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Talking to Heather Doney and Rachel Coleman About Child Abuse, the Quiverfull Movement and Homeschooling Policy Reform

Heather Doney and Rachel Coleman are co-founders of Homeschooling’s Invisible Children, a site that documents abuse under the cover of homeschooling. Recently, they launched a new organization, the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, which raises awareness of the need for homeschooling reform, provides public policy guidance through research, and advocates for responsible home education practices.

How did you two meet?

Rachel Coleman: Heather and I both do academic research on homeschooling, and we were both in a Facebook group that dealt with spiritual abuse and some other negative aspects of conservative Christian homeschooling culture.

Heather Doney: Both of us were eldest daughters of families raised in the Quiverfull movement, where adherents reject birth control and have “as many children as God gives you,” so we had a lot in common: research interests, big family/big sister stuff, an interest in class differences in homeschooling.


How big are your families?

HD: I’m the eldest of 10, six girls and four boys.

RC: I’m the oldest of 12 children, seven girls and five boys.

How did you come up with the idea for Homeschooling’s Invisible Children (HIC)?

RC: Heather and I were finding more and more cases of child abuse concealed by homeschooling, and at first I tried keeping a list of links, but I needed a better way to organize them. We decided putting them together in a blog might be a way to do that, while raising awareness at the same time.

You were both homeschooled yourselves, right?

RC: Yes. My parents started homeschooling me because my mom wasn’t sure I could handle all-day kindergarten (I took very long naps), and all-day kindergarten was the only option where we lived. It worked pretty well for our family, so I was homeschooled through high school alongside my siblings.

HD: I was homeschooled, but my education was pretty nonexistent. My family was very poor. We lived in inner-city New Orleans, which had a terrible school district, but my parents’ homeschooling was even worse. There was no oversight. I was the only one of us kids to even learn how to read. It was only through an intervention by my grandparents that I gained access to intensive tutoring and started public school in 9th grade.

What do you mean by no oversight?

HD: My parents registered as a private school in Louisiana when I was six, which homeschoolers can do, and no one checked on us again. We never had to take standardized tests or report to anyone.

Is it like that in every state?

RC: 25 states have no assessment mechanism whatsoever. Most of the states that do have some assessment requirements also have loopholes—this is how Heather’s family fell through the cracks. Louisiana’s homeschool law requires parents to either create an annual portfolio of their students’ work or have their children tested each year. However, when parents in Louisiana choose to homeschool under the private school law instead of under the homeschool law, which is perfectly legal, there are no assessments or even subject requirements. Heather’s parents were literally not actually required by law to educate her, and there was no system in place for checking up on her and her siblings’ wellbeing.

Sadly, this lack of accountability is the norm for homeschooling law, not the exception.

Growing up, were you aware of child abuse being an issue in the homeschooling world?

HD: I was aware of child abuse in the abstract. I didn’t realize that what was happening to me was abuse, or that some of my friends had homes as dysfunctional as mine. We all put on a good front, I guess. It was only when I was older that I started making the connection, but it didn’t fully sink in until I started doing research and ran into survivor blogs that looked like they could have been written by me.

RC: My parents followed the child-training teachings of Michael and Debi Pearl, as did a number of other families in our homeschool community. Even those who didn’t emphasized the importance of applying “the rod” as specified in the Bible. However, my parents were also very kind and loving. I don’t think anything I personally witnessed growing up met the legal definition for child abuse in my state.

HD: My parents read the Pearls’ teachings as well. My parents’ violent discipline methods combined with my mother’s inconsistency made home a scary place. I moved out when I was 17 to escape. I thought I was fine, but I developed delayed-onset PTSD in grad school, had flashbacks to childhood abuse, and started going to therapy.

RC: When it comes to Homeschooling’s Invisible Children, our concern is the way abusive parents can use homeschooling to isolate their children and hide their abuse. We’re not saying homeschooling is inherently abusive—it is not—or even that there is a higher rate of abuse in homeschooling circles than elsewhere. We do not have the data to make that comparison. Our concern is that the current lack of accountability and oversight means that homeschooling can be a powerful tool in the hand of an abusive parent—this is the problem HIC is documenting.

How is this connected to the Quiverfull movement?

RC: Parents choose to homeschool for a variety of reasons, and an increasing number of parents today homeschool for reasons that have nothing to do with religion. But ever since the 1980s, part of the homeschooling world has been dominated by evangelical and fundamentalist leader seeking to use homeschooling to create a generation of godly young people ready and able to bring about cultural and political change.

HD: The Quiverfull movement grew through homeschooling circles, often connected to churches. The leadership of the Christian homeschooling movement came to be dominated by people with Quiverfull and Christian patriarchy beliefs. They were drawn to homeschooling as a way to shelter their children from secular influences and they believed that outside oversight of how they were educating or raising their offspring was anathema.

Are there any Quiverfull individuals our readers might be familiar with?

HD: Lots of Quiverfull don’t call themselves Quiverfull. They just call themselves “bible-believing Christians.” It’s a name given as descriptor, mostly by outsiders. Beliefs often include home birthing, home business, home remedies, homeschooling, wifely submission, traditional marriage, “having as many children as God gives you,” and using harsh corporal punishment on children to save their souls. It’s very authoritarian and anti-feminist, based on a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible that involves a lot of cherry-picking. So when you look at those beliefs, you see that Todd Akin is one. And the Duggars on TLC are like the Kardashians of Quiverfull.

You two were profiled in Kathryn Joyce’s American Prospect article “The Homeschool Apostates.” What does that title mean?

HD: Kevin Swanson, a fundamentalist pastor and a pretty big name in the homeschool movement I was raised in, has called former homeschool students like us “apostate homeschoolers.” To him we are just complaining, ungrateful, prodigal children.

But: apostasy is leaving a religion. Homeschooling is not a religion. It’s a method of education. People with an agenda have hijacked it and turned it into a tenet of religious faith somehow.

RC: There is an entire subculture of the Christian homeschooling world that is built on fear. Fear of children being corrupted, fear of children leaving the faith, fear of children adopting different values. In some sense, this also goes hand in hand with a powerful religious hope: hope that if parents get it right, their children will grow up to become the “Joshua Generation” that will restore a Christian America. For these homeschool parents, Kevin Swanson among them, homeschooling is not simply an educational option. It is a movement, a tenet, a faith. And we are the apostates.

As a result, when Heather and I and the other former homeschool students talk about the need for basic protections for homeschooled children, we’re often treated as traitors to the cause and told to just “get over it” and move on. But I can’t. The children I write up on HIC—Emani Moss, Miranda Crocket, Mitch Comer—they keep me going.

What do you see as the future of homeschooling?

RC: I don’t want to sound like I am against homeschooling, because I am most definitely not. I have two children of my own, and if public education doesn’t work out for my children, homeschooling is an option I will consider, alongside other options like charter schools. I think homeschooling is a perfectly valid educational option, and I know from experience that it can go well. I am also not against evangelical and fundamentalist Christians homeschooling, or against providing children with a religious education. I believe that there should be basic safeguards in place to protect the interests of homeschooled children, and that homeschooling should serve the child rather than the child serving homeschooling.

HD: I agree. The best-case scenario for homeschooling is for it to truly become an educational option rather than a political statement. Children are people and should not be used for grandstanding. They deserve access to education methods that make the most sense for them, which is sometimes, but not always, homeschooling.

What has been the reaction of the homeschooling community to HIC?

HD: The dynamic is changing. Initially we both had people, often complete strangers, trying to bite our heads off for mentioning homeschooling and child abuse in the same sentence. It was taboo. But as we have connected and shared our stories, our collective voices have grown, and there has been less ignoring, more listening, and more shock. Along with this is a growing desire in the homeschooling world to prevent abuse from happening. People do not always agree as to how that is best done, but the growing recognition that this is a real issue that needs to be addressed has been very meaningful. We obviously still have a long way to go, but it’s a good start.

RC: I wasn’t surprised by homeschool parents arguing that we’re giving homeschooling a bad name. I was surprised by the number of emails I have received from former homeschool students telling me that they were abused and are so glad someone is finally putting this out there.

HD: I’ve had emails and phone calls and lunches and late night beer sessions with tears with people who I have met who also experienced this stuff, who used to think they were all alone. I used to think I was all alone. It has been intense and truly meaningful in a way that is hard to express in words.

RC: We also don’t want to single out only Christian homeschoolers, because abuse happens in both secular and religious households. All homeschooling communities need to be on the lookout for abuse.

Why do you think many homeschooling parents feel threatened by HIC?

RC: There was a time when homeschooling was not as socially accepted as it is today, and a time when homeschooling was illegal in some states. I think some homeschool parents fear a return to those days. But I also think that that natural concern is fanned into irrational fear by certain homeschool organizations that act as though homeschooling is about to be banned when anyone says anything insufficiently positive of homeschooling. The trouble is that this inability to accept criticism and this opposition to accountability ends up making these homeschool organizations and all too many homeschool parents look unreasonable.

HD: I think many homeschool parents are afraid that they will be called abusers, or at least suspected to be. There are a lot of homeschoolers with libertarian views who fear that panic over child abuse will result in greater government regulation. I don’t see how they can think that not dealing with the facts will make the issue go away.

RC: The things we want are so minimal. We would like to see convicted child abusers and sex offenders barred from homeschooling. We would like to see those who begin homeschooling with open child protective services cases, recent substantiated child abuse or neglect reports, or concerning histories of child protective services involvement receive additional monitoring. We would like to see homeschool children have annual contact with mandatory reporters through portfolio evaluations or standardized testing. We simply want to ensure that every homeschooled child gets a basic education and that homeschooling is not being used to hide abuse. Most states do not have any of these safeguards.

What are some of the most common criticisms you’ve received?

HD: I’ve been accused of having an axe to grind, a vendetta against homeschooling. People try to paint me as anti-homeschooling by saying that my experience made me bitter. There’s been some criticism that have been gender-based as well. I remember at one point someone online called me a “bimbo.” I’d never been called a bimbo before. Other people act like HIC is a comprehensive database and try to prove us wrong by saying that our numbers actually prove that homeschooling has less abuse than the general public. But HIC is not a comprehensive database and is at this point qualitative rather than quantitative. We simply don’t have the data to run comparisons yet.

RC: I’ve had people say that public school kids are abused too, as though that invalidates our concerns or our efforts. These people miss the point. It’s as though they can’t see that homeschooling can be a powerful tool in the hand of an abusive parent, allowing a parent to isolate and abuse a child without worrying about the children being seen by a mandatory reporter like a teacher. Anyone who thinks this doesn’t happen should read about Calista Springer, Nubia Barahona, or Jeanette Maples.

There are certain things parents of children in public school simply cannot do. They cannot starve a child to death, for instance. They cannot lock a child in a room for years, with only a bucket to relieve themselves. Abusive public school parents know that if they send a child to school with too much bruising, it can be noticed and reported. When abusive parents homeschool, that check on their actions completely disappears.

HD: We run into the issue of black and white thinking a lot. Homeschooling is good. Public school is bad. Parents are good. Teachers are bad. Christians are good. Secular people are bad. It gets pretty old.

RC: One thing homeschooling parents who criticize our work don’t seem to realize is that the reluctance to deal with this problem—and the absolute anger at the idea of protections for homeschooled children—actually makes homeschooling look bad. We’re not giving homeschooling a bad name. Parents who use homeschooling to abuse are giving homeschooling a bad name. But somehow that distinction gets missed.

Do your families know about HIC? What do they think?

RC: I’ve discussed HIC with several of my siblings and have had a surprisingly positive response. I’ve talked with my mother as well, and her response was more mixed. She knows that some homeschool families needed accountability, but she had a hard time fathoming that children had actually died of abuse and neglect in homeschooling families.

HD: My family knows about my activism. I don’t think they read the cases on HIC, though. It’s too triggering and it hits too close to home. Some siblings fear that this work will be traumatizing for me, given my background, and that it has me spending too much time facing the darker side of humanity. I think there’s some truth to that. But Rachel has been a good friend and colleague and I am so glad that we have been able to pool what we know in order to work on this. It has been deeply meaningful.

Rachel Lazerus is a research analyst focusing on education issues. She is currently working with CRHE on an analysis of homeschooling achievement. She lives in Boston.

Photo via Tim Tonjes/Flickr


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