Comparative Statistics and Risk Factors

We here at HIC sometimes receive comments, input, or criticism from readers. These letters can provide an excellent opportunity for hashing out various issues at play in our work as advocates for abused and neglected homeschooled children. In this post we will respond point-by-point to a recent comment, touching on such issues as comparative rates of abuse and various risk factors.

What is the percentage of homeschool children who die due to abuse v. the percentage in the population at large? Do homeschool families have a higher or lower rate of child abuse fatalities than families who are in the public school system? than families whose children are private school?

To date, no research has been published on this question. The cases we have posted on HIC are not a complete set of all cases, and therefore HIC cannot be used to make such a comparison. What we can say for sure, based on the cases we have collected so far, is that the rate of death from child abuse does not appear to be lower among homeschoolers than among families who are in the public school system.

I am sure that you will admit that there are large numbers of children dead at the hands of their guardians every year who are indeed already in preschool, school systems, private schools, supervised by social workers & already involved and supervised by the court systems. Until those already in the systems are able to be helped and the death numbers reduced then adding homeschool families to those already supervised and monitored will not help.

There is no reason we cannot work to protect both public schooled children and homeschooled children from abuse and neglect. It is our contention that homeschooled children should not have to wait until all public schooled children are safe from abuse and neglect before having their own needs and interests considered. We are former homeschooled children ourselves, and we believe that homeschooled children are worthy of public policy attention and protections from abuse or neglect.

It is true that current protections for abused and neglected children are not perfect. However, whenever a child dies at the hands of his or her parents, there is an investigation into how this could have happened and what could have been done to prevent it. Departments are restructured, employees are fired, and laws are passed. AMBER Alerts were developed when the system already in place failed to prevent the murder of a little girl, Amber Hagerman. In other words, across the country the death of a child from abuse or neglect is not followed with a sigh of regret but rather with a call for improvement.

We are not suggesting that the current systems and methods in place, which assume that school-aged children will attend school, should be applied as they currently exist to homeschoolers. What we are saying is that homeschooled children deserve protections too—protections tailored to homeschooling. We believe homeschooled children are worth protecting. Further, we are unwilling to accept child fatalities, wherever they occur, as something that just happens. When a public schooled child dies, people ask how it could have been prevented, and policies are adjusted to maximize child safety. Why not do the same when a homeschooled child dies?

What will help? Perhaps encouraging stronger community ties? I don’t know the answers. I do know that if I had relatives with children that were rarely seen I would visit and make inquiries. Same with neighbors. By being more responsible as family, community, church members and citizens we can make an individual difference.

However, I believe that adding more supervision does not stop this as is proven by the much larger numbers/percentages of deaths of children whose families are already involved in schools, social services and the court systems.

We support a variety of efforts to protect homeschooled children, including the community efforts suggested here. HIC is affiliated with the Coalition for Responsible Home Education (CRHE), which has a variety of policy recommendations, including some specifically aimed at protecting at-risk children. CRHE also works to encourage friends, family, and neighbors to act on their concerns when they notice signs of abuse and neglect, and educates individuals on how to recognize and report abuse and neglect.

There is no evidence that children who attend public school are at greater risk for abuse or neglect than other children. In fact, the evidence demonstrates that regular contact with mandatory reporters is an important means of preventing abuse—in two recent cases, abused homeschooled children have had to run away or send illicit emails in order to gain access to mandatory reporters and finally get the help they needed.

While social services is often in sore need of better funding, social workers and various family programs do indeed help many abused and neglected children. Further, the reaction to concerns that current systems are not working should not be to scrap the entire idea of protections for abused or neglected children but rather to work for institutional reform or improvements in the current system.

Another interesting question would be how many of these families were already involved in the court systems, social services and school systems.

We do not have enough data to answer this question with statistical accuracy. It is true, though, that in many of the cases listed on HIC, abuse or neglect had been previously reported by school officials or investigated by social services.

In the cases we have studied, we have noticed a pattern where abusive parents pull their children from school to homeschool them after an initial social services investigation does not find enough proof to open a case, or shortly after a social services case is closed. Regardless of how a child is educated, it frequently takes numerous reports and social services visits to affirm that abuse is occurring in a home. This is because social services employees must meet a high burden of proof. By removing children from school and thus from further contact with mandatory reporters, these parents ensure that there will be no future reports of abuse or neglect. This allows them to conceal their maltreatment.

We believe, based on these cases, that a system flagging families that leave the school system to homeschool after a history of frequent social services involvement or numerous reports would be an important step in preventing homeschooling from being used by some families as a cover for abuse or neglect.

Over all, if you compare the statistics for homeschool families and families involved in the public school system I believe you will found that children are safer (statistically speaking) . . . . So, would you then, based on logic and these statistics, recommend homeschool over the school system? If children are safer in homeschooling families v. school attending families . . . . Or do you conclude that homeschooling is not the issue? And schools do not provide the safety net one would like to imagine they would?

We need to move away from this focus on comparisons. We have no evidence that children are safer in homeschooling families than in other families, but even if we did, that would not make protections for homeschooled children unnecessary. Our goal is not to describe educational choices as “better” or “worse”, but rather to find ways to best protect all children, regardless of how they are educated.

If we must compare rates of abuse, we cannot forget the importance of background factors. For example, if it were the case that homeschooling families are more likely to be made up of two-parent biological families than the average (which is likely), we would expect to see lower rates of abuse and neglect in homeschooling families. In other words, the homeschooling population is not identical to the average population and comparing them to the average rather than to those with similar background factors is comparing apples and oranges. We would have to correct for background factors to determine what effect homeschooling itself has on the risk of abuse or neglect.

But whether homeschool parents are more or less likely to abuse their children is beside the point. Our goal here at HIC is to bring attention to ways current homeschooling policy enables abusive homeschool parents to abuse with impunity. Whether abuse is more or less common in homeschooling families or public school families will not change the fact that children whose parents are abusive or predisposed to abuse—-or whose parents have untreated mental illnesses or debilitating drug habits—face an increased risk of abuse or neglect when removed from the regular contact with mandatory reporters that they would have in school.

Maybe the statistical difference is in one child being treated differently than the rest of the children? Maybe it is more of a socio economic issue? Maybe it is a “we don’t believe in medicine/medical treatment” issue v. a homeschooling issue?

It is absolutely true that there are a variety of factors at play here. In a substantial number of cases, a teacher’s report of abuse or neglect has prompted parents to remove their kids from school, thus depriving them of contact with mandatory reporters and preventing future reports. We need a way to flag these children for additional monitoring or protections. In other cases, parents who believe in faith healing take advantage of the fact that homeschooled children are not required to have the same regular medical visits as public schooled children to avoid ever seeking medical care for their children. This is a loophole we need to change.

There are also several methods of abuse or neglect that are fairly specific to homeschooling. For example, it is difficult to die of starvation while attending school. Similarly, a child who attends school cannot be locked in a bathroom for months or years on end. Further, some fundamentalist homeschoolers practice authoritarian religious discipline methods that may threaten children’s health and safety. Understanding the specific patterns common to abuse in homeschooling environments can help us find ways to respond effectively.

While looking at these various factors, however, we must not lose sight of the role homeschooling can and does play in allowing parents to intensify and conceal abuse or neglect. Numerous young adults who were both homeschooled and attended public school have reported that their parents’ abuse was worse when they were homeschooled and eased up when they were in public school. This is because school attendance—the knowledge that children will be seen daily by mandatory reporters—can act as a check on parental abuse.

We are always interested in feedback from our readers. Feel free to contact us if you have thoughts to offer!