Child abuse in homeschooling

The state of New Jersey is considering a bill that would require a state-mandated annual medical exam for all kids who are homeschooled.

I understand why homeschoolers get upset about this. The implication is that all homeschoolers are child abusers. And this is, in fact, a problem.

Take this New York Times article by Erik Eckholm. The article is about some a priest who has sold 670,000 copies of his book, To Train Up a Child, which advocates spanking kids with a rod and other implements. And kids are dying. The article is important, for sure, because the priest’s ideas are gaining traction, and as a society, we care a lot about making sure kids are safe. The problem with the article is Eckholm’s gratuitous mentions of homeschooling. The parents who beat the kid to death “were home schooling their six children.” To me, this mention seems tantamount to the gratuitous mention that someone is Jewish. Or black. The implication that the information is relevant is damning to the whole group, whether the group is blacks, Jews, homeschoolers, whoever.

So we have a problem that the idea that home schoolers are nutcases is promoted in the New York Times, which prompts reinforcement of the stereotype in legislative offices.

But here’s the other problem: Most egregious cases of abuse happen when kids are hidden. Which homeschooling allows. So maybe it would be okay for all homeschoolers to submit to medical exams so that a few children in each state can be saved from extreme abuse that would otherwise go unnoticed.

That’s one way to look at it. Here’s another way to look at it. Most times that a kid is hidden in a home and being abused, someone knows about it. Someone knows something is not right in that house. But in our society, where kids are sent away to school for eight hours a day, we assume that protecting our neighbor’s kid is the job of someone else. The school with catch it.

In the wake of the Penn State child abuse horror, we discover that people expected someone else to take care of things. There is a line of people who saw the abuse, and reported it to someone else in their chain of command. There is not a sense that if you see it, you personally must stop it.

This all reminds me of the Genovese Syndrome. It refers to Kitty Genovese, a woman who was murdered as she was screaming in an apartment complex where many people heard her cries for help and no one did anything. The Genovese Syndrome is the proclivity for individuals to do nothing if they perceive that many other people have heard the need for action and done nothing.

I think sending kids to school creates a society-wide Genovese Syndrome when it comes to child abuse. I’m not sure what to do about it. We should acknowledge that statistically speaking, it is certain that there are more kids being abused by parents who send their kids to school than who don’t send their kids to school. But for now, I don’t think I’d mind bringing my kids in for medical exams if I could save one or two lives that way.

Photo by Josh Anderson

31 replies
  1. Casey
    Casey says:

    Kind of important correction: the man who wrote “To Train Up a Child” is a pastor, not a priest.

    Agreed, though, that such checks won’t prevent most cases of child abuse; a lot of abusers either send their kids to school or, at any rate, probably wouldn’t comply with the law. And the “Train Up a Child” readers would probably be on their best behavior around the time of the visit, and then go back to their no-rod-sparing ways as soon as they left the office.

      • Someone in WI
        Someone in WI says:

        The author of that book is not a priest; “priest” applies only to the ordained ministers of the Catholic Church.

        While some priests are pastors (if they are in charge of a parish), not all pastors are priests. Some pastors are non-Catholic ministers in charge of non-Catholic churches.

        The author of the book is NOT a Catholic.

  2. Kristen
    Kristen says:

    I could argue that, in line with your reasoning of the Genovese Syndrome occuring in public schools, all children should be made to have a physical every year. However, that is a slippery slope. What about elder abuse? Domestic abuse of all types? Should we also mandate Yearly wellness checks on our entire population. Sounds costly and inimical to our freedom.

    • Deborah Hymes
      Deborah Hymes says:

      Well — obviously — children do not have the same level of maturity, autonomy, extended networks or personal and financial resources that adults have. Putting some basic measures in place to protect those who are truly defenseless is hardly an idea that threatens our personal freedoms.

  3. L (another Lisa)
    L (another Lisa) says:

    The link for “Penn State child abuse horror” is broken. Many studies have been done after the Genovese murder and unfortunately her case is not an anomaly. Large groups of people often respond slower (or not at all as in her case) than if only a single individual was present.

  4. DIsxocering Montessori
    DIsxocering Montessori says:

    Hi! I really do like your blog I find it a very resourceful one. But I am on both sides of the fence I am a homeschooling parent and a parent who sends their child to school.I did want to add that although I disagree with the law that they are trying to pass the truth still remains the truth. Most children who are abused are abused by someone in the home, or by someone they know very well introduced by the family. That is why where I live teachers, childcare providers, and those professions who work with children must by law report any signs of abuse. This is why I can see why this law would be able to be introduced, because it could very well be the mother who is abusing the homeschooled child, and no one could help the abused child. The child may only have contact with immediate family. And yes unfortunately this can and probably happens more often then we would like to accept. We can’t have double standards,believing so much in homeschooling that this can’t exist. There are people who do speak up, maybe not enough. It is more important to me to help a child before they are abused so that maybe they will feel trust enough to speak up for themselves and tell someone who will help. It just isn’t happening and the only people to blame are the abusers. Thank you for sharing, I enjoyed reading this post.

  5. min
    min says:

    In schools, teachers and administrators are trained to detect signs of abuse. Sometimes, it’s subtle so it’s important to know what to look for. I remember a case where a child was beaten and had bruised marks everywhere (hidden under long sleeves). It was reported by a teacher. While once a year check-up will probably not be enough to detect abuse, it probably wouldn’t hurt.

  6. Laura
    Laura says:

    As a society, we’re being complacent if we think abuse is being caught at school. I understand that homeschooling may make it even less likely that some abuse is caught, but the focus should be on finding a better way to prevent in general. I was abused as a child, and I attended public school, and no one said anything to me or intervened at all. I think this problem is more widespread than we can imagine.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Laura, I agree with you. I was abused as a kid and school didn’t intervene until high school. It’s true that laws governing teacher reporting were not as strong then as they are now. But to me, what all those years in grade school and middle school tell me is that teachers feel no moral obligation to stop abuse they see going on in the home.

      Laws can create a legal obligation, but until each person feels a moral obligation to personally stop child abuse, I think we’ll make very little headway to stop it.


      • Laura
        Laura says:

        I think you’re right about it being a personal moral obligation. I’m wondering how much class issues have to do with it. My experience was that adults and other teachers were less likely to speak up because people don’t like to second-guess upper-middle class parents. We need to eliminate cultural barriers like this to intervention.

  7. Twister
    Twister says:

    The real dangerous part about that scenario is the six kids. I’m not sure if the Pearl’s are Quiverfull themselves, but their books are revered by some of the leading voices in the quiverfull movement. Even the title “To TRAIN up a child” alludes to quiverfull, where every child is an arrow you must train up to be a soldier of god. Quiverful kids fall into the “Christian Homeschool” category: one that is more concerned with protecting the kids from the sin of the world than in a child-psychology driven need for their kids to do better in life. I had a friend whose father was a minister and she was homeschooled, but her parents didn’t “Christian homeschool” their kids.

    Most of the Christian homeschool kids will swear up and down they aren’t being abused even if they are, because they were brought up with “spare the rod, spoil the child” and we weren’t. But there is a great need to do SOMETHING to keep tabs on the Christian Homeschoolers, so it’s best to not get defensive about getting lumped in with them, and maybe instead be proactive and write the NYT and tell them the difference between homeschooling and Christian Homeschooling.

    • Jane
      Jane says:

      I’m a Christian who homeschools. I help with a ministry to abused kids who attend public school. But yes, Penelope should definitely explain to the NYT that Christian homeschoolers are bad.

      (My public school high school principal used to be allowed to spank us in the 1980’s. So did my elementary teachers.)

  8. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    Correction on the post – the NY Times article reports that the “To Train Up a Child” book has sold more than 670,000 (not 67,000).
    An established link was made between the book and the three deaths cited in the NY Times article. Two of the three deaths were homeschooled children but what really bothered me was that all three deaths were adopted children.
    The Genovese Syndrome is a societal problem. Passing a law requiring annual physical exams to protect homeschooled children from physical abuse seems to me to be a “band-aid” solution. Lawmakers and society can point to the law and say they did something. We are a nation of laws. So many laws that we are in fact being choked by them. On the other hand, homeschooling is being held to a “higher standard” because it isn’t yet mainstream in our society today. The Penn State scandal – I’ll reserve judgement because I hear something new everyday. It’s hard to know really the full scope of the problem in that case.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Oh. That’s really interesting that all of them were adopted children. I didn’t catch that.

      On a separate note, that number – I make numerical mistakes all the time. Thanks for catching it.


  9. LJM
    LJM says:

    There are many repressive laws we could create and follow that would “save one or two lives.”

    And as it’s true that most kids who are abused go to public school, and that many of them are never known to be abused, the idea that every homeschooled parent must present their kids to prove they’re not being beaten is not just obscene, it’s practical nonsense.

    How many other aspects of our children’s lives should be investigated by the state, just “to be sure?” Are they obese? Are they watching “R” rated movies? Are they being spanked or emotionally abused? Are they being left alone before the state thinks they should be? It really is authoritarian nonsense.

  10. redrock
    redrock says:

    I think the PennState scandal is not really due to what is called “Genovese syndrome”. The latter is if an anonymous group of people fail to respond to a cry for help because they feel not responsible for taking action because of the safe position of the individual in a relatively large group of individuals on whom the responsibility for action can be placed. The PennState scandal comes from a strong sense of loyality to your fellow colleagues in a very tightly know group of people. The same sense of (false) loyalty which prevents policemen to tell on misbehavior of a fellow policeman, or doctors from calling out other doctor’s substance abuse. Doing so comes at the risk of loosing your own position within a group you are loyal to (and whom you expect to be loyal to you). The group protects the wrongful behavior of the individual as a price to be paid for the strong cohesiveness of the group. Non-reporting of abuse (or closing your eyes toward) it is wrong especially from the position of teachers and educators. However, one of the reasons for non-reporting is probably to some parts the fact that most of us are hesitant to intrude on the privacy of a family, and to overcome this barrier requires a conscious decision to break through and enter the inner family circle which is made of the tightest emotional bonds possible. The problem is not family’s which homeschool for the better of their kids, the problem is that homeschooling can minimize the contact children have to intellectually, socially and emotionally diverse groups of people. Not if homeschooling is done well, but if it is not done well then children can get very isolated. And the state is not an abstract entity, it is US. We make the state and give the collective duty to the state to care for the citizens, especially the weakest ones.

  11. Linda
    Linda says:

    You wrote: “The problem with the article is Eckholm’s gratuitous mentions of homeschooling.”
    This has been going on in most of MSM for DECADES. When they start adding, “Johnny, who attends public school, was arrested yesterday…” they can throw in “homeschooling.” I’m not going to hold my breath, though.

  12. Maggie
    Maggie says:

    Mentioning that these children are homeschooled is not egregious and is nowhere near the same vein as mentioning that the children are Jewish or black Mentioning that they are homeschooled is highly relevant to the article because when children die like that the first thing we as a society ask ourselves is “How the hell did that happen?” and our minds race to social safety nets that should have caught the abuse: schools being one of them. Whether this means that all homeschooled children need a medical visit I don’t know, but the article is obligated to explore the reasons that the abuse wasn’t caught and the children being homeschooled is one of the reasons.

  13. Beth
    Beth says:

    As a “Christian Homeschooler” who has three fabulous daughters (ages 24-16), I’m appalled at the whole “Christian homeschoolers are likely to be abusers so we need to monitor them more” attitude that I see in some of these comments. Trust me, I think child abusers should be fully punished….BUT I don’t believe that giving a disobedient child a spanking is child abuse IF IT IS USED CORRECTIVELY AND PROPERLY (without anger). There is a place for it, but that doesn’t mean everyone has to use this tool.

    I bought the Pearl’s book when my 2nd child was 5 and I had let her become very disobedient. For three days, we worked on obeying, and if she didn’t, she got a couple swats on the behind with a tiny dowel. Once she realized I meant business, I don’t think I ever had to spank her again (although I occasionally threatened and she knew I would!). I appreciate the Pearl’s encouragement to “Tie heart strings with your children” and develop loving, trusting, respectful (something very missing in our society now) relationships.

  14. bug
    bug says:

    i read this, then i read some of the comments, then i went and did some stuff around my house and thought about what i had read.

    this is what i thought. yes teachers and people who work with kids are mandated reporters a lot of places but that does not mean they always report suspected child abuse. my mother is a special ed teacher who works with severely autistic kids. i think she is actually retired now but i am not certain because i cut off contact with her because she abused me as a child. i know for a fact she has suspected her students where being abused and that she did nothing to help the students and i would not be surprised if she abused her students as well. i think maybe everyone should just be required to get a physical every year not just because maybe then some abused kids will get help but maybe it will help people who are sick get better.

    and then i also thought about the ways i was abused. people can torture children and not leave any physical evidence at all. i am sure some child abuse will be caught if all the homeschooled kids get physicals and i take my son to the doctor once a year or more anyway so a bill like that would not have any effect on how i am raising my son. i guess what i started thinking about was that it won’t help a lot of kids that need help because the way they are being hurt won’t be visible or it won’t be visible when they get seen by a doctor because the people hurting them will make sure there is nothing visible on that day and they will make sure the kids don’t show any emotional evidence because people whoa re good at hurting kids are good at making sure the kid doesn’t show it and because people don’t want to report it.

    i think if people want to stop child abuse then people have to start reporting it when they see it and people have to start educating children to speak up and tel someone but the speaking up and telling someone only works if people actually try and protect the kids. plenty of people saw all sorts of evidence of abuse in me as a child and they did nothing and then when cps was called they did nothing and that is unfortunately not an uncommon story to hear.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Thanks so much for this comment. I think a big step toward getting more people to report suspected abuse is for people to hear from kids who were abused.

      So few people report suspected abuse. So i want to add that reporting suspected abuse doesnt require that you’re right but just that you genuinely care.



  15. Antonio Buehler
    Antonio Buehler says:

    I am not a fan of the argument that saving one or two lives makes government intrusion into our lives a fair trade-off. This has been the argument long used to slowly eat away at so many of the liberties that many of us believe are inherent, not government provided. “Hard cases, it is said, make bad law.” ~ Lord John Campbell

    What I am a fan of, though, is your blog!

  16. Kimberly
    Kimberly says:

    I find the mention of the Penn State abuse ironic. No one mentions how prevalent abuse is within schools themselves.

    Also, as bad as parental abuse is, why isn’t peer abuse deemed just as harmful? Kids can be emotionally abused for years in school both by their peers and teachers who just see them as one in thirty. Though, no one considers this abuse. How about the kids who are being kicked around after school and at recess when the teacher’s not around? How about the kids that are committing suicide from being abused by their peers at school? How about the inappropriate PE teacher/soccer coach who can’t lose his job?

    If this “act” is going to be put in place, they should probably focus a great deal on kids in school because they face a a great deal of emotional and physical harm that gets overlooked

  17. kathleen
    kathleen says:

    What troubles me most is how the government when informed of such abuse, homeschool or not, handles it. Instead of taking the time to really see what is actually going on, and not considering every situation, as having many diff variables and extremely different circumstances. They just make there stupid laws and herd every family through the same stupid procedures designed to create revenue for themselves, because they don’t have the time or resources to stop ruining peoples lives. The trouble here lies with our system and thats why the person who knows, because yes someone always knows,doesn’t get involved, or the opposite, the abuser uses this severely inept system as a pawn in their abuse actually allowing it to happen. It makes me sick.

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