Child Abuse and Homeschooling

Child abuse happens within homeschooling.

Hana Williams was abused to the point of death by her homeschooling parents.
Hana Williams was abused to the point of death by her homeschooling parents.

This is a factual statement. But sometimes saying it publicly can make homeschooling parents and communities feel offended, defensive, or incredulous. So it’s important to say upfront what this statement does not imply:

  • It does not imply that homeschoolers are a bunch of child abusers.
  • It does not imply that homeschooling is child abuse.
  • It does not imply that homeschoolers, as a group of people, abuse their children any more than any other group of people.
  • It does not imply that child abuse is non-existent in groups of people other than homeschoolers.
  • It does not imply that we should ignore child abuse in other groups of people. We should never ignore child abuse, wherever it may happen.

What this statement implies — and what you need to understand — is that is simply this: Child abuse happens in homeschooling communities.

HARO can’t tell you whether it happens more or less often than in other communities because no one has those numbers. And if someone says they do, know that they’re making them up or using flawed statistical analysis.

What we do know — and maybe this is even a reason why some of you are homeschooling right now — is that abuse happens in public schools. We also know it happens in private schools. We know it happens in churches, in day care, at religious institutions — whether those institutions are Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, or Muslim. We know abuse happens in secular institutions, too. So we should also know it is no great claim that abuse happens in homeschooling families and communities as well.

A website called Homeschooling’s Invisible Children has documented hundreds of cases of homeschooled children who were physically and/or sexually abused by their parents, caretakers, and/or homeschool teachers. The details vary from case to case, but as more and more cases are documented, some patterns emerge. One of these patterns is particularly significant: hardly anyone ever suspects the abusers.

Sometimes when child abuse happens in homeschooling communities, it is in communities that are referred to as new religious movements, or “cults.” For example, groups like the Twelve Tribes, Lev Tahor, or Warren Jeffs’ Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints sect — all of which believe strictly in homeschooling for their children — have been documented as physically or sexually abusing their children. This doesn’t seem as surprising to us; these groups are “different,” and thus we are already suspicious of them.

But abuse isn’t just found in so-called cults. This is why what Homeschooling’s Invisible Children is doing is so important: It’s showing us — case by tragic case — that abuse can be found in families that seem normal, loving, even publicly outstanding. The stories on Homeschoolers Anonymous, HARO’s narrative-sharing platform, also reveal this.

One of the first long-form testimonies that we received for Homeschoolers Anonymous was by a young woman using the penname “Mary.” Mary was viciously beaten all over her body, she was forced to go without food for days, her parents made her drink ipecac as a punishment, and she was forced to throw her favorite childhood doll into a blazing backyard fire.

As we published each part of her ten-part story, people wondered, “How ‘fringe’ was her family? Surely Mary’s family lived in the middle of nowhere, isolated her from everyone. Surely the problem was that no one ever saw her.”

But that wasn’t the case. In her conclusion to her story, Mary says the following:

“I can assure you that they were not the ‘fringe’ in homeschooling. My dad has an amazing job and they are very well off financially. Dad served as the president of the home schooling organization in our state for quite a few years. They have volunteered at church since I was little, helped out in AWANA, taught Sunday school, kept the nursery, volunteered at other church events, helped organize and plan the homeschool conference in our state every year, volunteered in debate, teach Good News Clubs, host homeschool events in their home and generally keep their reputation about as squeaky clean as is possible… At church we were the model family. My siblings and I lived in utter terror of what would happen to us if we dared misbehave or say anything that they deemed inappropriate while at church or anywhere else out. Nearly a weekly lecture that we received on the way to church was that anything that happened in our household was not to be talked about and was not anyone else’s business. On Sundays, when we had been made to stay up the entire night before, they would force us to drink coffee so that no one would notice how tired we were… My parents did a masterful job of covering up and to this day are revered and treated as role models by church members that I grew up around.

Mary’s statement illuminates a truth written by Boz Tchividjian, Billy Graham’s grandson and the founder and executive director of GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment):

“It is time that the Christian community come to terms with the heartbreaking reality that those who pose the greatest risk to our children are within our families, churches, and circle of friends.”

Mary’s dad, who beat her senseless, served as the president of the home schooling organization in her state. Her family was in contact with an abundance of families — in church, at Sunday School, through homeschool debate and other homeschool activities.

Yet no one noticed the nightmare that her life was. No one reached out to her or her siblings. Because her parents seemed trustworthy and upstanding, even role models.

Mary isn’t alone.

Mary’s parents aren’t the only ones pretending to be something they are not.

If you go onto the website for Homeschooling’s Invisible Children, you will hear about people like Dwayne and Pamela Hardy, who beat their children until they bled and were left with permanent scars — and yet friends described Dwayne and Pamela Hardy as “loving Christian parents.”

Or people like William Flynn Walker, who was imprisoned for transporting three children out of Alabama and sexually abused them. Walker was a founder of a prominent Christian homeschool umbrella school.

Or people like Jeffrey and Rebecca Trebilcock, who systematically starved their five children and consequently shocked neighbors who described the couple as “loving Christian parents.”

Or people like Michael and Sharon Gravelle, who sexually abused a birth daughter and then forced their eleven adopted special needs children to sleep in stacked cages. The Gravelles seemed like such a nice couple in public that even an HSLDA attorney, Scott Somerville, described the father as a “hero.”

We could go on and on with examples. But hopefully you see the trend here. Child abusers appear in our midst. Even in the midst of our homeschooling. And they could very well be our “heroes,” our “loving Christian parents,” even our “prominent” homeschool leaders.

“Those who pose the greatest risk to our children are within our families, churches, and circle of friends.”

This is the starting point for making homeschooling better and safer for future generations: the simple acknowledgement that child abuse happens in homeschooling communities.