Are Homeschooled Children “At Risk”?

This article was submitted by Kelly Green, a supporter of home education in Canada, and was previously published in the US Home Education Magazine in 2012.

In my opinion, one of the most challenging issues home-educating families and groups face is the "But if it saves just one child!" argument in favor of the "regulation" of home education.

We've all run into it. People we know - relatives, friends, acquaintances - say things like, "Well, of course you are doing a great job, and your kids are fine, but what about those other parents who a) don't do anything with their kids and just let them watch TV or play video games all day; b) are well-meaning but just not doing a good enough job; c) keep their kids out of school because they are abusing them? Shouldn't there be laws to protect children in families like those?"

I have come up against these concerns time and again over the nearly twenty years that I have been homeschooling. Sometimes I have had to speak on these issues not just for myself but for other homeschooling families as well (for instance, when I was secretary of my provincial organization). More often I have come across such apprehensions in personal conversation. Most recently I have had to go over this ground in exchanges with American and British academic researchers who have chosen to study homeschooling.

Here are some questions I've been asked over the years, and responses I and others have formulated.

Why on earth wouldn't home educators cooperate with laws and authorities that are just designed to protect children? Why, if you have nothing to hide, would you not be willing to report to the government what you are doing with your children, or have a home visit so that someone can see that all kids educated at home are "safe and well"? If you have nothing to hide, surely you have nothing to fear.

My first response to this question comes in the form of a personal anecdote. I once lived in a province where relations between homeschoolers and the government were very hostile. Local school boards were targeting vulnerable homeschooling families (those on benefits, the disabled, those who had recently removed a traumatized child from school) and harassing them - sometimes threatening them with social services, and sometimes taking them to court.

As my first involvement in homeschooling politics, it was my privilege to act as a lay advocate for families who were involved in court battles with school boards. My own children were very young at the time, but because I lived near a disabled woman who was enduring extreme harassment from her local (Catholic) school board after she pulled her children out of school, her lawyer asked me if I would be with her during her "inquiry" with the provincial ministry of education. It was a life-transforming experience for me.

The woman was a reluctant, but very conscientious, homeschooler. She had removed her children from school because the teachers had refused to learn to use the EpiPen her daughter carried as treatment for her anaphylactic allergies. Not only that, but one day, on the way to school, her daughter had an anaphylactic attack and lay unconscious in the snow for hours. She was lucky to be found, and lucky to be alive. When my friend asked for transport to school for her daughter, school board officials told her she should escort her daughter to school herself. When she stated that she could not get her wheelchair through the snow of our province's winter months, they told her to get chains for it.

When this lady removed her children from school, the school board promptly alleged that her children were not receiving "satisfactory instruction," and demanded an inquiry by the ministry of education. I sat through that inquiry, and was horrified both at the way this woman was treated and at the dismissive attitude with which her daughter's excellent, in fact superlative, work was assessed.

This poor lady, a paraplegic, had also endured a head injury in the accident that rendered her disabled. While she was quite functional, and very intelligent, she had great difficulty coping with stress. When under stress, a part of her head would literally swell, and she found it much more difficult to communicate. She had asked me to come early on the day of her inquiry. When I arrived, the side of her head was so swollen it looked as if there were a tennis ball stuck to her skull, and she was almost unable to speak. She was shaking with fear because the school board had also threatened her with a social services investigation and the removal of her children into care. I calmed her down, and helped her dress herself and fix her hair, but when the ministry officials arrived, she was still having trouble. Rather than inciting compassion in the two "inquirers," this mother's obvious distress seemed to both horrify and gratify them. They literally behaved as if they were going in for the kill. If I hadn't been there as a witness, and to record the entire inquiry, I truly don't know what would have happened.

The evidence we collected that day made a huge difference when her case came to trial. The lawyer who represented her (a home-educating father) was magnificent. When the judge dismissed the case, he asked the lawyer if he had anything he wished to say to the school board officials. I must paraphrase, as this is many years ago now, but he said, roughly, that he was ashamed, that day, to call himself a Catholic, if the actions of this Catholic School Board were in any way representative of the Catholic Church. He went on to say that he found their actions with regard to this home-educating family completely antithetical to Catholic teaching, and that he could not imagine that Christ would in any way condone their behavior.

Unfortunately, many other families had to go through similar experiences before this "institutional bias" against homeschooling (to use the ministry of education's own terminology) was resolved.

People who make the "nothing to hide, nothing to fear" argument have not seen, up close and personal, what this type of hostile invasion of family privacy looks like. They haven't considered the fact that the "inspectors" or "inquirers" are human beings with their own prejudices. Also, the state usually insists that these inspectors must be agents of its own public education system. How on earth can this be fair, when many of these people not only have no experience with what home-based education looks like, but also consider it to be a threat to their system, perhaps to their jobs?

Incidents reported by homeschoolers in New York, Illinois, Alberta, Quebec and from all over England corroborate my own experiences in Canada. And homeschoolers face the same challenges all "different" minority groups face. For example, when the English government attempted to force monitoring on all home-educating families in 2010, the media bias against home education was staggering. Home educators were consistently represented as potential child abusers. Some families reported that whereas they had once been the objects of curiosity and polite interest, they were now greeted with suspicion. In fact, many of them began to stop revealing that their children did not attend school. Home educators in England frequently reported that they were stopped and treated with great hostility by police during the regular "truancy sweeps" that happen in many English communities.

The bottom line is that to single out a group of people for special treatment, for "monitoring" in their own homes, is a violation of civil and human rights. In practice, it simply serves to make their lives miserable. The case can be made that heaping this level of stress on families that choose an alternative way of life actually causes their children's quality of life to deteriorate.

But my interlocutor has a second question. Surely some level of outside regulation, monitoring or supervision would ensure that all home-educated children are receiving a basic education, and that they are not being abused in their homes. Despite the abuses authorities sometimes engage in when "monitoring" home education, wouldn't you be willing to endure the inconvenience of regulation if it saves vulnerable children?

The reality is that such regulation not only doesn't work, it can, in fact, do harm. I have had the opportunity, over the past nineteen years, to study and observe how "regulation" of homelearning works in a variety of jurisdictions, including Canadian provinces, U.S. states, England, New Zealand, Australia, Sweden, Germany, France and Ireland. Based on these observations I believe that "regulation" of home learning, for the purposes of preventing child abuse, is actually counterproductive.

If you demand that one segment of the population be treated in a special way (requiring annual home or health visits, for instance), you get not only discrimination, but also a false sense of security. Ah, we've ticked every box, everybody is safe and well.

Here is an example of how that strategy can backfire, again from England. A spectacular case of child abuse resulted in the death of a little girl. Her mother had pulled the girl and her siblings from school, alleging that they were going to be home educated. This family was known to the school, and known to social services. Teachers at the children's school made numerous calls to social services and police, asking them to investigate. These agencies dropped the ball, and the children continued to suffer.

Now, bear in mind that when the education officer went round, the mother made a convincing case that everything was fine, from an educational standpoint. The concerns about the children were not educational in nature, but were rather fears for their general welfare. Yet welfare officials, though they had been alerted to the fact that many people had grave concerns about the children, did not adequately investigate those concerns.

When the final report on the case came out, the judge stated clearly that this was not a home education issue, but rather a failure of social services issue. The children were well-known to authorities, yet those authorities had failed in their duty to protect them. Nonetheless, in a blatant attempt to deflect public attention from this actual failure, government officials consistently trumpeted that the children were "home educated." Regulation of home education was the answer, they insisted, and would prevent cases like this from occurring in future. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.

There have been other cases where people have pulled their children from school to hide abuse. This is not home-based education! In these situations, someone has almost always expressed their concerns to authorities. People have noticed a problem. But in the tragic cases, like the one in England, the problem doesn't get followed up or investigated. In such cases, the failure of social services agencies to do their jobs is the real issue. How would spreading those agencies' resources even more thinly, for the "monitoring" of all home-educating families, help anybody?

It would be incredibly inefficient and counterproductive (not to mention extremely dangerous from a civil liberties point of view) to single out a particular minority population for special rules. In such a situation there is also an implication (even if it isn't actually articulated) that the "monitored" population is a high risk for abuse, even though the exact opposite is the case.

In fact, a number of jurisdictions have decided that the home-educating population is so low-risk that the level of regulation can be reduced. New Zealand, for instance, recently did away with annual home visits to all home-educating families because they simply couldn't justify the cost for such a "low-risk" community. In my current province, British Columbia, our provincial organization has attempted to keep track of any court cases involving child abuse in which home-education was cited as a factor. To my knowledge, only two such cases have occurred over the past twenty-some years, and both cases were resolved in favor of the family.

There is simply no logical or evidence-based justification for this kind of invasion of the lives of home-educating families. Such an invasion would, in fact, constitute discrimination against a minority group.

So, is there any justification for the regulation of home education? In my opinion, no. Since education is a parental responsibility, it should fall under the same laws that apply to other parental responsibilities. (In my last column I suggested that there are ways to ensure that any parent who might be alleged to have neglected their educational responsibility would be treated fairly.)

I have lived in a jurisdiction where homeschoolers are required to notify the government of their educational choice, and in one where they are not. In my opinion, legal requirements that home educators "register" or notify the government of their intent to homeschool are a complete waste of taxpayer money, and accomplish nothing positive. There is not, to my knowledge, any evidence to support the idea that homeschooling notification, or registration, has any impact on child abuse. But jurisdictions with high levels of regulation often face equally high levels of non-compliance. And let's be realistic. Are the problem families, the ones whose children are actually at risk, going to comply with notification demands (or home or health visit requirements)? Such invasive regulations capture the wrong population entirely. So time and resources are wasted on families with no problems. Inevitably the real problems are discovered the old-fashioned way - when someone reports them.

The answer to child abuse fears is not more regulation, or special rules, for homeschoolers. It is teaching people what to look for, and when to report concerns. It is virtually impossible to hide a child from birth. The cases where this has actually happened, such as the recently reported Fritzl case in Austria, are so phenomenal that they make the news for months.

The logical disconnect here is that people fear for hidden children, but home-educated children are arguably the least hidden children in our society. Our families are out and about, known, watched (sometimes with interest, sometimes with suspicion), and often arouse great curiosity in our communities. This is why homeschooling families can take an active part in discussions about child abuse prevention. We are in an excellent position to talk about what child abuse really is, and how to spot it. We can also assure people that, just because someone says they are homeschooling, it doesn't mean they are therefore in a hands-off situation. The rules that apply to the community apply to homeschoolers as well. But we do not need special rules for homeschooling families.

To conclude: special rules for home-educating families, like monitoring, or home and health visits, have the potential to do great harm, and perhaps put even more children at risk. Such requirements make the lives of many homeschooling families miserable, and sometimes even force otherwise law-abiding home-educating families to "go underground." When this happens, actual problem situations may be even harder to spot.

I repeat. There is no evidence to support the idea that regulation of home-based education is an effective deterrent to child abuse. These days, the argument that home-educating families need to be regulated for their educational provision is made far less often than in the past. Study after study has suggested that home-educated children do at least as well, and perhaps better than, their schooled peers by academic measures. The spectacular cases of "homeschool" child abuse we occasionally hear about in inflammatory news stories are almost always cases where the children had been in school, and where, as in England, people had concerns, but the children were still abandoned by the community. People refused to get involved. Then again, we need only contemplate how many abused children sit in school every day, the abuse unreported, to realize that child abuse is a complex and difficult issue.

Homeschooling is not the problem and more "regulation" is not the answer. It takes time and effort to explain this to people, but we have to keep at it.