From Silence to Exposure: Why Did Michael Farris Speak Out Now?

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HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Julie Anne Smith’s blog Spiritual Sounding Board. It was originally published on August 30, 2014 and has been slightly modified for HA.

Michael Farris, one of the pillars of the modern Homeschool Movement and founders of Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) and founding president of Patrick Henry College, released an article addressing abuses within the Christian homeschool community in his article,  “A Line in the Sand,” in which he specifically called out two fallen leaders within the Homeschool Movement:  Bill Gothard and Doug Phillips. Farris publicly condemned some of the teachings of Gothard and Phillips, saying they “damage people in multiple ways.”

He’s absolutely right. A lot of damage and abuse has occurred because of the teachings of these men.

I’d like to go over his article in greater detail and also make observations based on other systems in which abuse was uncovered. Let’s start with this doozy right here:

Although some people want HSLDA to be the police force of the homeschooling movement—removing those who miss the mark in some manner—that is not our role.

Would someone please tell me when it is NOT the role of Christians to protect and defend the defenseless?  Chapter and verse, please.

Even though I have been uncomfortable with the teaching coming from each of these men for several years, it is not my place to try to remove viewpoints from the homeschooling community just because the HSLDA board or I hold a different view.

I repeat: Would someone please tell me when it is NOT the role of Christians to protect and defend the defenseless?  Chapter and verse, please.

This next sentence is important:

Our role is to defend the freedom of everyone to homeschool.

This sentence needs to be understood as an underlying theme of HSLDA. Please tuck away this statement because I will be coming back to it. This is key to the ministry work of Farris and HSLDA.

Frankly, we should have spoken up sooner. How much sooner is hard to say.

How much sooner is hard to say? That’s like saying, “I saw the ravaged bodies lying on the side of the road, but decided to walk on by and keep that information to myself. It didn’t seem like the right time to say or do anything, so I didn’t.”

The reason I used such strong imagery is because later, Farris clues us in that he really does understand the damaging effects of these errant teachings. He knows that the teachings have led to a crisis of faith in which some have rejected Christianity entirely:

I’ve come in contact with many young people who were raised in patriarchal or legalistic homes. Almost none of them are following these philosophies today. Some have rejected Christianity altogether.

It’s important to understand WHY Farris and HSLDA did not speak up sooner. Why did they leave ravaged bodies on the side of the road?

Why would someone knowingly withhold information that could protect children and wives from abuse?  Let’s look at some other situations in which people had information and chose to keep it silent.  We can see similar patterns in other popular stories related to abuse.

In the Jerry Sandusky Penn State sex abuse scandal, there were people who knew information about Sandusky and didn’t report. Why didn’t they report? What was the motivating factor in keeping quiet?

We’ve long suspected, but now have confirmed by sworn court testimony that Grant Layman, a pastor at a Sovereign Grace Ministries church, knew that Nathaniel Morales had sexually abused children before, but failed to report to authorities.  Why did this pastor, a shepherd of God’s precious flock, fail to report?

In June of 2014, Paul Tripp resigned from his position on the Mars Hill Board of Accountability and gave very little reason as to stepping down.  Yet this week, nine Mars Hill church elders (one of whom has since been fired for speaking out) published a document about their grievances with Mark Driscoll. In that document, Paul Tripp expressed very strong words about the abusive nature of Mark Driscoll and his ministry:

This is without a doubt, the most abusive, coercive ministry culture I’ve ever been involved with.

Why did Paul Tripp not share that bombshell of info back in June when he resigned?

Why did Acts 29 take so long at calling Mark Driscoll out and removing his name and Mars Hill Church from the Acts 29 members list?

At what point did each of these people decide enough is enough regarding known abuse?

What was it that kept them from being completely transparent earlier when they had knowledge that could have prevented more abuse from occurring?

I believe the reason why people remain silent is because they are serving their personal idol, rather than Christ. A Christ follower would respond appropriately to defend victims, even if there is a personal cost. Christ followers know there is a personal cost to being a Christian.

These men used self-preservation and defended their idols.

What was the idol in the Penn State sex scandal? I believe it was the Almighty Dollar. Sandusky represented football wins for Penn State. If it was publicized that Sandusky was a pedophile, how would that affect Penn State and their record? It was too much of a gamble. People put the thought of pedophilia aside and likely said, “it’s a personal issue,” or “someone else is surely dealing with it.”

What was the idol with CJ Mahaney and Sovereign Grace Ministries abuse cases?  I believe it was his doctrine and authority structure that prominent church leaders adhered to. Mahaney had charisma, he had the right New Calivinism doctrine, people loved him at conferences ($$), he also really understood one of the primary issues in those circles, “biblical” male and female roles, complementarianism. What CJ Mahaney represented doctrinally was apparently more important to them than Mahaney’s victims.

I believe the same is the case with Mark Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill. Why has it taken people so long to call him out? Because once again, he represented their doctrine in a powerful way. Somehow, church leaders could easily dismissing his cussing, his bullying, plagiarism because the more important message to them was that he had the right doctrine – again, New Calvinism. That was the idol.

Going back to Farris and HSLDA – why is it that Farris waited so long to disclose the truth he knew long ago about Phillips and Gothard? Because it would have cost him.

Although Farris knew there were problems with the teachings of Phillips and Gothard, the bulk of their other ideologies lined up with the trajectory of Farris and his ministry’s movement. For him to call them out earlier would mean a loss of supporters and revenue, as both men had a very large following. Farris would have been forced to stand alone. The followers of Gothard and Phillips would have been left in a quandary of picking who they would follow and support, and subsequently, there likely would have been economic consequences at HSLDA. The following quote shows Farris/HSLDA was willing to support and promote errant teachings and now has regrets:

While we did not directly promote their teachings using our own resources, we did allow Vision Forum to buy ad space to promote their products and ideas. We were wrong to do so. And we regret it.

I believe Farris waited until he realized that the court of public opinion had turned against Phillips and Gothard.

For Farris to not speak out at this time would have been a liability to his ministry. He had to speak out now. Will he do more than speak? Will he use his prominent position in the Homeschool Movement to defend and protect victims?

That remains to be seen.

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There have been quite a few articles related to Farris’ article and the conflict within the Christian Homeschool Movement:

• CHRE –  Why Homeschooling Needs Oversight: Responding to HSLDA and WORLD

HSLDA and CRHE’s positions on homeschooling policy differ because they serve two different audiences: HSLDA’s mission is “to defend and advance the constitutional right ofparents to direct the education of their children” (emphasis added), while CRHE’s goal is “advocating for homeschooled children.” In theory, though, policy recommendations should be able to benefit both homeschool parents and homeschooled children.

• Shawn Mathis, examiner.com – Farris, HSLDA apologizes for silence about Phillips and critiques patriarchy

 In a humble act of public repentance, Michael Farris, on behalf of the Homeschool Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) , apologized for not “speaking up sooner” about the errors of Vision Forum and Doug Phillips.

• The Christian Post – Homeschool Advocate Michael Farris Responds to Sex Scandals of Homeschool Leaders Bill Gothard, Doug Phillips

Farris had “been uncomfortable with the teaching coming from each of these men for several years” but was reluctant to speak out because he did not believe it was the role of HSLDA to police the teachings of those within the homeschooling community.

• The Raw Story – Christian leader denounces Duggar family’s patriarchal movement as ‘truly dangerous’

“With these recent scandals in view, we think it is now time to speak out — not about these men’s individual sins, but about their teachings,” Farris wrote. “Their sins have damaged the lives of their victims, and should be addressed by those with the appropriate legal and spiritual authority in those situations, but their teachings continue to threaten the freedom and integrity of the homeschooling movement. That is why HSLDA needs to stand up and speak up.”

• Right Wing Watch – Homeschooling Leader Distances Himself From ‘Dangerous’ Christian Patriarchy Movement Promoted By Duggars

Two leaders of the Christian patriarchy movement — Doug Phillips and Bill Gothard — have been hit with sexual harassment and abuse charges in the past year, which has drawn attention to the movement’s teachings — extreme even within the Religious Right — that women should be completely submissive to the men in their lives.

• World Magazine – Homeschool leader disavows ‘patriarchy’

HSLDA and Farris have faced particular pressure to repudiate Phillips and Gothard in the past year from some former homeschooled students who have claimed they were abused—physically, emotionally, or “spiritually”—by their parents. Many are represented by a website called Homeschoolers Anonymous, as WORLD reported in its recent article about homeschoolers and abuse.

• Shawn Mathis, examiner.com – Will NCFIC and homeschooling groups imitate HSLDA’s apology about Phillips?

These concerns should be equally applied to radical homeschool and family integrated church leaders.

In fact, it behooves these men and their organizations to make their positions clear: will they continue to silently stand with their past relationship with Doug or will they formally and publicly distance themselves from Phillips’ errors?

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.

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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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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.