We are frequently asked why we focus on abuse in homeschool settings when children who attend school are also victims of abuse and neglect. We support efforts to better protect all abused and neglected children, regardless of how they are educated. However, current systems for detecting and preventing child abuse often assume that school-age children will attend school. As former homeschooled students, we want to ensure that homeschoolers are not overlooked. We understand that school attendance does not in and of itself prevent abuse or neglect, but we also know that abusive parents can and sometimes do use homeschooling to conceal their mistreatment.
Concerned individuals sometimes ask us whether we can compare child abuse and neglect numbers between homeschooled and public school students. Because only around 4% of students are homeschooled, more public schooled children are abused and neglected in terms of sheer numbers. If a comparison is to be made, then, it should focus not on overall numbers but rather on the rate of abuse or neglect. Do we have the data to make such a comparison?
Our preliminary research suggests that homeschooled children are at a greater risk of dying from child abuse than are traditionally schooled children. This preliminary finding is based on an analysis of the cases in our Homeschooling’s Invisible Children (HIC) database and on national government reports on child maltreatment. When we compare the rate of child abuse fatalities among homeschooled families to the rate of child abuse fatalities overall, we see a higher rate of death due to abuse or neglect among homeschooled students than we do among children of the same age overall.
First, a word about the HIC database. We use publicly available online news articles and, in some instances, court records to find and document the cases of severe abuse or neglect in homeschool settings. Our goal is to point out the ways abusive parents take advantage of lax homeschooling requirements to abuse and mistreat children. We argue, based on these cases, that we need to implement sensible homeschooling oversight in order to create safeguards for children at risk of abuse or neglect and prevent homeschooling from being used as a cover for abuse or neglect.
Our database is incomplete. This is because we are only able to list cases where homeschooling is mentioned publicly, either in online news coverage or court records. For example, we did not add Teddy Foltz-Tedesco to our database until almost a year after he died because the initial news coverage of his death did not mention homeschooling. It was only when a lawmaker proposed new oversight of homeschooling, using his death as her motivation, that we learned Teddy was homeschooled. We hope to gain access to additional sources and create a more thorough listing, although even comprehensive listings of child abuse and neglect fatalities do not typically include information about children’s schooling.
Because our database is incomplete, any comparison between homeschool and public school fatalities at this point will undercount the number of homeschool fatalities. Despite this, a preliminary comparison may still be instructive. (1)
To compare the rates, we analyzed HIC’s listing of homeschool child fatalities in conjunction with the annual reports of the Child Welfare Information Gateway (CWIG). CWIG’s reports include statistics on the number of children who die nationally each year from abuse and neglect, broken down by age. (2) In order to look specifically at school-aged children, we limited our analysis to fatalities that occurred between ages 6 and 17. (3) We compared fatality rates for the period from 2000 to 2012. (4) In determining what percentage of children were homeschooled during each year, we relied on data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). (5)
In order to obtain an expected number of child fatalities in homeschool settings each year, we multiplied CWIG’s number of child fatalities (ages 6 to 17) for each year by NCES’s percentage of children homeschooled each year. The resulting numbers reflect how many child fatalities we would expect to see among homeschooled students if the rate of child fatalities among homeschooled students were the same as the overall average rate of child fatalities.
If homeschooled children die from abuse and neglect at the same rate as other children, we would expect 73 fatalities among homeschooled children from 2000 to 2012. However, HIC’s incomplete list of homeschool fatalities during those same years includes 84 fatalities. This means that we have documented a higher rate of fatalities among school-aged children in homeschool settings than among school-aged children as a whole.
This finding is represented in the graph below, which shows a comparison for each year between the expected number of homeschooled child fatalities (assuming the rates are the same) and the actual number of fatalities according to our as-yet incomplete database.
This finding does not yet reach the threshold for statistical significance, so at this point we cannot say conclusively that homeschooled students die from child abuse and neglect at a higher rate as other students. (6) As our list becomes more complete, this will probably change. For the time being, we can say for certain that homeschooled students are not less likely to die from child abuse or neglect than other students. This finding goes against the commonplace wisdom that homeschooled children are “safer” under the current status quo of lax homeschooling oversight.
(1) Whether we would expect the rate of child fatality in homeschooling families to be higher than the average rate of child fatality is an interesting question. On the one hand, homeschooled children are disproportionately white and live in disproportionately intact families, both of which would indicate a lower risk of child fatality. On the other hand, homeschooled children do not have the same regular contact with mandatory reporters as schooled children, which may increase the risk of those already at risk of abuse or neglect.
(2) Each Child Welfare Information Gateway (CWIG) report includes an updated estimate for the previous year’s fatalities. Where possible, we used these updated estimates throughout.
(3) For CWIG reports that combined ages 4-7, we estimated (based on reports that listed the years separately) that 30% of this group was 6 or 7.
(4) The Child Welfare Information Gateway’s annual reports for 2013 and 2014 had not yet been released and HIC’s database is less thorough for years prior to 2000.
(5) Because the NCES only conducts its National Household Education Survey every four years, we only had data on what percentage of students were homeschooled for 1999, 2003, 2007, and 2011. In order to estimate the number of children homeschooled each year between these dates, we assumed a constant rate of change between each of these years.
(6) We do not contend that homeschooling makes parents abusive. We contend, instead, that abusive parents can and do use homeschooling to hide their abuse, making it more difficult for abused homeschooled children to find help. Current systems of child protection tend to assume that school-aged children are seen daily by teachers and other school personnel, but this is not the case for students who are homeschooled.