Daniel Pollack, “Homeschooling and Child Protection” in Policy and Practice 70, no. 1 (February 2012): 29, 35. [abridged version available here]
Meggan Goodpasture, V. Denise Everett, Martha Gagliano, Aditee P. Narayan, and Sara Sinal, “Invisible Children” in North Carolina Medical Journal 74, no. 1 (February 2013): 90-94 [Avaliable here]
Pollack is a social work professor at Yeshiva University. Goodpasture et al. are all medical professionals affiliated with North Carolina schools of medicine (Wake Forest, UNC Chapel Hill, and Duke). As such all of these authors come to this issue as professionals concerned for the welfare of other people’s children.
Pollack’s article is very brief. He cites the results of studies that have shown that the the most frequent source of referrals of abused children to Child Protective Services (CPS) are professionals, especially teachers. Homeschooled children by definition do not have such outside surveillance. He has no hard data that homeschooling increases the risk of abuse, but he does cite the horrific story of Washington, D.C. resident Banita Jacks, who “homeschooled” her four daughters, all found dead in her home in early 2008.
To better avert such tragedies, Pollack advocates reversing the historic trend in many states away from mandated home visits by professionals. Pollack would like to see CPS officials given enhanced authority to intervene in family matters, “in particular, to be given the right to speak directly and privately to the child.” (p. 29)
Goodpasture, et al.‘s article is more thorough and possesses a different tone. The authors, like Pollack does, note that for all the heated debate over homeschooling and child abuse, “there is a surprising paucity of evidence on this topic in the medical literature.” (p. 94) Absent hard data, they too turn to anecdote. They briefly summarize four horrible cases of abuse that have happened in North Carolina since 2008, all among families claiming the cover of homeschooling.
In their effort to come up with solutions to this problem Gooodpasture and colleagues attempted to build bridges with North Carolina homeschoolers. They partnered with “representatives of North Carolinians for Home Education,” an advocacy organization, and with the North Carolina Division of Non Public Education (DNPE), the government agency tasked with regulating homeschooling.
Goodpasture et al. go out of their way to make it clear that they support homeschooling, celebrating the fine job most homeschooling parents do producing “excellent students and citizens.” They are not here to debate the merits of homeschooling but only to figure out how health care providers can help “prevent abusive caretakers from manipulating the current homeschooling regulations to hide abused children.” (p.94)
After discussions with various parties and consultation of what little literature is available, Goodpasture and colleagues have come up with several proposals. First, the DNPE is woefully understaffed and underfunded. In 2010 there were 45,000 homeschools educating about 80,000 children in North Carolina. The DNPE had six staff members to keep track of them all. Though North Carolina law does allow for DNPE to visit homes, in fact “no one on the staff had physically been to the home of a homeschooled child to conduct a home visit as part of the monitoring process since the year 2000.” (p. 91) The woefully underfunded DNPE can’t even keep up with basic registration, much less provide any sort of oversight. As such, Goodpasture et al. recommend dramatically increasing funding for this branch of state government.
Second, Goodpasture and colleagues recommend that bridges continue to be built between child welfare professionals and homeschooling organizations. Specifically, they’d like homeschooling organizations to partner with professionals to help train North Carolina homeschoolers to recognize the signs of abuse or neglect and to report suspected cases to the North Carolina Division of Social Services (DSS).
In terms of state policy they would like to see changes in how North Carolina regulates homeschooling. They recommend requiring all school-age children to be registered by name and birth date (currently only the homeschool itself must be registered, not the children in it), and again that DNPE be given the funding necessary to conduct more thorough reviews, including home visits.
Finally, they want medical professionals to be trained in how to recognize signs of abuse or neglect and instructed in their responsibilities to report suspected incidences to DSS.
Longtime observers of the U.S. homeschooling scene will not be surprised by the content of these two articles, though the tone, especially of the second piece, is notably softer than has sometimes been the case in the past. Professionals responsible for child services have long been wary of the potential for unregulated homeschooling to serve as a cloak for child abuse. On the other side, since the 1980s homeschooling advocacy organizations have been very effective at lobbying in the name of parental rights against the very sorts of regulations these authors propose. The situation is not unlike that of the regulation of firearms in the United States, where you have a very powerful lobbying organization with millions of motivated members lobbying for maximal freedom and largely succeeding in obtaining it, only being challenged when moments of horrific violence (such as the recent shootings in Newtown, CT) shock the nation enough to challenge this deregulatory status quo. In the case of guns, however, advocates of increased regulation must contend with the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as currently interpreted by the Supreme Court.
In the case of parental rights the constitutional principles are murkier. Advocates often claim First and Fourteenth Amendment rights that would make the reforms suggested in these two articles unconstitutional. Courts have usually disagreed with these claims, however. The increased regulations sought by these professionals are most likely constitutional, but absent widespread public support, they typically do not win support in state legislatures. It is likely that only an increase of high-profile and gruesome examples of abuse by ostensible homeschoolers would rouse an apathetic public to call for increased regulation of the practice and to allocate the funding necessary to achieve it.