Keeping Kids Safe in the Homeschool Boom, with Angela Grimberg
Homeschooling is the fastest-growing form of education in the U.S., a surge in popularity that crosses every demographic, political, and geographic line. Most parents who homeschool do so with their children’s very best interests in mind. But what about that small but very critical percentage of parents who homeschool in order to hide their child from public view and abuse them? How do we create a policy environment that enhances safety for all children? And how can we factor a homeschool population into child abuse prevention and intervention efforts? Join us as we speak with Angela Grimberg from the Coalition for Responsible Home Education.
Topics in this episode:
- Origin story (02:19)
- About homeschooling (04:38)
- Research (08:10)
- Public policy recommendations (11:04)
- Advice for child abuse professionals (14:47)
- Parents’ reactions (20:31)
- Share and subscribe (22:42)
Homeschooling: Last Week Tonight With John Oliver (October 8, 2023) featured the Coalition
11 states with no homeschooling notification requirements: Alaska, Connecticut, Idaho, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Montana, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Texas
Season 5, Episode 20
“Keeping Kids Safe in the Homeschool Boom”
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[00:09] Teresa Huizar:
Hi, I’m Teresa Huizar, your host of One in Ten. In today’s episode, “Keeping Kids Safe in the Homeschool Boom,” I speak with Angela Grimberg, executive director of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education.
Now, homeschooling is the fastest-growing form of education in the U.S. A recent analysis by The Washington Post found that it had grown by 51% nationally since 2018. And while its dramatic growth was catalyzed by the pandemic, this surge in popularity has crossed every demographic, political, and geographic line. Most parents who homeschool do so with their children’s very best interest in mind. Trying to address their child’s special needs. Or maybe worried about the safety of their neighborhood school. Or perhaps wanting to incorporate their faith into the educational setting.
But what about that small but very critical percentage of parents who homeschool in order to isolate? In order to control? And in order to abuse? As you will hear, mandatory reporting systems were set up with the idea that those professionals who most regularly see and serve children should have a duty to report suspected abuse. And school personnel are the most frequent reporters of child abuse after law enforcement. So, what happens when no school system ever sees a child? No public school teacher? No school nurse, no school counselor, no soccer coach or band leader?
As you will hear, for those children hidden from public view by parents who homeschool in order to abuse them, no help is coming. How do we create a policy environment that enhances safety for all children? And how can child abuse professionals factor a homeschool population into their prevention and intervention efforts?
I know you’ll be as interested in this conversation as I was. Please take a listen.
[02:19] Teresa Huizar:
Well, Angela, welcome to One in Ten.
Thank you so much for having me, Teresa.
[02:25] Teresa Huizar:
So I’m just going to start at the beginning. How did you become interested in and involved in the intersection between homeschooling and child maltreatment?
Well, it’s a very interesting road, to say the least, Teresa. I’m going to start kind of with my own background and how I came to find the Coalition for Responsible Home Education.
I was homeschooled myself, kindergarten through freshman year of high school. And during that time, I just wasn’t receiving the education that I needed. I wasn’t receiving much of an education at all. I knew how to read, I knew how to write, but it became very apparent to me that I couldn’t multiply, I couldn’t divide in freshman year of high school. And so I advocated for my own education. I enrolled myself in a Florida virtual school, and then I kind of worked my way up. I got into the University of Florida. I got really involved in research there, and then I went and pursued my master’s to be a physician assistant.
And it was during this time that I wanted to do more research while I was pursuing my master’s, and look at homeschooling outcomes. And that’s when I started googling to see what organizations are doing this and I found the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, the only organization in the country that is advocating for homeschooled children. And I found other people like me that had gone through the homeschooling system, saw that there were some negative outcomes, although there are many children that experience very positive outcomes that they were still recognizing that there was a propensity for negative outcomes. And then from there, I just kind of worked my way up to being the executive director of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education.
And so, since being onboarded last August, I’ve kind of taken the organization in stride and directed us towards child welfare. I am a board-certified physician assistant specializing in pediatric emergency medicine, and I see firsthand every day in the clinic children that come into the clinic and how important it is to provide resources for children and families and children more broadly. And I’m so interested in the intersection between child advocacy, education, and advocating for our children.
So that’s kind of what got me here today and that intersection between homeschooling and child advocacy.
[04:38] Teresa Huizar:
What do you think the public needs to better understand about homeschooling? I think if someone hasn’t been homeschooled, they just may not know much about it.
Absolutely. So, like I said, our organization is a bipartisan organization that recognizes that homeschooling can be an incredibly beneficial option for a lot of children.
We have research to suggest that the children that benefit the most from homeschooling are those children that face discrimination or have a disability. We want to protect what is valuable about homeschooling, but we want to mitigate the risk for negative outcomes. And I think what a lot of the public doesn’t understand is there are huge gaps in homeschooling policy that allow children to fall through the cracks.
These are policies that most of the public think are in place to protect homeschooled children, and they are not. And so that is what I really want to get across to the audience today, is that in 11 states, you don’t even have to notify your local school district of your intent to homeschool. In those 11 states, those children do not have access to a mandatory abuse reporter. We don’t know what kind of education they’re receiving, and for all intents and purposes, they’re off the grid. And so, you know, a notification policy just telling the state that you intend to homeschool your child, that’s the bare minimum, and that’s what a lot of people believe is already in place. And in 11 states, it’s just not.
[5:57] Teresa Huizar:
That’s so interesting, because I do think that most people would assume that you would have to notify someone, maybe your local school district, etc., if you intended to homeschool so that you could access resources they had or something like that. So that’s fascinating.
You know, what I’ve appreciated about your stance on this is, you’re very fair minded, I think, in recognizing that for some kids, this is a really viable option. And you can have parents who are homeschooling kids for the best of reasons, you know, as you point out, kids with disabilities or who have special and unique needs, who may benefit from that.
But there are people who misuse this opportunity for homeschooling to sort of hide children away. So can you just talk a little bit about some of the unique factors with homeschooling that might make it more vulnerable to misuse by parents who might not have the best of intentions in terms of their reasons for seeking to do it?
Yeah, Teresa, absolutely. And so like you alluded to, a majority of homeschooling parents have their child’s best interest in mind and they’re doing it with the best of intentions.
And so we have modeled our policy recommendations and what we believe to be responsible homeschooling after what these families are already doing to minimize any burdens. We don’t want to make it harder for a family to homeschool their child.
But you’re absolutely right that, through our own research, we have found that there are offenders, there are child abusers, that are taking advantage of lax homeschooling policy to further isolate and abuse children. They are taking advantage of, you know, what we give to responsible homeschooling families and using it to hurt children. And so that is what we found through our Homeschooling’s Invisible Children database.
And so this is a searchable database. We’ve collected over 600 cases—and these are just the cases that make media coverage. These are our major cases. The Turpin case, the Hart case. Situations in which these children are severely abused and neglected under the disguise of homeschooling. We’ve collected it in this database so that we can elicit different themes and find out: What is the underlying cause? What is allowing these people to abuse the system, abuse homeschooling, and hurt children?
[08:10] Teresa Huizar:
Let’s talk for a moment about your research and kind of how you went about it and the overall state of research with homeschooling.
I have to say that in preparation for our discussion today, you know, we looked at that and actually asked a research librarian to pull research that’s done on this population. There’s very little out there. I mean, you may be aware of some that I’m not, but I have to tell you, it kind of surprised me, the dearth of research on child maltreatment and homeschooling in particular. Not just homeschooling more broadly or its educational aims, but specific to the topic that we’re talking about today.
And so, talk a little bit about the research that you’ve done, but also kind of the challenges of research with this population.
Absolutely. So you’re definitely right in the respect that there is very little research out there, and specifically when we’re talking about child welfare and homeschooling. So there has been studies done on maybe some of the educational outcomes, like the one that we did on publicly available data in Alaska that suggests that homeschooling can be a beneficial option to some children. But overall the landscape makes it incredibly difficult to do any research because most states do not track this sort of data. And in 11 states, we don’t know how many children are being homeschooled at all. So in those situations, I mean, it makes it really, really hard to do any research. And so we have very few studies that we can refer to.
And I would say that Homeschooling’s Invisible Children Database is the only data set available on abuse and neglect in the homeschool setting. And our methodology for this is, really it was a team of dedicated volunteers over the last decade that have just volunteered their time to thoroughly document each case and write it up to consist of certain variables.
And then we’re at this stage now where we have these 600 cases, all of these variables, and we need to take it to the next level.
So we are receiving grant funding to do further analysis on this data and actually inform a training program for child welfare professionals. That’s the next step where we see this research going. But it’s still kind of in that preliminary phase of data analysis.
But our challenges have really been, you know, finding these cases. That’s incredibly difficult. And so we’ve only used publicly available, you know, cases that make media coverage. Sometimes our volunteers would reach out to local law enforcement or CPS [child protective services] that were involved in the case to get more details on that specific case. And I can tell you over the last year of speaking with child welfare professionals, social workers, CPS, law enforcement, we are missing a shockingly large number of cases that they bring to me. And these aren’t ones that make media coverage. These are just ones that the child advocates on the ground are seeing. And that is what I think is so terrifying, is just the sheer number that we’re missing.
[11:04] Teresa Huizar:
Yes. And this whole issue of underreporting, I think, is one that touches our field in many ways.
You know, most of the child abuse reporting laws that were written were not really written thinking about homeschooling in particular. And we know that the majority of reports that go to child protective services come from the educational setting. So I’m wondering what your own recommendations are for how laws need to be changed to recognize that there is a population who, especially in 11 states, you know, we may have no contact with at all.
What are your policy recommendations around mandatory reporting?
Absolutely. Well, I think that one of the biggest things, and this is off of the major theme of Homeschooling’s invisible Children database. This is strikingly apparent in almost every case that we report and have documented, is that the abuse and neglect that is happening, it’s children that have been reported to CPS in the public school system that then these offenders are able to withdraw their child following the CPS report. And so time and time again, you see a child that’s in public school. They’re repeatedly reported to CPS. The parent then withdraws them from public school to further isolate and abuse their children.
And these are the children that we see so emaciated and, ultimately, you know, have been murdered at the hands of their parents under the disguise of homeschooling. And so a very simple recommendation that we have, and it might—it’s not that simple. It would be a flagging system, you know, for children that are repeatedly reported, or even one report to CPS, that are reported to CPS, that they are then flagged and not to be able to be withdrawn from public school to be homeschooled without any further oversight.
So that is one aspect of our training program for child welfare professionals. We want to make it a red flag for these children that are reported to CPS if they are withdrawn following those reports.
[12:59] Teresa Huizar:
It also makes me wonder whether or not CPS is always even immediately aware that the child has been withdrawn. I mean, in a large city, every CPS worker isn’t, you know, chatting up the school system every little bit. And I think in many cases, you may have CPS workers that are, you know, it could be months before they’re aware that a child has been taken out of school.
Absolutely. Absolutely. So that is one issue. And oftentimes the child is reported by the superintendent of the school or other faculty at the school. So they are aware that this child is being reported. And then that child disappears. That child is homeschooled because there’s nothing in the laws to prevent that.
Only two states in the country do anything to prevent people that have been convicted of crimes against children to homeschool.
That’s Pennsylvania, which has an affidavit stating that parents that have been convicted of a crime that would disqualify them from teaching in public school within the last five years can’t homeschool. It’s a simple affidavit. It relies on the honor system. But it’s something. And so the Coalition for Responsible Home Education is a huge proponent of an affidavit.
And also Arkansas, which does not allow children to be homeschooled in a home that has a registered sex offender. However, the notification requirement in Arkansas doesn’t ask for this information. So we don’t know if the child is being homeschooled in a home that has a registered sex offender, if that makes sense.
So those are the only two states that do anything to prevent parents have been convicted of crimes against children to homeschool.
So some of our other policy recommendations look like the affidavits. Ultimately, we would want a background check as well. But an affidavit is what is in Pennsylvania. And so we advocate for the affidavit. And then of course, an annual notification policy if the parents intend to homeschool.
Those would look like bare minimum policies.
[14:47] Teresa Huizar:
You know, what’s sad in what you’re talking about is that so few places even have the most minimal levels of protection for kids in these kind of cases. And you can certainly imagine in our world where we deal with child sex trafficking and the production of abusive images, how you could have a parent who essentially manages to successfully secret their child away, sexually abuse them, record that, and distribute it, and who would ever know, you know? It’s just that that prospect I think is one that perhaps child abuse professionals haven’t thought enough about and about how we might do something policy-wise about that.
I am wondering, you know, how child abuse professionals should think about their outreach and prevention efforts based on this. Knowing the things that you’ve been talking about, about how, you know, there’s not a lot of monitoring, about how some kids can get very isolated. Many Children’s Advocacy Centers do prevention work, both with parents and other adults and also with children. How should we think about the way in which we approach these things with this population?
Absolutely. Well, Teresa, it all starts today with this podcast. You know, the narrative around homeschooling and the general education amongst child welfare professionals is minimal when it comes to homeschooling. And so even a simple podcast like we’re doing right now, where we’re sharing that there are risks when it comes to homeschooling and to be aware of what minimal policies are in place that allow children to fall through the gaps, that is fulfilling a purpose in and of itself because we are spreading awareness and we are educating.
And that is what a lot of Child Advocacy Centers and other organizations have brought forth to me in the last year, is just the need for education. What is homeschooling? And then what are the red flags of a child being abused in this population? And those are questions that we have answers to. We can definitely educate on what homeschooling is, as we just talked about.
And then next is that major theme, to look for a child being repeatedly reported to CPS or being withdrawn from school. That’s a red flag.
But also just knowing to document and to ask the education modality that the child is receiving. And so I think that is—you know, a very common theme amongst all of this is documenting, documenting, documenting.
In a certain state that I have been working with, they looked at child fatalities. And this data they saw in many cases that the child was homeschooled, but they didn’t track it among all cases. And so a priority should be to always document what education the child is receiving. And to know that isolation is a risk factor when a child is homeschooled.
Now, not all homeschooling children are isolated. Parents, responsible homeschooling parents, do an incredibly good job of having their kids involved in sports, in co-ops, in extracurricular activities where they’re coming into contact with a mandatory abuse reporter. And that’s where our policy recommendations come into play. We have modeled our policy recommendations after what these responsible homeschooling families are already doing.
For example, we do want a child to come into contact with a mandatory abuse reporter annually. But what this can look like is what the families are already doing by having their child’s children involved in extracurricular activities. And that annual notification policy that’s making sure that the children are coming into contact with the reporter.
[18:10] Teresa Huizar:
Well, one of the things I’m wondering about, you know, sometimes intervention does have to happen, where there’s been a report, there’s a concern.
What I’m wondering is, when you are talking to child abuse professionals, what is your advice about how to approach this particular population, how to approach these families? Are there specific things that we should be sensitive to thinking about, you know, as we interact with homeschooling families?
The first thing is to recognize that homeschooling doesn’t automatically mean abuse or isolation. So to approach the family very, you know, delicately in that respect and to not always be, you know—to be skeptical, but to not automatically assume that something is wrong within the family.
But then it is important to look at the children, how they’re behaving, if they are able to communicate how they are doing, their education, if they know what grade they’re in, if they know how they’re receiving an education. Those are all kind of signs that they are not receiving what they need to, or the family doesn’t have the resources that they need.
That’s the other thing that’s really important for child welfare professionals when they are coming into contact with these families is to assess whether they have the resources that they need. Do they know what to do in a situation in which they have taken on too much that they can chew and homeschooling has become too much for them? Do they realize they can reenroll their children in public school? Because they absolutely can and some families are scared to do so. That is incredibly important.
As far as the red flags, you know, the number of Homeschooling’s Invisible Children cases that we have, most of those children have physical signs that would go otherwise detected if they come into contact with a mandatory abuse reporter. So, you know, those cases, you would see that a child is so emaciated that they couldn’t walk. Those things are very, very apparent. And so you would hope that all cases are that obvious and that you could offer the child assistance, but they’re not. And so these are all things that we are looking at in our database and our data set. And we will continue to analyze this data over the course of the next year and have a training program that offers more of in-depth insight into these red flags.
But resources should always be at the forefront of a child welfare professional’s mind when they are coming into contact with a homeschool children. And then appropriately documenting the child’s education modality.
[20:31] Teresa Huizar:
How are you finding that homeschooling parents are receiving the information that you’re sharing? And what has been their reaction to your work?
Largely, homeschooling parents are in favor of our policy recommendations. They want homeschooling to be a credible option for children, and they recognize when there isn’t a lot of policies in place to make homeschooling as credible and accountable as it could be, that that often takes away from the work that they’re doing. And so homeschooling parents are often in favor of our policy recommendations.
However, there is a general unease around increasing oversight of homeschooling in general. And that’s because a lot of parents are worried that they’ll lose the right to homeschool their children.
They are also worried, there’s a prevailing narrative that a social worker will come to your home and take your children—
—if, you know, someone isn’t satisfied with how you’re educating your child. And so I do want to assure everyone that, you know, as an organization, we do not advocate for home visits at all, unless CPS is called, in which case a report is made. But just in general, homeschooling and increasing oversight does not equal home visits, does not mean the social worker will come and take the child. It is once again modeled after what responsible homeschooling parents are already doing. And it offers increased credibility and accountability for the parents. It gives them credit for what they’re already doing. And it ensures that all children are safe.
[22:02] Teresa Huizar:
I’m wondering if there’s anything else I should have asked you and didn’t, or is there anything else you wanted to make sure that we talked about today?
You know, I think you asked a lot of the hard-hitting questions, especially in the child welfare space. You know, other than I think I made it clear that kind of where we’re at with our data sets. I wish I had more set variables to offer you. But that is going to need some more time. And we’re developing that training program. So I think I would say that you asked all of the questions I wanted to hit on today.
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[22:31] Teresa Huizar:
Great. Well, thank you so much for coming on to One in Ten, and we look forward to hearing more as your training program develops and as you do continued research.
Thank you so much, Teresa.
[22:42] Teresa Huizar:
Thanks for listening to One in Ten. If you liked this episode, please share it with a friend or colleague. And subscribe to get great conversations like this about every two weeks. We’ll see you back here soon.
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