a male child is not a violation under this subpagragraph;

(c) If serious bodily harm to any child actually occurs, and if the person shall intentionally, knowingly or recklessly:

(i) Strike any child on the face or head;

(ii) Disfigure or scar any child;

(iii) Whip, strike, or otherwise abuse any child;

The new bill banned striking or whipping a child so as to cause them “serious bodily harm” but made a broad allowance for causing a child bodily harm, excepting only bodily harm caused by throwing, kicking, biting, or cutting, striking a child under 14 in the face or head with a closed fist, striking a child under 5 in the face or head, and kicking, biting, cutting, or striking a child’s genitals. Or to put it another way, under the new bill it would be legal to cause your child bodily harm without having to prove that doing so constituted “reasonable discipline,” so long as that bodily harm was not caused by things like biting, kicking, punching in the face, or trauma to the genitals. With this change, HSLDA no longer saw this law as a threat to its members’ “right” to discipline their children using “reasonable” corporal punishment.

Just how did the law define “bodily harm” and “serious bodily harm”?

(e) For the purposes of this subsection (2), “bodily harm” means any bodily injury to a child that includes, but is not limited to, bruising, bleeding, lacerations, soft tissue swelling, and external or internal swelling of any body organ.

(f) For the purposes of this subsection (2), “serious bodily harm” means any serious bodily injury to a child and includes, but is not limited to, the fracture of a bone, permanent disfigurement, permanent scarring, or any internal bleeding or internal trauma to any organ, any brain damage, any injury to the eye or ear of a child or other vital organ, and impairment of any bodily function.

With these definitions, then, the new bill left it legal for parents to beat their children so as to cause “bruising, bleeding, lacerations, soft tissue swelling, and external or internal swelling of any body organ” without even having to pass any sort of “reasonable discipline” standard. The reason HSLDA had opposed the 2012 version of the bill—but not this one—was that the former version only allowed parents to strike or whip their children so as to cause bodily harm if it was done as part of “reasonable discipline,” a standard they did not want their member families burdened to meet. HSLDA was successful in opposing the original bill and this travesty of a child abuse statute is the result.

HSLDA in Florida: Significant Bruising and Welts are A-Okay

Finally we turn to Florida. In 2010, HSLDA sent out a legislative alert about Florida’s Senate Bill 1360, urging its members to oppose the measure. Here is the text:

Summary: Includes inappropriate or excessively harsh corporal discipline in the definition of “criminal conduct” for purposes of protective investigations. Prohibits parents, legal custodians, or caregivers from inflicting such corporal discipline. Provides penalties and applicability. Includes offenses involving inappropriate or excessively harsh corporal discipline within the offense severity ranking chart of the Criminal Punishment Code, etc.

HSLDA’s Position: Oppose.

This one had me scratching my head. Why would HSLDA oppose a bill outlawing “excessively harsh corporal discipline”? Isn’t their typical line that they defend “reasonable” corporal punishment (which they never define)? Doesn’t that make them de facto against excessively harsh corporal punishment? Just what “inappropriate or excessively harsh” corporal punishment did SB 130 add to the criminal code? Let’s have a look at the text of the actual bill. The bill begins as follows:

Section 1. Paragraph (b) of subsection (2) of section 39.301, Florida Statutes, is amended to read:

(2) (b) As used in this subsection, the term “criminal conduct” means:

1. A child is known or suspected to be the victim of child abuse, as defined in s. 827.03; or of neglect of a child, as defined in s. 827.03; or of inappropriate or excessively harsh corporal discipline, as defined in s. 827.032.

In other words, the statute originally listed “child abuse” and “neglect” as “criminal conduct” and this bill would have amended it to also include “excessively harsh corporal discipline” alongside “child abuse” and “neglect.” How does the bill define “excessively harsh corporal discipline”?

Section 2. Section 827.032, Florida Statutes, is created to read:

827.032 Inappropriate or excessively harsh corporal discipline; penalties.—

(1) As used in this section, the term “inappropriate or excessively harsh corporal discipline” means an act of discipline that results or could reasonably be expected to result in any of the following or other similar injuries:

(a) Sprains, dislocations, or cartilage damage.

(b) Bone or skull fractures.

(c) Brain or spinal cord damage.

(d) Intracranial hemorrhage or injury to other internal organs.

(e) Asphyxiation, suffocation, or drowning.

(f) Injury resulting from the use of a deadly weapon.

(g) Burns or scalding.

(h) Cuts, lacerations, punctures, or bites.

(i) Disfigurement.

(j) Loss or impairment of a body part or function.

(k) Significant bruises or welts.

(l) Mental injury, as defined in s. 39.01.

The bill defines excessively harsh corporal discipline, then, as that which results in bone fractures, suffocation, burns, cuts, disfigurements significant bruises and welts, etc. HSLDA did not explain its opposition to this bill. The only thing that makes any sense to me is that HSLDA opposed it because it listed “significant bruises or welts” as “excessive corporal discipline.” HSLDA’s concern must have been that banning discipline that resulted in significant bruises and welts infringed on parents’ rights to use “reasonable corporal punishment” on their children. It seems, then, that disciplinary actions that leave “significant bruises or welts” fit within HSLDA’s definition of “reasonable corporal punishment.”

Concluding Thoughts

Given the lack of any word from HSLDA on what constitutes “reasonable” corporal punishment, we have to piece together HSLDA’s definition of that term by examining its positions on bills revising state child abuse statutes, which HSLDA monitors closely. What we find when we do this is that HSLDA opposes laws that would ban hitting children with physical objects, striking or whipping children so as to cause bodily harm in a manner that judges would not consider “reasonable discipline,” and disciplining children in a manner that leaves significant bruises or welts. It would seem that all of these things fit within HSLDA’s definition of “reasonable corporal punishment.” And, beyond that, it appears that HSLDA is aware that its members use corporal punishment that many if not most Americans would consider child abuse.

If HSLDA’s view of child abuse reporting and child abuse investigations as bad things that need to be cut down on or obstructed was disturbing, HSLDA’s actions and views regarding child abuse itself are more so.

HSLDA seems to see child abuse as something that happens “out there” and to “other people,” not something that happens within its own member families and needs to be treated seriously. Further, HSLDA appears to view child abuse as something that always exists in extremes, in children with broken bones and starved bodies—and if its member families aren’t engaging in those sorts of activities, then they can’t be abusers, right? But what the organization refuses to admit is that it is a continuum, and that much of what it considers “reasonable” corporal punishment is considered by most Americans to be child abuse. And through all of this, HSLDA makes no attempt to draw a line between reasonable corporal punishment and child abuse or advise its member families on anything other than how to hide abuse—and by not speaking, they are complicit.

Finally, HSLDA seems oblivious to the fact that its opposition to bills criminalizing child abuse might actually aid and abet abusers to continue their abuse. After all, thanks to HSLDA it is now perfectly legal in Mississippi for a parent to whip a child bloody, or beat a child with a rod until he is covered with welts, all without even having to justify this activity as “reasonable discipline.” This sort of thing affects real people, real children, real lives.

To be continued.

HSLDA and Child Abuse: HSLDA’s Stonewalling of Child Abuse Investigations

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HA note: The following series will run each weekday this week. It is reprinted with permission from Libby Anne’s blog Love Joy Feminism. Part three of the series was originally published on Patheos on April 20 2013.

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Also in this series: Part One, Introduction | Part Two, HSLDA’s Fight Against Child Abuse Reporting | Part Three, HSLDA’s Stonewalling of Child Abuse Investigations | Part Four, HSLDA’s Defense of Child Abuse | Part Five, HSLDA and the Deregulation of Homeschooling

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3. HSLDA’s Stonewalling of Child Abuse Investigations

This is the third post in a series on the role the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) plays in aiding and abetting child abuse. In the last post I wrote about HSLDA’s efforts to decrease the reporting of child abuse; in this post I will write about the role HSLDA has played in encouraging the obstructing of child abuse investigations. In a nutshell, HSLDA encourages its member families to do whatever they have to to prevent social workers from talking to their children alone, has pioneered legal strategies aimed at enabling parents to stonewall child abuse investigations, encourages children and parents alike to regard social workers with fear and suspicion, and portrays child abuse investigations themselves as abusive.

Standard Bearers of the Fourth Amendment

The fourth amendment protects citizens against unreasonable search and seizure; it is because of this amendment that law enforcement must have a warrant to enter your house. HSLDA is adamant in its insistence that the fourth amendment gives parents the right to deny Child Protective Services workers access to their homes and children without a warrant. In fact, HSLDA has been so dogged in pursuing litigation to extend parents’ fourth amendment rights that a legal comment published in UMKC Law Review in 2004 was titled “Standard Bearers of the Fourth Amendment: The Curious Involvement of Home School Advocates in Constitutional Challenges to Child Abuse Investigations.”

Just what is HSLDA’s line on the fourth amendment? Well, in his 2001 testimony urging that the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) be amended, HSLDA’s Christopher Klicka made the following suggestion:

Specific Declaration of the 4th Amendment Probable Cause Standard: Social workers must be held accountable to the same 4th Amendment standards as the police and other law enforcement authorities. As a condition of receiving federal funds, states should be mandated to declare in their state code that a warrant, supported by probable cause, must be obtained before a social worker can enter the home without consent of the parents.

HSLDA was actually partially successful in its attempt to amend CAPTA: As a result of their efforts, a provision requiring that social workers be trained regarding the requirements of the fourth amendment was added to the bill. Now while HSLDA’s laser focus on the fourth amendment as a way to protect homeschooling families against child abuse investigations may seem fishy, it is true that the fourth amendment does protect families against intrusions of law enforcement without a warrant, so applying this same standard to CPS workers, who serve as government agents, is not really that out there (whether or not I agree with it, of course, is another matter). Where it gets strange is what comes next.

Don’t Let the Social Worker In!

HSLDA insists that requiring social workers to get either the parents’ consent or a warrant before entering a home and interviewing children won’t actually get in the way of child abuse investigations, explaining as follows:

Obviously, nothing in the Constitution prevents a social worker from going to a home and simply asking to come in. If the parent or guardian says “yes”, there is no constitutional violation whatsoever provided that there was no coercion.

This covers the vast majority of investigations. The overwhelming response of people being investigated is to allow the social worker to enter the home and conduct whatever investigation is reasonably necessary.

This is very odd given what HSLDA advises its members:

Never let the social worker in your house without a warrant or court order. All the cases that you have heard about where children are snatched from the home usually involve families waiving their Fourth Amendment right to be free from such searches and seizures by agreeing to allow the social worker to come inside the home. A warrant requires “probable cause” which does not include an anonymous tip or a mere suspicion

In the Stumbo case, when a social worker came to the door to investigate suspected child abuse after a tipster made a report about an unattended naked two year old in the family’s driveway, HSLDA advised the family not to let the social worker in. The Stumbos followed HSLDA’s advice, denying social workers access to their children, and as a result what might have been a simple investigation revealing no suggestions of child abuse and leading to the tip being unsubstantiated and the case dismissed instead turned into a drawn-out court battle that lasted for years.

Growing up in an HSLDA member family, I remember what I was taught was the number one most important thing to remember in case of a social worker coming to the door: Never, never, never let a social worker into the home, and never let the social worker talk to any of the children alone. The reason for this, I was told, was that social workers would fake evidence and plant false memories in children, meaning that if even the most innocent homeschooling family let a social worker into the house they would end up losing custody of their children. I never thought about the reality that, in practice, urging parents against allowing CPS workers into their homes or access to their children might both make the families appear extremely suspicious and serve to impede the investigation and discovery of real and devastating child abuse.

Just What Is Probable Cause?

If HSLDA member families follow HSLDA’s advice, social workers will always have to get warrants to investigate child abuse complaints against homeschooling families. To get a warrant the social worker will have to establish probable cause, and HSLDA is adamant in wanting the strictest standards used in determining just what constitutes probable cause—and that means anonymous tips or “mere suspicion” of child abuse, however earnest or dire, are out.

In the Stumbo case the social worker responded to the parents’ refusal to allow access to their home or children by going to a judge and getting a warrant. HSLDA responded by taking legal action to challenge this warrant—and ultimately won.

In one article, HSLDA offers an example of probable cause: A grandmother calls CPS, providing her name and personal information, and reports that her grandson has been locked in his room for days without food and that she has seen him and he looks pale and weak. HSLDA states that in this case, if the CPS worker can verify the identity and relationship of the caller, he would then have probable cause and could get a warrant. Later, the article states that “It is not enough to have information that the children are in some form of serious danger. The evidence must also pass a test of reliability that our justice system calls probable cause. … Anonymous tips are never probable cause.”

Let’s take a look at how things would work if HSLDA has its way: When a tipster calls CPS to expresses concerns about a homeschooling family, a social worker will be dispatched to the family’s home in an attempt to ascertain whether there is any justification for these concerns. On HSLDA’s advice, the family will turn the social worker away without allowing her access to their home or children in order to investigate the allegations. The social worker can then go to a judge, and must present some form of information that will pass the “test of reliability” and serve as “probable cause”—and this information must all be obtained and presented without any access to the family’s home or children. If the tip is anonymous or the repost rests on “mere suspicions” or the allegations are not deemed to pass the “test of reliability,” regardless of the severity of the accusations, the judge will deny the warrant and the case will be dismissed, all without the social worker ever having any contact with the family’s children. Seen in this way, it’s not hard to see that HSLDA is intent on throwing up any possible roadblock in the path of child abuse investigation.

Don’t Let Them Talk to the Kids!

Perhaps this is the most disturbing part: HSLDA does whatever it has to to keep CPS workers from contact with homeschooling children, rejoicing every time they successfully keep children from private interviews with the social workers sent to investigate child abuse tips a family. In one article in its Home School Court Report, an article that is extremely representative of the stories recorded there, HSLDA exults over a successful case against child abuse investigations as follows:

A Home School Legal Defense Association member family in Jackson County recently contacted us for assistance in a Department of Social Services investigation alleging physical abuse.

The investigation was prompted by a report to DSS alleging inappropriate discipline of their child approximately two years ago. Although the report just covered one child, the social worker insisted that she be allowed to interview all of the children in the home.

HSLDA contacted the social worker, explaining that our members were eager to address the allegations made against them and were prepared to meet with the social worker to respond to questions about the report. However, we clarified that the parents would not discuss any matters beyond the specific allegations, and that they would strenuously oppose subjecting their children to the trauma of any interrogation by social workers.

The family recently received a letter stating that the investigation was terminated as “unfounded.”

In case after case after case after case after case after case, HSLDA makes it clear that allowing social workers to speak with children alone is the absolute worst thing a parent can do, and is something to be avoided at all costs. This is the thing a parent must never do. HSLDA seems completely unaware that sometimes a private interview with a social worker is the only chance an abused child has to speak out about her abuse, and that having a parent or other relative present often impedes abused children’s ability to speak openly of their abuse. But then, HSLDA also seems unaware that any of its member families could possibly abuse their children.

In fact, here is a statement by HSLDA directly addressing the importance of opposing private interviews between children and social workers:

Private interviews with a social worker can be extremely traumatic for a child. Social workers sometimes ask inappropriate, personal, and offensive questions which can destroy a child’s innocence or security. HSLDA works hard to avoid such traumatic interviews wherever possible.

HSLDA isn’t shy, then, about its opposition to letting social workers speak privately with children. In case after case listed in their Court Report and on their website, they crow over how they cowed social workers out of being able to meet one-on-one with homeschooling children. HSLDA may insist that social workers plant stories of abuse and traumatize children during these private interviews, but the simple reality is that HSLDA is working its hardest to cut off any chance abused children might have of actually speaking to social workers about their abuse.

For more on how HSLDA teaches parents to deal with CPS workers—and more on the fear and suspicion with which HSLDA encourages parents to view CPS workers—take a minute to read this play in two acts involving “Mr. Innocent,” “Mr. Wise,” “Little Eager,” and “Orwell,” the social worker. This play is an excellent peek into exactly how I was taught growing up to view social workers and deal with CPS investigations. And you may have guessed it already—the goal is to avoid allowing CPS to speak privately with the children.

Child Abuse Investigations as Abusive to Children

HSLDA also has a track record of arguing that children must be protected from child abuse investigations. For example, in explaining opposition to mandatory reporting laws HSLDA has said the following:

HSLDA has seen firsthand how malicious or ignorant child abuse and neglect allegations have destroyed innocent families. A family has few protections against the power of CPS agencies. And even if a CPS investigation is closed as unfounded, the trauma to a young child, to an innocent family as a stranger (albeit maybe a well-intentioned stranger) enters the home and threatens to remove the children, is lasting and profound.

And, after winning one case, HSLDA reported as follows:

Elated by this sudden victory after months of worry, the Willittses returned to normal life. Their refusal to back down – even in the face of relentless intimidation – had protected their children from a traumatic interview and their family from any further invasion of privacy. We thank God for the positive resolution of this case.

HSLDA often describes CPS investigations as abusive toward families, thus co-opting the rhetoric of abuse. I’m unsure of whether HSLDA is aware of how insensitive this makes them look—or if they’re aware that even HSLDA member families can be abusive. Either way, the idea that child abuse investigations are this horribly abusive thing that families and children must be protected against at all costs serves in practice to aid abusive parents seeking to hide the evidence of their abuse and minimizes the abuse that many children suffer every day at the hands of their parents.

Teaching Children (and Parents) to Fear Social Workers

I would suggest that whatever “trauma” is in fact suffered by homeschooled children interviewed by CPS workers is the result of HSLDA literature urging children to be afraid of social workers. When I was a child, I was terrified of CPS workers, viewing them as an evil boogeyman out to take me away from my parents at the drop of a hat. Where did I get this fear? From HSLDA. In spades. HSLDA sows fear among homeschooling parents and children because that fear is what keeps its coffers full—after all, if homeschooling parents are not afraid, they will not buy HSLDA’s legal insurance.

In fact, HSLDA founder Michael Farris even wrote a horror novel called Anonymous Tip, which detailed the story of a woman whose daughter was removed from her custody by a conniving social worker who faked evidence after a child abuse tip called in by the woman’s deadbeat ex. I’m sure I’m not the only homeschooler who read Farris’s novel and took it very, very seriously—and the play I referenced earlier was likely taken similarly seriously.

Through its books, email alerts, and magazine, HSLDA plants a fear of social workers and CPS investigations deep in the heart of both parents and children—even leading them to believe that CPS workers commonly remove children from their parents without justification, and that this could happen to them too—and then crows to the rooftops about the trauma that results from child abuse investigations. If HSLDA wasn’t sowing this fear in the first place, parents and children wouldn’t be frightened to death when social workers show up at the door to investigate a complaint and make sure everything is alright.

But there’s more to this, too. When HSLDA teaches children to be afraid of social workers, it is teaching them to see their helpline as the enemy. CPS workers ought to be seen as friends and supporters of children, there to listen to kids and help protect them from abuse. Sure, there may be the random bad social worker, but by and large social workers are dedicated individuals who believe deeply in helping children. Social work isn’t something you go into for the money. And yet, HSLDA is busy teaching children to view social workers as objects of terror, which of course means that homeschooled children won’t see social workers as people they can trust and go to when they need help.

This Isn’t Hypothetical

I think it’s important to realize that this isn’t some abstract hypothetical we’re talking about. In early 2012 a fifteen year old homeschooled Wisconsin girl was found starving, walking alone along the side of the road, having escaped the prison cell her basement room had become.

The girl, now 15, was found by a passerby earlier this month as she walked in her pajamas and barefoot along a McFarland road. Authorities said the girl weighed 70 pounds.

The complaint states the girl’s face appeared sunken with her collarbones sticking out, and that she was”gorging” on food after authorities got her to care. The complaint states the girl gained 17 pounds in a matter of days.

According to the complaint, the girl told authorities Drabek-Chritton often denied her food, while Chritton claimed food would trigger diabetic reactions and render the girl prone to violence. Court documents state Drabek, two small children in the household, and Chritton and Drabek-Chritton would eat normally, while the girl would scavenge for food from garbage and go days at a time without eating. Her stepmother, Drabek-Chritton, was listed in court records as 370 pounds. Authorities said there was no evidence to support family claims of the girl’s alleged medical conditions, including eating disorders.

It seems there had been child abuse tips lodged against this family in the past:

“It also appears that the family in the past was not cooperative with the department of human services or the city of Madison police department,” Moeser said. Court documents state Chritton and Drabek-Chritton refused social workers access to their home during at least one investigation, and refused staff access to Drabek and the girl at times when both were minors. State and county officials were unavailable to comment on whether court actions were considered or attempted to overcome parental objections during investigations, with officials citing confidentiality rules.

I don’t know whether this homeschooling family was an HSLDA member family, but I do know that they step by step followed the course of action HSLDA recommends families follow in dealing with child abuse investigations, and that following HSLDA’s advice enabled them to hide their abuse of their daughter, abuse that only came to light when the girl physically escaped the hell her home had become. HSLDA’s policies for the handling of child abuse investigations aren’t just hypothetical—they have real world implications and affect real children’s lives in profoundly negative ways.

Conclusion

HSLDA may not see itself as doing everything in its power to obstruct child abuse investigations, but that is in practice what it is indeed doing. HSLDA urges its members against allowing social workers to investigate allegations of child abuse without a warrant and at the same time is working to increase the standards of what counts as “probable cause,” thus making it harder for social workers to get warrants to investigate abuse. At the same time, HSLDA does everything in its power to avoid letting social workers personally interview children, thus cutting off any possibility children who are being abused by their parents have of speaking out about that abuse. Meanwhile, HSLDA keeps homeschooled children so scared silly of social workers that it is more than likely that many abused homeschooled children wouldn’t report their own abuse if they had the chance. Meanwhile, HSLDA paintsthe child abuse investigations themselves as the problem, and as a dire threat to children.

Instead of doing its utmost to obstruct child abuse investigations, why doesn’t HSLDA instead urge its members to comply with investigations in order to dispel allegations of abuse? Why not focus on ensuring that CPS follows their own best practices and rules, thus minimizing false positives in child abuse investigations, rather than viewing CPS as the enemy to be opposed and obstructed? Or for that matter, why deal with child abuse allegations in the first place? Why not stick with the accusations that deal directly with homeschooling, such as ensuring that local officials know state law and that member families comply with those laws?

There are many possible responses to these questions, of course. Perhaps protecting parental rights against any limitations whatsoever is HSLDA’s primary goal, with homeschooling merely a tool to this end, and perhaps this has led to HSLDA defending parents against investigations of child abuse. Perhaps HSLDA’s definition of child abuse does not elide with the CPS’s definition of child abuse. Perhaps many HSLDA member families do have something to hide, and HSLDA knows it. Perhaps HSLDA’s focus on the primacy of parental rights means that the organization is not actually interested in doing things to protect children against abuse at the hands of their parents.

As one last example of how HSLDA views child abuse accusations and investigations, let me quote from an HSLDA article on Japanese homeschoolers:

Recent revisions to the Juvenile Law have strengthened child abuse reporting laws. There is now the possibility for neighbors of homeschool families to give notice to the Child Consultation Center (Zidoh-Sohdan-shyo in Japanese) that homeschooled children are abused by their parents. Regrettably, the Child Consultation Centers in each district are now required to investigate each and every abuse notice. Unsubstantiated abuse claims are expected to increase and to affect homeschool families adversely.

“Regrettably.”

In case it is not already clear, HSLDA considers Child Protective Services investigations simply annoyances homeschoolers should not have to deal with rather than seeing them as important means of locating and helping abused children. Once again, it’s like HSLDA is completely unaware that some homeschooling families might actually physically abuse their children, or that some homeschooled children might be in need of help. HSLDA would probably deny these allegations, of course, and would point to statements deploring child abuse, calling for “true” child abusers to be prosecuted, and arguing that the corporal punishment parents employ should be “reasonable.” In the next segment of this series we will examine HSLDA’s ideas about just what actually constitutes child abuse.

To be continued.

HSLDA and Child Abuse: HSLDA’s Fight against Child Abuse Reporting

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HA note: The following series will run each weekday this week. It is reprinted with permission from Libby Anne’s blog Love Joy Feminism. Part two of the series was originally published on Patheos on April 17, 2013.

*****

Also in this series: Part One, Introduction | Part Two, HSLDA’s Fight Against Child Abuse Reporting | Part Three, HSLDA’s Stonewalling of Child Abuse Investigations | Part Four, HSLDA’s Defense of Child Abuse | Part Five, HSLDA and the Deregulation of Homeschooling

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2. HSLDA’s Fight against Child Abuse Reporting

This is the second post in a series looking at the relationship between HSLDA and both child abuse and educational neglect. In the introduction, I discussed my background with HSLDA and HSLDA’s move from focusing on the legality of homeschooling to protecting families from child abuse investigations. In this post I turn to HSLDA’s opposition to the reporting of child abuse. And I will warn you—this gets progressively worse as we go along.

Opposition to the Anonymous Tip

In testimony given in 2001, HSLDA’s Christopher Klicka argued for reform of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA). He argued that CAPTA needed amending in order to protect “parents’ rights” against the “threat” of the child welfare system, and he focused especially on the way child abuse is reported:

Anonymous Tips: As a condition of receiving federal funds, CAPTA should be amended to mandate states to require all reporters of child abuse to give their names, addresses and phone numbers. This will curtail false reporting and end harassment using anonymous tips. CAPTA should be amended by adding subsection 42 U.S.C. 5106a(b)(2)(A)(xiv): provisions and procedures to assure that no reports shall be investigated unless the person making such a report provides such person’s name, address and telephone number and that the information is independently verified.

HSLDA justifies its involvement in issues like child abuse reporting by arguing that homeschoolers are frequently falsely reported to child abuse hotlines by neighbors and family, whether as a result of ignorance or malice. HSLDA sees this as a threat to its member families. On the surface level this sounds like it makes sense, but when you pause to think it sort of falls apart. If you fear false tips, the answer isn’t to make it harder for people to call in child abuse tips—which has the negative side effect of protecting abusers—it’s to make sure that CPS workers have good training and that there are sufficiently high evidentiary standards. In other words, you want the gates wide open at the beginning but narrower as the case progresses.

Police receive anonymous tips all the time, and in fact rely on them heavily, especially when there are reports of threats or danger. Child abuse is a crime, and in arguing that anonymous child abuse tips should be barred HSLDA is asking for it to be treated different from any other crime. In the traditional structure of our jurisprudence, it’s easy to get a case filed, but as you move through the process it takes more and more evidence to keep the case from being summarily thrown out. It should take very little to get into the system, and it should take something substantial to have a verdict against you at the end of the process. And this is how our current system is set up when it comes to child abuse tips. But HSLDA wants to throw this out and treat child abuse differently from any other crime, in spite of the high stakes to the children involved.

Doing away with anonymous tips to child abuse hotlines would mean more abused children going unreported, unnoticed, unseen. The entire point of the anonymous tip is so that anyone, without fear of reprisal, can report child abuse. This means that if you know that your nieces are being abused you can report them without your sister knowing that you turned her in. This means that if you suspect your crazy neighbor is abusing his children, you can report that without worrying that he might find out what you did, and seek revenge. This, quite simply, is why we let people make anonymous tips. If you take away the anonymous tip, people will be more likely to think twice before calling CPS with their suspicions of child abuse, and that means that more abused children will go unreported, unnoticed, and unaided.

Prosecuting Those who Make False Child Abuse Reports

In the same CAPTA testimony, Klicka argued that making false child abuse tips should be made a criminal offense, and that those who call child abuse hotlines to report abuse should be made aware that their tip is being recorded and that there are penalties for false reporting:

False Reporting: As a condition of receiving federal funds, CAPTA should be amended to mandate that states make it at least a class C misdemeanor to knowingly make a false report. U.S.C. 5106a(b)(2)(A)(iv) should be amended to add: . . .and penalties for any individuals who knowingly or maliciously makes a false report of any type of child abuse or neglect that includes—a provision stating that such persons shall also be liable to any injured party for compensatory and punitive damages and a provision requiring that all reporters be informed of the penalties for false reporting and that the call is being recorded. (e.g. Connecticut).

While Klicka stipulates that the class C misdemeaner is applied to those whoknowingly make a false report, the effect of such a law is nonetheless the same as what I said above: It will make people leery of reporting child abuse. I mean, how would you go about proving that you really did suspect abuse against allegations that you just made it up? In practice anyone calling in a report that ends up being unsubstantiated would be liable for criminal prosecution. HSLDA has elsewhere stated that they want families who are turned in for child abuse to have the right to know who turned them in, and to have the ability to sue that person for false reporting. Are they unaware of the results such a policy would have? How can they not know that such laws and penalties would keep people from reporting suspected cases of child abuse, thus protecting abusers and keeping children in abusive situations?

Klicka claims that his goal is to cut down on false reports—or, more specifically,malicious reports—and this is the line that HSLDA takes every time they argue against the existence of anonymous tips or for criminalizing false child abuse tips. But once again, false child abuse tips shouldn’t be seen as this huge problem. If a false tip is called in, a social worker will be dispatched to investigate the allegations and will find them unsubstantiated and close the case. If having a CPS worker at my door to check up on my kids because a neighbor was concerned—or even because a neighbor had a vendetta—is the price I have to pay for ensuring that a concerned neighbor also calls the CPS on an abusive family, then it’s a price I’m more than willing to pay.

Cutting down on false reports, whether malicious or simply mistaken, also means cutting down on the number of reports that are not false. Getting rid of the anonymous tip and imposing criminal punishments for making false reports would make people think twice before taking the risk that reporting a family to a child abuse hotline would become, and thus would in practice have the effect of cutting down on the number of cases of child abuse, real and present child abuse, being reported and investigated.

Opposition to Mandatory Reporting Laws

HSLDA also opposes extending mandatory reporting laws. People who are mandatory reporters are required by law to report suspicions of child abuse. In January of 2012 HSLDA opposed a federal law that would have made every adult a mandatory reporter. Here is the text of this bill, S. 1879.

The requirement described in this paragraph is that the State has enacted a law that creates a felony offense with a minimum penalty of 1-year imprisonment for any person who, having reasonable cause to believe that a child has been subjected to child abuse or acts of child abuse, fails to report such information immediately to the relevant State law enforcement agency and the child protection agency of the State.

HSLDA explained its opposition as follows:

S. 1879 will require every single person to be a mandatory reporter of suspected child abuse. States will lose certain federal funds if they do not create mandatory reporter laws that encompass every single person in the state. This will create a massive “police state” system that forces people to report on family members and neighbors even if they only suspect child abuse, or they will face a mandatory minimum sentence of one year in jail.

HSLDA’s concern is that the bill would require people to turn in families if they “only suspect” child abuse. In other words, HSLDA plays off “having reasonable cause to believe” that there is child abuse occurring as mere “suspicions,” and at the same time minimizes suspicions of child abuse as things that probably shouldn’t be reported. Lay aside for a moment whether or not you think making all adults mandatory reporters on threat of criminal sanction is a good idea and simply pay attention to the reason HSLDA is against doing so—the idea that it’s unreasonable to expect those who “only suspect child abuse” (which is how it interprets the bill’s “having reasonable cause to believe” clause) to report it.

In another case, HSLDA expounded further on its opposition to expanding mandatory reporting laws:

S. 1877 will lead to a massive increase in child abuse and neglect investigations upon families. The stated purpose of S. 1877’s mandatory reporting expansion, along with the education campaign and training program is to “improve reporting” of child abuse and neglect. The bill will give states new federal grants to set up“experimental, model, and demonstration programs for testing innovative approaches and techniques that may improve reporting of and response to suspected and known incidents of child abuse or neglect by adults to the State child protective service agencies or to law enforcement agencies.”

Not only will S. 1877 require every single adult to be a mandatory reporter, S. 1877 will incentivize states to create untested, “experimental” programs that will increase the number of child abuse and neglect reports to CPS agencies.

Once again, leave aside what you think of universal mandatory reporting laws and note that HSLDA is against the laws’ provisions aimed to “improve reporting” of child abuse and “increase the number of child abuse and neglect reports to CPS agencies.” In other words, HSLDA sees educational programs aimed at achieving more consistent, accurate, and voluminous reporting of child abuse and neglect asbad things. As someone who very much wants child abuse to be reported so that abused children can have access to the help they need, this is flabbergasting.

Also in 2012, HSLDA opposed a California law that would have merely made employees of nonprofits that work with children mandatory reporters, requiring them to report suspected or known cases of child abuse, educational neglect, or sexual abuse. HSLDA opposed the law because it “would have caused the loss of tax-exempt status for nonprofit organizations with any activities involving children in California” for organizations whose employees did not report child abuse. This is perhaps only more confusing given that California’s instructions to mandatory reporters regarding what they are expected to report are not at all vague.

HSLDA, then, is against both more consistent child abuse reporting and the reporting of child abuse suspicions when an individual has not personally witnessed the abuse taking place. HSLDA attorneys state that their concern is that programs aimed at improving child abuse reporting will make false reports skyrocket. And I’ll say it again, even if this were the case, so what? False reports will simply be found unsubstantiated upon investigation. It’s like they’re blind to the fact that child abuse is this real thing that really does happen and needs to be reported and stopped more systematically—and the fact that increased reporting of suspected child abuse is agood thing that will improve the lives of real children.

HSLDA also appears to be unaware of the fact that eighteen states already have universal mandatory reporting and disaster has not struck—in fact, those states didn’t actually see explosions in false reporting, and in fact some evidence suggests that the child abuse reports in these states are more likely to be substantiated. (For more on mandatory reporting, this article is a good introduction.) Whatever your thoughts on universal mandatory reporting—and some scholars and advocates have their reservations—you have to at the very least admit that HSLDA’s arguments against universal mandatory reporting laws read like they come from a bizarre dystopia where reporting suspected child abuse is the problem and actual child abuse is not something worth worrying about.

Opposition to Reporting Suspected Child Sexual Abuse

It seems that 2012 was a busy year, because that same year HSLDA also opposed another California law that made all adults mandatory reporters of child sexual abuse. This law was one of many proposed in response to the revelations of the Penn State child sex abuse scandal, in which it came to light that several adults in the school’s football program were aware that Jerry Sandusky was sexually abusing boys in his charge, or at least suspected that such abuse was taking place, but nevertheless failed to report it. This California law, and others like it, was aimed at ensuring that individuals in similar situations would actually report such abuse. It read as follows:

A competent adult who becomes aware of information or evidence that would cause a reasonable suspicion of child sexual abuse is required to report that information to state or local law enforcement or to county child protective services within 72 hours.

HSLDA explained its opposition to the law with these words:

SB 1551 – would have inappropriately required all adults, most of whom do not understand the complex legal definitions of sexual abuse in California law, to report any “reasonably suspected” child sexual abuse, even when based only upon a rumor. Penalties for failure to report all “suspected” child sexual abuse could have included imprisonment.

We strongly agree with protecting children who are sexually abused but strongly disagreed with this bill’s proposed methods. Known child sexual abuse is a hideous and perverse crime that needs to be reported! We favor cracking down on known child sexual abusers. Current law already requires everyone who has observed child sexual abuse to report it and encourages everyone to report suspected child sexual abuse. The approach in SB 1551 is unnecessary and would have done great harm to the lives and freedoms of everyone.

In other words, while “known child abuse is a hideous and perverse crime that needs to be reported,” requiring people to call in tips regarding child sexual abuse that is “reasonably suspected” is unreasonable. Leave aside the universal mandatory reporting requirement for a moment and you will see that the key word here is “known”—”observed” child sexual abuse should be reported, but child sexual abuse that is merely suspected? Not necessarily. HSLDA’s position appears to be that people shouldn’t necessarily feel that they need to call in child sexual abuse allegations based on silly things like “reasonable suspicion.” Is HSLDA not aware that child sexual abuse is something that is rarely caught in the act?

Reading the above, I’ve realized that I’m completely flummoxed at how HSLDA has such a positive reputation among so many homeschoolers. I mean for goodness sake, the organization has concerns about people reporting the suspected sexual abuse of children!

Conclusion

From opposing the anonymous tip to prosecuting those who call in false child abuse accusations to opposing mandatory reporting laws to suggesting that “suspicion” of child abuse is inadequate grounds for calling child protective services to arguing that child sexual abuse should only be reported if caught in the act, it appears that HSLDA is working to set up barriers to the reporting of child abuse. And as HSLDA itself states, that appearance is correct. HSLDA’s concern about false child abuse reports—something it really shouldn’t even consider a “homeschooling” issue—has led it to make efforts to restrict the reporting of child abuse. And making it more challenging to report suspicions of child abuse doesn’t just cut down on false reports—it cuts down on accurate reports as well.

In HSLDA’s ideal world, only those who directly witness child abuse occurring (i.e., not just suspect that it’s occurring) and are willing to go on the record and be sued and charged with a crime if their allegations turn out to be unsubstantiated should call in child abuse tips. Think about that for a moment, and then ask yourself what that would mean, practically speaking, for the chances of children who are currently being abused, including the victims of sexual abuse. And when you’re done with that, feel free to join me in wondering, for the millionth time, how in the world HSLDA has become so prominent in Christian homeschooling circles.

In the next installment we’ll turn to HSLDA’s stonewalling of child abuse investigations. Let me put it this way: It only gets worse.

To be continued.

HSLDA and Child Abuse: A Series

HA note: The following series will run each weekday this week. It is reprinted with permission from Libby Anne’s blog Love Joy Feminism. Part one of the series was originally published on Patheos on April 17, 2013.

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Also in this series: Part One, Introduction | Part Two, HSLDA’s Fight Against Child Abuse Reporting | Part Three, HSLDA’s Stonewalling of Child Abuse Investigations | Part Four, HSLDA’s Defense of Child Abuse | Part Five, HSLDA and the Deregulation of Homeschooling

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1. Introduction

As a homeschooled child, Michael Farris, the founder of the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), was my hero. It was HSLDA, I believed, that had given my parents the right to homeschool, and that continued to protect our rights against government encroachment. This made what I have learned about the organization upon adulthood that much harder to absorb and fully comprehend. Put simply, HSLDA is doing everything it can to keep people from reporting child abuse and to inhibit child abuse investigations, has opposed laws against child abuse, and is working to undo compulsory education laws altogether, effectively decriminalizing educational neglect.

HSLDA was in 1983, ostensibly to protect families’ right to homeschool. In practice, however many of its cases today deal not with homeschooling but with child abuse allegations. If you read through HSLDA’s Court Report, you will find story after story of HSLDA defending homeschooling parents against child abuse allegations. Homeschooling is today legal in every U.S. state, and HSLDA has gone far, far beyond its original mandate. In fact, it appears that HSLDA is today more preoccupied with sheltering child abuse than it is with protecting the legality of homeschooling.

Let me offer the Stumbo case as an example. In September of 1999, a neighbor saw the Stumbo’s two-year-old naked and unattended in the family’s driveway and registered an anonymous tip with Child Protective Services. After receiving the tip, a CPS worker appeared on the Stumbo’s porch and asked to interview the children to ensure that there was no abuse taking place. On HSLDA’s advice, the Stumbos refused to grant the CPS worker any access whatsoever to their children. The CPS worker then went to a judge and got a court order to interview the children. In spite of the fact that the case had nothing to do with homeschooling, HSLDA appealed the order and eventually won; the court found that there was too little evidence of abuse to justify a court order. HSLDA had hoped the court would find that interviewing a family’s children would count as seizure under the fourth amendment, but was disappointed as the case was decided more narrowly.

I remember reading about the Stumbo case in Home School Court Report when I was kid. It was played up as this grand scary thing, as though the kids were about to be removed from their parents for no reason whatsoever. At the time I wasn’t aware of the legal background surrounding the case—including the reality that there was never an attempt to remove the children from their parents and that the case primarily involved not homeschooling but rather the proper procedures for child abuse investigations. Whether or not the CPS took the proper actions in the Stumbo case isn’t the issue. The issue is that HSLDA has moved beyond defending the legality of homeschooling and into the world of litigating against child abuse investigations—sometimes with rather disastrous implications for abused children.

And HSLDA isn’t shy about this shift, either. For example, this statement was included in a paper from the 2000s on how to deal with CPS investigations:

HSLDA is beginning to work with states to reform the child welfare laws to guarantee more freedom for parents and better protection for their parental rights. HSLDA will be sending out Alerts to its members in various states where such legislation is drafted and submitted as a bill.

“Child welfare laws” means laws dealing with child abuse and Child Protective Services investigations. “Better protection for … parental rights” means protection against accusations of child abuse and CPS investigations. This has nothing to do with homeschooling and everything to do with protecting parents’ absolute control over their children, and absolute freedom from state interference, no matter what that means for the well-being of the children themselves.

From what I have learned in the time since my teenage years spent pouring over each month’s Home School Court Report, it appears that there are four primary ways that HSLDA is complicit in aiding and abetting child abuse and educational neglect: (1) They work to minimize the reporting of child abuse; (2) They seek to stall the investigation of child abuse; (3) They defend the legality of excessive corporal punishment; and (4) They oppose any homeschooling regulation whatsoever, even when it is merely intended to ensure that learning is actually taking place. This post introduces a series addressing these issues and revealing HSLDA’s troubling relationship with child abuse and educational neglect.

To be continued.