Cultural Competence in Evangelical and Fundamentalist Homeschooling Communities

Increasing attention is being paid to the existence of childhood trauma within Christian evangelical and fundamentalist homeschooling communities. Unfortunately, literature on how advocates and responders can develop cultural competence towards these communities is non-existent. While literature exists on how to develop cultural competence towards evangelical and fundamentalist communities in general, homeschooling itself presents unique obstacles. The combination of deregulation, isolation, an inconsistent screening system, the lack of required annual medical examinations, and pressure from advocacy organizations makes it difficult for advocates and responders to both reach and help homeschooled children. This article will suggest multiple ways that advocates and responders can work with homeschooling gatekeepers and increase cultural competence in order to bring homeschooled children access to much-needed education and services. 

Overview of Homeschooling

Homeschooling is an increasingly popular educational method in the U.S., with 3.3% of children ages 5-17 educated at home, which comes to approximately 1,690,000 children (though accurate numbers are hard to come by due to deregulation). Recent high-profile cases of trauma such as the murder of Hana Williams, the suicide of Abigail Bonner, and the abuse of the Turpin children indicate traumatic situations can exist within homeschooling communities. In fact, there have been at least 171 child abuse and neglect fatalities in homeschool settings since 1986. This indicates that, statistically, homeschooled children are at a greater risk of dying from child abuse than traditionally schooled children. Furthermore, a recent survey of 3,702 homeschool alumni found that approximately half (51%) experienced abuse during childhood, and a further 26% reported knowing another homeschooler who was abused.

While many homeschoolers love their children and have their children’s best interests in mind, a lack of governmental and community safeguards means that abusive parents can take advantage of homeschooling to hide their crimes. Only two states in the U.S. have protections for at-risk homeschooled children—meaning, children whose parents have been convicted of child abuse. In other words, in 48 states, it is perfectly legal for a convicted child abuser or registered sex offender to remove their children from public school and “homeschool” them away from the eyes of mandatory reporters and law enforcement. This loophole in homeschooling law means that homeschooling can be used by abusive parents to inflict further abuse on especially vulnerable children, children who are difficult to find and even more difficult to advocate for. Additionally, no state has any monitoring provisions in place for families who begin to homeschool during open child abuse or neglect investigations, or for families with concerning histories of social services involvement.

Homeschoolers are overwhelmingly religious, 94% being Christians. In Homeschool: An American History, historian Milton Gaither documents that, while grassroots leftists originally inspired the homeschooling movement, 90% of homeschoolers were conservative Christians by 1990. While homeschooling has diversified in recent years, it continues to be very much a “Christians-only club,” as evangelical and fundamentalist Christian organizations and speakers continue to monopolize homeschool conventions.

Trauma responses within homeschooling communities necessitate an understanding of community values. When evangelical and fundamentalist communities sequester themselves due to deeply held religious beliefs, advocates and responders face increased barriers—and this applies equally to homeschooling communities. This article examines how cultural competence can be increased to reduce those barriers.

Understanding Trauma and Cultural Competence

According to the American Psychological Association, trauma is “exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence.” Major types of trauma include child abuse, rape and sexual assault, intimate partner violence, torture, and witnessing or being confronted with the homicide or suicide of another person. While these major types of trauma occur universally across communities and cultures, the impact of, meaning given to, and necessary response to each trauma can change according to the communal or cultural context. This creates the need for cultural competence.

Cultural competence means advocates and responders must understand the intersection of a given trauma with a unique individual in a specific cultural context. As psychologist Laura S. Brown notes in Cultural Competence in Trauma Therapy, one must develop the “ability to understand how a trauma survivor’s multiple identities and social contexts lend meaning to the experience of a trauma and the process of recovery.” The proper use of cultural competence can help and speed up healing by connecting trauma survivors to their own resources.

When considering cultural competence in response to trauma experienced within evangelical and fundamentalist homeschooling communities, three layers must be addressed: first, what evidence-based cultural competence looks like within evangelical communities; second, what such a response looks like within fundamentalist communities; and third, what we can draw from the first two evidence-based practices to guide cultural competence within those communities’ homeschooling subcultures.

Literature Survey: Cultural Competence and Evangelical Communities

Let us first turn to cultural competence and evangelical communities. And the first question to ask is: Who are evangelicals? According to counseling professionals Monica A. Polonyi, Richard C. Henriksen Jr., and Sheryl A. Serres, Evangelicals are Christians who: one, “place great value on the authority of the Bible as literal truth”; two, are “typically conservative”; and three, “espouse to the virgin birth of Christ, believe Christ’s death on the cross provided the atonement for the sins of the world, that he was bodily resurrected, and that the miracles reported in the Bible are authentic.” Additional insight from social work professor David R. Hodge reveals how evangelicals are notably suspicious of anything that strikes them as “secular.” Thus, Hodge points out, evangelicals “refrain from privileging a material worldview that precludes the existence of the supernatural.”

Literature on cultural competence within evangelical communities is scant. However, it does explore reasons evangelicals view advocates and responders with suspicion. 

First, evangelicals believe that social workers in particular have negative biases toward Christians because they lack understanding of the Christians’ religious views and that there is conflict between Christianity and the social work profession. 

Second, evangelicals perceive secular culture as attempting to exclude and/or attack people of faith. Research on evangelicals found 92% agreed with the statement, “Christian values are under serious attack in the United States.” 

Third, according to Hodge, “the most important factor in working with evangelical Christians is their self-perception as a minority group,” leading to the belief in a “power differential between the secular and Christian worldview.” Even though Christians make up the majority (71%) of the U.S. population, and secularists only make up 7%, evangelicals still see themselves as a persecuted minority. This influences their response to advocates and responders, as evangelicals perceive a power imbalance between themselves and advocates and responders. 

Fourth, evangelicals’ outspoken advocacy for corporal punishment leads them to reject the scientific consensus on the inefficacy and dangers of corporal punishment. Whereas “Protestant Christians tend to be the most ardent advocates” of corporal punishment, writes Christian trauma therapist Catherine Mueller-Bell, counseling and psychology professionals tend to be more secular and reject it. Thus, according to psychologists Jamie Aten, Michael Mangis, and Clark Campbell, “Evangelical perspectives are in conflict with the dominant perspective in the discipline of counseling psychology.” Most evangelical child training “experts”—from John MacArthur to Tedd Tripp to Michael and Debi Pearl—believe corporal punishment is not only godly, but necessary to the salvation of one’s children. They are consequently suspicious of any advocate or responder who disagrees.

Strategies for Cultural Competence

Professionals have established several important boundaries to guide the path towards cultural competence with evangelicals. Let’s start with suggestions made by Hodge.

First, advocates and responders should build trust with clients. This can be accomplished by: working within the parameters of the client’s worldview rather than trying to force the client outside those parameters; being forthright with clients clearly and early about their credentials and personal worldview in relation to professional work; acknowledging—to the client—the client’s faith as an asset to recovery and promising to respect it; and by asking the client to share their faith so they feel comfortable bringing up spiritual issues. 

Second, advocates and responders should avoid offending their clients. They should not suggest the client distrust the Bible, not believe miracles are literal, or not believe Biblical events are historical. They should also avoid referring to evangelicals as “fundamentalist” as many evangelicals experience that word pejoratively. 

Third, advocates and responders should distinguish between essential aspects of evangelical culture and aspects inhibiting healthy functioning. It is possible to acknowledge a cultural practice while at the same time identifying its unhealthy applications. For example, if an evangelical homeschooling mother says she believes in patriarchy, an advocate or responder can work around this by pointing out the godly use of power is sacrificial. This avoids directly challenging the client’s worldview but still draws attention to how power used to control is unhealthy. This requires efforts to familiarize oneself with evangelical culture, something for which advocates and responders can ask clients for help.

Research by Polonyi, Henriksen, and Serres stresses that evangelicals’ faith can serve as protective factors by providing individuals with (1) coping mechanisms against anxiety and stress and (2) community encouragement and support. Advocates and responders should consequently rely on these protective factors, encouraging clients to seek an anchor and meaning in their faith and helping them deepen their surrounding support network. Also, to ensure advocates and responders move beyond stereotypes about evangelicals, they should ask their clients what meaning they give to their self-definition as evangelical.

Social work professors Dwain Pellebon and Tonia Caselman state there are at least three proven strategies for overcoming evangelicals’ suspicion towards advocates and responders: First, advocates and responders should engage in public awareness campaigns to let evangelicals know they commit to respect the rights of all groups, evangelicals included. Second, advocates and responders should be educated about the spiritual diversity among clients, including evangelicals. Third, even when evangelicals’ beliefs seem unorthodox, advocates and responders should show sensitivity and empathy towards them (within the limits of legal responsibilities).

Let us now consider cultural competence and Christian fundamentalist communities.

Literature Survey: Cultural Competence and Fundamentalist Communities

Christian fundamentalism is a religious movement that began among Christian evangelicals. In Fundamentalism and American Culture, historian George Marsden describes it as “a distinct version of evangelical Christianity uniquely shaped by the circumstances of America in the early twentieth century.” Symbolically identified by twelve volumes of essays published by a Christian oil baron from 1910 to 1915 entitled The Fundamentals, fundamentalism is marked by militant opposition to (1) modernism in Christian theology and (2) the cultural changes in the early twentieth century that modernism gave rise to and promoted, such as the field of psychology, the theory of evolution, and religious diversity in public schools.

Literature on cultural competence within fundamentalist communities is limited. However, it does identify several obstacles advocates and responders will encounter. Aten, Magnos, and Campbell point to three potential challenges: First, fundamentalists often spiritualize psychological problems, interpreting mental illness as sin instead of the result of, say, low serotonin or life stressors. Second, fundamentalists’ literal interpretations of the Bible can lead to rigid family and gender roles, straining marital relationships and increasing authoritarianism in parent-child relationships. Third, the religious agendas of fundamentalists can complicate treatment. For example, clergy may refer clients to advocates and responders in order to change clients’ “sinful” behaviors—like being queer—even though clients do not desire such changes.

Pellebon and Caselman explain that fundamentalists are “more likely than traditional Protestants to interpret social work advocacy for group rights as support for immorality.” In other words, advocates and responders who support marginalized communities will likely be seen by fundamentalists as anti-Christian or leftist. Additionally, Christian counselors Karen Eriksen, Gaye Marston, and Tina Korte caution that fundamentalists are at high risk for refusing necessary services unless advocates and responders clearly indicate they will respect them.

Finally, fundamentalist interpretations of biblical passages can also hinder cultural competence. Eriksen, Marston, and Korte identify five “biblical” beliefs a fundamentalist Christian might hold that trauma responders need to be prepared to interact with and be able to work creatively around: first, self-care is selfish; second, truth can only come from Christianity; third, the Bible has all the answers Christians need; fourth, joy and peace are the only appropriate emotions; and fifth, practices like divorce (which a responder might consider necessary for a client) are evil.

Strategies for Cultural Competence

Aten, Magnos, and Campbell say there are six proven steps to increase cultural competence with fundamentalists:

First, advocates and responders should practice self-awareness. They should examine potential biases against fundamentalists and make sure they do not overpathologize clients. 

Second, advocates and responders should collaborate with community gatekeepers. Three recommendations can be made here. (i) Because fundamentalists tend to defer to religious authorities and interpret psychological problems as spiritual, they may not seek help for trauma unless referred by a gatekeeper. Advocates and responders should therefore develop relationships with clergy so clergy are aware of services and can be consulted when help is needed to interpret client beliefs. (ii) Because family doctors and nurses are often trusted gatekeepers, advocates and responders should consult with them when a client resists necessary treatment. For example, if a fundamentalist hesitates to take an antidepressant because of suspicions towards psychotherapy, having a family doctor recommend the antidepressant can increase compliance. (iii) Because not all gatekeepers within fundamentalist communities are clergy or family doctors, advocates and responders should identify and partner with other community figureheads, such as older adults trusted for their wisdom. 

Third, advocates and responders should demonstrate respect for fundamentalists’ belief systems (unless a belief causes direct harm). This can be demonstrated through efforts such as: ensuring marketing materials state clients’ cultures will be respected and integrated; informing clients directly that their cultures will be looked to as support sources; and inquiring about religion and spirituality during intake processes. 

Fourth, advocates and responders should take care when addressing problematic client beliefs. Fundamentalists’ beliefs are intimately intertwined with their identities; any challenge to one belief can cause an existential disruption. Advocates and responders will have better success with focusing on behaviors resulting from the problematic belief. After positive results are experienced by the client through behavioral change, only then should advocates and responders consider suggesting ideological change — and still only when a strong provider/client alliance exists.

Fifth, advocates and responders should be forthright with addressing religious differences between clients and themselves. Fundamentalist clients might ask responders, “Are you a Christian?” Vague answers will be interpreted negatively. If significant differences exist, they should simply be acknowledged along with reiterating the responders’ commitment to respecting the client’s faith. Identifying shared beliefs—such as the importance of forgiveness, hope, and justice—can also help.

Sixth, advocates and responders should take a holistic approach to trauma. They should see clients’ spirituality as part of their treatment and view clients’ communities as potential resources for services and intervention.

Literature Survey: Cultural Competence and Homeschooling Communities

We have now looked at the literature available on cultural competence with evangelicals and fundamentalists. But what about homeschoolers specifically?

Unfortunately, literature on cultural competence within evangelical and fundamentalist Christian homeschooling communities is nearly non-existent. In fact, literature on cultural competence within homeschooling communities in general is similar. The first of only two references, from social worker Roger Jennens, simply states: “Practitioners are unlikely to find helpful resources in the literature. No reports have been found of constructive, successful interventions with home-educated children at risk of harm or disadvantage, nor will practitioners in health and welfare services find any official document offering comprehensive guidance.” The second reference, from a 2015 book review of The Handbook of Psychotherapy and Religious Diversity by Hodge for Social Work, contains two relevant paragraphs, the key sentence being: “Culturally sensitive practice with families of faith who home school is facilitated by understanding why such families make the sacrifice to prioritize home schooling.”

We learn two lessons, then, from the literature: First, there are no current resources to help advocates and responders help homeschoolers (though grassroots efforts by homeschool alumni have started to change this). We desperately need those resources developed. And second, being culturally competent with homeschoolers requires understanding the “sacrifice” they make. This is important, because homeschooling often becomes a totalistic system.

Unique Challenges Presented by Homeschooling

Homeschooling communities exist as subcultures within their respective larger cultures. But homeschooling can also be seen as a way of life and therefore a culture itself. This is key to understanding most homeschoolers. Homeschoolers cling to their identity as homeschoolers and will consequently interpret any criticism—even constructive criticism—as personally offensive. Advocates and responders must understand homeschooling can be as important to homeschoolers as religion.

This fact—that homeschooling is a culture—creates five unique challenges for advocates and responders: 

First, the culture in general is allergic to government intervention, leading homeschoolers to advocate for almost entirely deregulated homeschooling. This has left advocates and responders with few legal tools to locate or help homeschooled children experiencing abuse and neglect. Only 29 states require parents to file an annual notice of homeschooling, so in many states, there is no way of tracking how homeschooled children are faring. 

Second, as homeschool oversight advocate Carmen Longoria-Green has pointed out, many homeschooled children “do not interact with mandatory reporters.” Homeschoolers in general are fearful of and disdainful towards the child welfare system and will intentionally keep their children away from mandatory reporters like doctors. 

Third, while screening systems like annual required doctor exams for public school students are in place, there is no such system for homeschooled students. This means advocates and responders must rely on tips from neighbors, friends, and family members. 

Fourth, homeschoolers are less likely to have access to a medical home (or a primary care provider), to receive annual preventive medical care, and to receive the HPV vaccine. Homeschoolers’ fears of professionals, in other words, lead to medical neglect. 

Fifth, according to Green, advocates and responders are “hampered by legal restrictions that prevent them from inspecting homeschools or speaking alone with homeschooled children.” For example, homeschool advocacy organizations like HSLDA (the Home School Legal Defense Association) often bring claims challenging social workers who are conducting child welfare investigations.

Recommendations for Overcoming Unique Challenges

So how can we overcome these unique obstacles as advocates and responders? How can we achieve cultural competence with homeschoolers?

Strategies for cultural competence with homeschooling communities can be categorized into two areas: (1) strategies for connecting with homeschooled children who are difficult to reach through traditional means and (2) strategies for helping those children once reached. The former necessitates an understanding of the cultural gatekeepers with which one can partner. The latter necessitates an understanding of how to work within the culture to create desired healing from trauma.

Strategies for Connection

Let us consider strategies for connection first.

One, building trust with gatekeepers: Since homeschooling communities tend to be closed and tightly knit, with authority granted only to key individuals, advocates and responders must build trust with community authorities. One way to build relationships with a culture is involvement in its activities. Advocates and responders can contact key individuals to volunteer to give a presentation at a homeschool co-op or a workshop at a convention. During these interactions, advocates and responders should, as Hodge suggests, work to empathize with “why such families make the sacrifice to prioritize home schooling.” They also should acknowledge and express respect for fears that might alienate homeschoolers. For example, they should acknowledge that many homeschoolers fear social workers. They should reassure homeschoolers they have no intention to treat them discriminatorily or unfairly.

Two, educating gatekeepers: In the context of African-American churches providing suicide prevention services to black adolescents, social work experts A. Christson Adedoyin and Susan Nicole Salte argue that, “A proven method for incorporating healthcare into a multitude of settings within a community that is also ‘culturally appropriate’ for the population group being served is to utilize ‘community persons’ in carrying out of services.” This is called the lay health advisors model. Said persons would “receive specialized training to enhance their existing skills and knowledge and in the case of implementing a suicide prevention program the helpers would be ‘taught to identify risk and protective factors, educate church members, make referrals to outside agencies, and increase the exchange of self-care resources among members.’” Advocates and responders can similarly educate homeschooling gatekeepers. As Green highlights, “Fundamentalist Christian organizations and speakers dominate homeschool conventions.” Conventions are consequently a key cultural gatekeeper within homeschooling communities. Giving specialized training to convention leaders can spread services to people and places advocates and responders cannot access.

Three, partnering with gatekeepers: Collaboration between advocates and responders and faith communities is both an evidence-based practice and a practice welcome by those communities. Advocates Erin Olson O’Neill, Jodi Gabel, Stephanie Huckins, and Jeanette Harder point out that, “Churches cherish the collaborative relationships they have with social service providers and strongly desire more partnerships that will bolster their role in protecting children and strengthening families.” However, these partnerships need to feel mutual: “Service providers may offer training for congregation members while the church provides leadership in volunteer recruitment.” The authors highlight partnership programs in which social workers lead awareness campaigns about child abuse in churches and church congregants participate in young mother mentoring programs for social workers. This creates a bidirectional relationship between advocates and responders and communities. Advocates and responders can similarly collaborate with homeschooling communities. Responders can participate in homeschooler education and also seek out homeschoolers to get involved in volunteer work with responders. Involvement in Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) might be a good meeting point between responders and homeschoolers.

Four, creating alternative structures from within the culture: The church is the central institution in evangelicalism and fundamentalism. In 2008, Baylor University’s Matthew Stanford and Ross University’s Kandace McAlister conducted research that found that many Christians first seek help for trauma from clergy. In response, Stanford created the Mental Health Grace Alliance, an organization that operates from within Christian culture to provide mental health support groups and education. In similar fashion, advocates and responders can create alternative structures within homeschooling communities to reach the most isolated members. For example, they can work with curriculum companies to develop curricula for homeschoolers to educate them about trauma. This way trauma education is coming from inside rather than outside the culture, making that education feel safer.

Strategies for Help

Now let us consider strategies for help.

One, learning the language: Learning cultural language is vital to cultural competence. Familiarity with biblical passages, for example, helps advocates and responders validate clients’ reliance on the passages while at the same time empowering them to suggest new, healthier ways of looking at those passages. This way, if a client’s interpretation of a biblical passage serves as an obstacle for healing or recovery, the responder can suggest an alternative interpretation instead of challenging the Bible itself. This applies equally to homeschooling communities. Advocates and responders should familiarize themselves with homeschool language, including what buzzwords are triggering (like “socialization” or “children’s rights”). If they believe a child’s trauma can be treated through increased socialization or rights, they can figure out creative ways to phrase those suggestions that will not feel triggering.

Two, utilizing spiritual care: According to health sciences professor Donia Baldacchino, spiritual care is “recognizing, respecting, and meeting patients’ spiritual needs; facilitating participation in religious rituals; communicating through listening and talking with clients; being with the patient by caring, supporting, and showing empathy; promoting a sense of well-being by helping them to find meaning and purpose in their illness and overall life; and referring them to other professionals, including chaplains/pastors.” Advocates and responders can make spiritual care vital to their work with homeschoolers in a number of ways. For example, they can seek to understand clients’ spiritual needs and help clients explore new ways that their homeschooling communities can meet those needs. They can seek out information about homeschool activities that might help clients find greater peace in their religious beliefs. Or they can find other professionals who are Christian and have experience with homeschooling to whom they can refer clients.

Three, incorporating the language: Evidence-based treatments are more effective when the treatment complements the client’s culture. One way to do this, for example, is melding religious content with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. When working with homeschoolers, advocates and responders should consider similar steps. Incorporating religious language into proven methods of treatment, and using examples from homeschool culture that clients can relate to, can ensure that they feel the treatment is meaningful and useful. The book God Made All of Me by Justin and Lindsey Holcomb is a great example of how best practices for educating children about abuse and body safety can be melded with religious language.

Four, finding leaders with alternative visions: Christian cultures are not monoliths, and neither are homeschooling cultures. There is significant variation in how these communities approach trauma. While the majority of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians may take approaches to trauma that advocates and responders consider destructive or inappropriate, there are cultural gatekeepers with alternative visions. For example, Aten, Magnos, and Campbell observe that, “If a client tells the clinician that the Bible gives him permission to beat his child and that his pastor agrees with this practice, consultation with other pastors may reveal alternative interpretations or scriptures that present a different view of parenting.” This applies equally to homeschooling. While many leaders in Christian homeschooling communities promote strict corporal punishment, there are also leaders within those communities who support gentle parenting practices. Empowering and partnering with those trusted figures who have alternative, healthier visions can create significant internal change.


Cases of childhood trauma within evangelical and fundamentalist homeschooling communities point to the need for advocates and responders to better understand these communities. The communities present both normative and unique challenges to cultural competence. Normative challenges are distrust and suspicion experienced by evangelicals and fundamentalists in general towards advocates and responders. Unique challenges arise specifically within homeschooling communities. The combination of deregulation, isolation, an inconsistent screening system, the lack of required medical examinations, and pressure from advocacy organizations presents significant difficulties.

This article suggested two strategies for overcoming these challenges: First, strategies must be developed for connecting with homeschooled children who are difficult to reach, including (1) building trust with gatekeepers, (2) educating gatekeepers, (3) developing partnerships with gatekeepers, and (4) creating alternative structures for services. Second, strategies must be developed for helping children once reached, including (1) learning homeschoolers’ cultural language, (2) utilizing spiritual care, (3) incorporating cultural language into services, and (4) finding community leaders with alternative, healthier visions.

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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