The Nauseating Repetition of Homeschool Abuse Cases

You know the story. The one about the homeschooled kid who was punished to death because the kid couldn’t stop sinning. Or the one about the homeschooled kid molested by the kid’s siblings while the parents looked the other way.

You likely know exactly how the story goes. The themes, the settings, the clothing worn, the words spoken. But can you name names? That’s more difficult, not because there’s none, but because there’s many. There’s not just one set of names.

You know these stories because there are more than one. But there are so many and they often look alike so they start blending together in our minds. The Wolfthals—the latest homeschooling family who ran a “house of horrors”—are like the Turpins, who are like the Harts, who are like the Jacksons, who are like the Williams, who are like the Gravelles, who are like so many other abusive families that use homeschooling as a tool to perpetuate and hide child abuse.

Indeed, there are almost 200 known cases of child abuse and neglect fatalities in homeschool settings since 1986. And that’s just fatalities. That doesn’t even include all the cases of severe physical and sexual abuse as well as neglect, sometimes so intense it becomes child torture, that homeschooled children have experienced. Over half of homeschool alumni surveyed in a 2014 study say they experienced abuse and an additional quarter report knowing another homeschooler who was abused.

How many more children must die or suffer horrific abuse before people pay attention?

The answer, unfortunately, is “many more.” Each of the aforementioned cases is so horrific, and so obviously enabled by the deregulated state of homeschool law across the United States, that each should have been enough to provoke change. When the homeschooling movement first learned about the Gravelles in 2005, for example, that should have been turning point. For both the homeschooling movement and state and federal legislators, the Gravelle case should have been enough. 

It should have inspired widespread reflection among homeschoolers about the inadequacy of self-policing. It should also have inspired legislators to enact common-sense, reasonable legislative oversight over homeschooling. Instead, Scott Somerville, an attorney for the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), the largest homeschool lobbying organization in the world as well as an essential force in the Religious Right, called the Gravelle father a “hero.” Efforts by homeschool alumni to counter this messaging by homeschool lobbyists and leaders were unproductive, as the homeschooling movement was unwilling to listen to criticism.

The Gravelle case is not by any means the only time HSLDA has defended actual child abusers who used homeschooling to hide their crimes. In 2009, HSLDA attorney and homeschool alumnus Darren Jones provided legal backup for Karen and Timothy Tolin, homeschooling parents who put a naked child in a cage surrounded by urine and feces.

This unfortunately has become the official pattern and response of homeschool lobbyists, leaders, and parents to every case of abuse and neglect in homeschooling: first, defend the parents as godly and righteous; second, after it becomes undeniable the abuse happened, claim the parents weren’t “real homeschoolers” or “real Christians”; and third, shoot down any and every effort by homeschool alumni and state and federal legislators to address the abuse and prevent it from happening again in the future.

Because denial and deflection have become the official responses to abuse in homeschooling, nothing has been done to prevent further abuse. This means that, year after year, decade after decade, we have to see the same stories, the same cases, and the same patterns enacted over and over again and in the exact same ways.

To be honest, it’s not just tiring. It’s nauseating. It’s nauseating to see the same evil perpetrated time after time and no one does anything about it. It’s like the homeschooling movement has decided that hundreds of child deaths and thousands of cases of severe physical and sexual abuse as well as neglect are the appropriate cost of homeschooling freedom. They are willing to sacrifice their own children in pursuit of that shining city on a hill.

A shining city built on the blood and bones of broken children.

Published by R.L. Stollar

R.L. Stollar is a child liberation theologian and an advocate for children and abuse survivors. The author of an upcoming book on child liberation theology, The Kingdom of Children, Ryan has an M.H.S. in Child Protection from Nova Southeastern University and an M.A. in Eastern Classics from St. John’s College.

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