The Home School Court Report
Vol. XXVII
No. 1
Cover
January/February
2011

In This Issue

SPECIALFEATURES
REGULARCOLUMNS
ANDTHEREST

Cover Story Next Page
By Michael P. Donnelly
- disclaimer -

According to homeschool researcher Dr. Brian D. Ray, 2% of (or about 20,000) homeschooling families in the United States are headed by single parents. Census 2000 figures indicate that out of the 35 million U.S. families with children under 18, between 20% and 30% are led by single parents (over 75% of whom are single mothers). Recent data suggest that this percentage is growing at an alarming rate. According to these figures, single-parent families in America are not uncommon—but single-parent homeschooling families are.

As the child of a single mother who raised me and my two brothers on her own with no support from my father, I understand from personal experience the stresses and strains on a single-parent family. Before beginning to research this article, I felt burdened to reach out to single-parent homeschoolers by developing a conference workshop to encourage these (mostly) ladies who persevered through great challenges to homeschool—a decision that seemed monumentally difficult. The workshop provided them an opportunity to connect with and encourage one another. Uniformly, the attendees told me that the workshop was the best thing that happened for them at the conferences where it was offered.

As I considered the difficulties of single-parent homeschooling more deeply, I became increasingly perplexed as I tried to understand how these parents pulled it off. I wasn’t homeschooled by my mom, in part, because she worked a full-time job to provide for the physical needs of our family. Where was the time to homeschool? And even if there was time, how did parents do it?

In 2009, I sent out a survey to get a sense of what the single-parent homeschool population looked like and what kinds of needs there were. I was overwhelmed by the response: 254 single homeschooling parents responded, 99.5% of whom were moms.

The survey responses contained a lot of information about the parents’ lives and circumstances. Most of them faced incredibly difficult situations that seemed overwhelming. Survey respondent Pamela C. summed up the significant difficulties: “Battling [in] court, child care while working, and financial issues. Having wisdom to handle major decisions alone. Vulnerability to criticism. Lack of emotional support. Financial struggles. Holding up under the demanding responsibilities of running a household and homeschooling single-handedly.”

In the face of daunting challenges and personal tragedies, the message was clear that while these ladies were single, they were not alone. The vast majority were confident in God’s grace and provision. They articulated that He was with them and would sustain them. And the fruit of this perseverance was evident in the lives of their children, making it worth all the effort and sacrifice.

“In my case, the missing parent is like half an army doing battle,” said survey participant Beverly H. “Not to say that I had to battle my children, but I battled obstacles. They always come up and try you to see if you will stand for what is right. However, it is not impossible. Now that my daughters are grown, and I see the character and perseverance they have developed, I am so glad we did not give up. My older has her master’s degree in fine arts, and my younger is a licensed cosmetologist.”

How did I find myself here?

There are many reasons parents find themselves single. The death of a spouse, having children outside of marriage, and the breakup of a marriage are the three main reasons.

In my capacity as a Home School Legal Defense Association attorney, I get scores of calls every year from single mothers, as do my fellow attorneys. The story is almost always chillingly familiar—and my survey results bear this out. A father has left his wife and children, or a wife has left her husband. In the former case (which is unfortunately the majority of the time), it is usually because of an extramarital affair. In the latter case, it is usually because of an abusive situation.

Dad and kids
© PHOTO ALTO/VINCENT HAZAT

No matter how black and white such situations may appear to be, the reality is that it takes two people to create a marriage and, in almost all cases, it also takes two people to wreck a marriage. Having counseled numerous couples at varying stages of marital failure and having been married for 18 years myself, I’ve come to the opinion that it is almost always selfishness in spouses—often both—that results in the hardness of heart, bitterness, and disinterest that make a husband or a wife willing to “put asunder” what God has put together (Matthew 19:6; King James Version).

I saw this firsthand in my own family. My disabled veteran father is also mentally ill. His untreated addictive and bipolar behaviors were so destructive that my mother felt she had no choice but to divorce him. As I lived in the nightmare that this kind of situation creates, I was just fine with the prospect of my father leaving. I do not fault my mother for making the decision she did, though I do regret that my parents were unable to make it work. The natural results of their inability to function together as God intended wrought terrible consequences for our family and in particular for my siblings. This is typical when families are torn apart.

For those of us who look to Scripture as God’s inerrant Word, it is clear that God’s design for the family is for children to be raised by both a mother and a father and that the institution of marriage was intended to be the permanent union of one man and one woman serving as a fundamental unit of church and civil society. Nonetheless, we must recognize that amidst the confusion and pain of a fallen world, not all parents are married or are able to avoid divorce. And for those who are parenting alone, homeschooling can be an excellent way to mitigate some of the impacts of divorce and fatherlessness.

Why homeschool as a single parent?

I know firsthand how vulnerable children from single-parent homes are. And research bears out that these children have a far higher likelihood of engaging in risky behavior with significantly negative consequences. Given these realities, the academic and social benefits of homeschooling make it an especially attractive option for children in single-parent families.

While homeschooling is not a silver bullet that solves all problems for everyone, its benefits inarguably contribute to positive outcomes for most children. When children are taught by someone who genuinely loves them as individuals (like a parent), in an environment that is free from excessive distraction (like the home) where the children are able to engage directly and frequently with academic materials, the outcomes are markedly better than in an institutional school environment.

Extending the reach of community support

By partnering with donors and local homeschoolers, the Home School Foundation offers financial and practical assistance through its Widows Fund, Children of Single Parents Fund, and Ambassador Program. Read the story of how over 30 volunteers came together through the HSF Ambassador Program and the Home Educators Association of Virginia to perform a home makeover for a single homeschooling mother in From the Heart.

Despite these advantages, homeschooling is extraordinarily challenging even in a two-parent home. How does one parent do it alone? As I talked with the (mostly) moms who attended my workshops and as I read the survey responses, I became even more convinced of an important truth—if the “why” is important enough, you will figure out the “how.” These single parents have looked at the risks to their children and have decided to do whatever it takes to protect their children and give them the best possible chance for success.

“[When asked] why I don’t put the kids in school so I could work full-time or to have time to myself,” said survey respondent Dierdre C., “it is difficult to explain to adults with this mentality that I am investing time in our family and this is more important than the money a job would bring.”

The challenge of finances

One of the most challenging issues for mothers who find themselves single is that of financial support. Only 15% of the survey respondents indicated that they had a single source of income. Even for widows, a death benefit provided all of the family’s income in only 36% of the cases. In most cases, mothers had to combine a variety of income sources to provide the needed support for their families. (In addition to full- and part-time work and death benefits, support categories included child support/alimony, government assistance, and other.) Twenty-eight percent of the mothers worked full-time in addition to receiving some other type of support; 42% combined part-time work with other sources of income. Only 2% of the moms indicated that they lived solely on government assistance, and 7% on child support alone. In many cases, family members, churches, and friends were sources of short-term support.

Income ranges also varied significantly. On the high end, only 10% of survey respondents earned over $50,000 per year. These included an airline pilot, teachers, nurses, real estate agents, pharmacists, and small-business owners. Twenty-nine percent of the mothers earned between $25,000 and $50,000. In this category, a variety of occupations were represented, including bookkeeping, data entry or medical transcription work from home, photography, massage therapy, nutritional consultation, social work, music, factory shift work, and security. The most common occupations included home day care, teaching or tutoring (including running children’s summer camps), administrative assistance, and nursing. The single parents who participated in this survey demonstrated great creativity in making ends meet.

“I do anything I can from home—photography work, child care, cleaning, dog sitting,” said survey respondent Lisa B. “I do without a lot of things other people consider commonplace (like health insurance, pest control, cable, etc.). I’ve worked for my church cleaning. I also received life insurance benefits and a small estate settlement some years ago when my father died, and I used it primarily to pay off my house.”

However, most single moms subsist in or below what the government considers the poverty zone. Sixty-one percent of those surveyed reported incomes below $25,000 per year, with 21% of these indicating less than $10,000.

...
HOMESCHOOLING
CAN BE AN EXCELLENT
WAY TO MITIGATE SOME
OF THE IMPACTS OF
DIVORCE AND FATHERLESSNESS.
...

How is it possible to care for a family—and homeschool—on such a meager income? In addition to combining income sources, the parents who answered my survey did without a lot of what other people consider necessaries.

“It was hard to find decent affordable housing, as well as money for conventions and curriculum,” said single mom Charissa M. “We had to do without extra lessons in music, singing, French, sports, etc. We also didn’t have the time and money to participate in co-ops or go on many field trips.”

Parents also relied on their older children and other family members for help with child care, homeschooling, and other important tasks.

“The children and I do weekly paper routes together,” survey respondent Kimberly G. explained. “It takes us about three hours and it pays almost $200 a week. In this fashion, we can pay the utility bills if we do not receive child support.”

Time and again, these moms affirmed that by God’s grace and the help of family, church, and friends, they were able to stretch their meager incomes. The payoff in their children’s lives was priceless.

Being Mom and Dad

Because most of the surveyed moms had physical residential custody of their children the majority of the time, they had to provide much of the discipline, leadership, and direction on a day-to-day basis that dads are normally expected to provide. But a mom is a mom, regardless of the fact that she may carry out many “dad tasks.” Trying to be a mother while doing a father’s job creates a unique set of challenges.

Just for single homeschooling moms

Survey participant Anne L. said, “It is difficult to wear so many different hats—disciplinarian, teacher, mother, worker, homemaker, chauffeur, as well as father (because their father has distanced himself so much from them and just wants to be a friend to them).”

Skeet Savage, publisher of Home School Digest, dealt with these challenges after extracting herself from an abusive marriage and deciding to continue homeschooling her six children. She knew that in her own strength, she simply could not do it all:

Being a mom is challenging enough, so rather than trying to fill the place of a dad as well, I leaned on and looked to the LORD as our protector, provider, comforter, and guide—and taught my children through word and example to do the same. In this way, we each came to know and trust Him in reality, to personally witness the truth of His Word, and to look past human failure and find unfailing faithfulness. We didn’t just know about Him, we knew Him intimately.

He wasn’t just a “devotion” or a course we studied, He was our God—our Father, the Head of our household, the final Authority in every decision we faced, the source of our provisions. So, in a very real way, by giving Jesus His rightful place among us, we always had a father in our home—one Who kept His promise to never leave us or forsake us; the Healer of our broken home and hearts.

Her now adult son Israel Wayne, marketing director for Wisdom’s Gate Publishing and a frequent speaker at homeschool conferences, remembers his mom’s dedication and total reliance on Christ: “Ultimately, the effectiveness of a single parent is not predicated on her own ability, but rather on her complete reliance on God. The thing that I remember most about my mother was her willingness to trust God and do whatever the Lord led her to do. That instilled in us, as children, a great sense of faith, knowing that God was our Father and our Provider. It is never easy to be a single parent, but God loves to show Himself strong on behalf of those who fully trust Him.”

In addition to personally modeling faith and teaching their children to rely on God, single moms recognize the importance of finding trustworthy role models outside the family to create opportunities for their children to be mentored by others. In many cases, a church, homeschool support group, or extended family are good places to start in identifying mature individuals who can come alongside and help nurture children in their spiritual and emotional growth.

Legal issues

In the survey, 70% of single moms stated that they had full legal custody of their children—full legal authority to make decisions about all areas of their children’s lives even when their ex-spouses disagreed. Of the 30% who did not have full legal custody, ex-spouses’ attitudes varied from full support of homeschooling to total disagreement. In a handful of cases, dads even took court action to prevent their former spouses from homeschooling. The reported rationale for this opposition varied, but included spitefulness, concern that children would spend too much time with their mother, opposition to having to pay child support and alimony because Mom was at home teaching, and concerns about socialization, the mother’s competence to teach, and the perceived lack of academic and extracurricular activities.

In the eyes of the law, parents’ determination of what is best for a child is deemed sufficient against challenges from outside parties (such as the government or grandparents) whether or not the parents are married—as long as the parents agree. When parents cannot agree on what is in the best interests of their child, one parent may seek judicial intervention. It then becomes the court’s role to decide what is in the child’s best interests.

In these kinds of cases, the court is supposed to look at a variety of factors in determining what is in the best interests of children. Most states have laws setting forth these factors. One key factor is whether the family was homeschooling before the custody dispute. A general presumption in family courts is that it is best for children to maintain the status quo, thus minimizing upheaval. Thus, in cases where the dad challenged homeschooling and homeschooling had been the mode of education for the family while the parents were married, the judges usually decided to keep the status quo.

...
“IT IS NEVER EASY
TO BE A SINGLE PARENT,
BUT GOD LOVES TO SHOW,
HIMSELF STRONG ON
BEHALF OF THOSE WHO
FULLY TRUST HIM.”
...

Courts are not supposed to apply general principles of law when deciding custody matters, but rather are to look at the specific circumstances of each child. This often means that other people, in addition to the parents, are involved in court proceedings to give the judge input on what is best for a child. Courts frequently appoint guardians ad litem, children’s attorneys, court investigators, and special advocates, or order psychological and educational evaluations. Court-appointed investigators come with their own sets of perspectives and values, which may not mirror those of either parent. In these situations, it is very important for the homeschooling parent to have a solid spiritual and emotional support network, as well as good legal counsel.

Obtaining the services of a competent and sympathetic family lawyer experienced in custody disputes is crucial. Before hiring an attorney, it is recommended that you interview him or her to ensure that your right to homeschool will be vigorously defended. Many attorneys who deal with family disputes are not familiar with homeschooling and may bring with them their own prejudices about the ability of a parent to provide adequate instruction and socialization opportunities. While duty-bound to represent their client’s position, some attorneys may not be as zealous as they ought to be if they do not share your perspective on homeschooling’s benefits.

The legal issues involved in custody disputes and in determining what is in the best interests of a child are complicated. High levels of emotion are involved, and often homeschooling is just one of the many financial and parenting issues that have to be decided by the separating parents and the courts. Tragically, with increasing membership, HSLDA has seen an increase in the number of families encountering these difficult issues. Because of the significant impact that these situations have on the children involved, it is critical that parents do their very best to work out reconcilable issues whenever possible.

The role of the homeschool community & the church

James 1:27 makes it clear the church is to care for the widow and the orphan. Many would agree that we can be inclusive in our interpretation of this passage and include women who are widowed by their living husbands through abuse, abandonment, or other circumstances beyond the women’s control. In such situations, the church should become an important support and place of compassionate fellowship. Single mothers may need more than a simple refuge—they may need active support not only from pastors and elders, but also from other church families.

Mom and daughter
© ISTOCKPHOTO/DRAGAN TRIFUNOVIC

My survey indicated that many single moms did receive “support” from their churches in the form of spiritual support—counseling and regular fellowship. However, many moms admitted that they felt embarrassed or scared to make their material needs known to the church. Because they were divorced, they felt like they didn’t deserve the church’s financial support. In some cases, they felt like their churches and homeschool groups shunned or turned their backs on them.

“Spiritually, you feel so defeated and ashamed . . . especially in homeschool circles!” survey participant Karen W. said. “That’s another reason I don’t do the support group thing; didn’t even want to face what I thought might be judgment.”

Nonetheless, there are many churches that desire to reach out to single homeschooling parents and serve them on a deeper level. One example of how churches can get involved in a crisis situation is the story of Jeanine K.

Jeanine’s story

With five children from three different fathers, Jeanine will be the first to admit that she hasn’t always made the decisions God wanted her to make. But after she and her last husband divorced and she received sole custody of the children, she recognized that she needed to make some changes. She determined that with God’s help, she would rededicate her life—focusing on her faith and her children and teaching them so that they could avoid the kind of life she had been living.

As her children grew, Jeanine believed God was clearly directing her to homeschool her children. She started a small day care in her home so that she could supervise and homeschool her children while working.

Because she needed to supplement her low income through public assistance, a social services caseworker was assigned to her. After a while, the caseworker began to criticize Jeanine’s decision to homeschool. Since Jeanine was a member of HSLDA, she contacted me and we were able to resolve the resulting investigation.

The following school year, the social worker became more determined that Jeanine stop homeschooling. She asked Jeanine why she didn’t just put her kids in school and get a more stable job. The social worker pointed out that if the children were in school they would qualify for free meals and would get a “proper education,” make friends, and play with other children, like “all children should.” Although money was undeniably tight, Jeanine told the caseworker that she could not in good conscience stop homeschooling her children.

One day the social worker came to investigate Jeanine’s progress in paying her bills and providing food for her children. Although the refrigerator was pretty empty that day, Jeanine had a plan to buy groceries and to pay the overdue utility bills. For the social worker, however, this was the last straw. She told Jeanine point-blank, “I know how you feel about homeschooling, but if you don’t have your children in public school by next Tuesday, the county attorney is going to come and take your children away.”

Jeanine tried to remain calm, but inside she was panicking.

After the visit, Jeanine called me to report what had happened. Knowing of other situations in her state where social workers had taken children into state custody for even lesser reasons, I was very concerned. As we discussed the situation, Jeanine asked if it would be okay for her to move out of state. Since no court action had been initiated nor was I aware of any ongoing current jurisdiction preventing her from doing so, I informed her that she had the right to take up residence elsewhere.

The problem was that she didn’t have any place to go or anyone who could support her. Nonetheless, the following day Jeanine called me from a motel, saying she had packed her five children and a few necessities in her truck and driven off with no plans to return.

Mother and children
© ISTOCKPHOTO/DIGITAL SKILLET

I emailed the leader of a large homeschool group in Jeanine’s new state. As it turned out, he lived near the area that Jeanine had suggested as a possible destination. Being a pastor and a homeschooling advocate, he immediately sent out an email to his church. Within minutes, he said, a number of positive responses to the request for help came.

The church connected Jeanine with a family of six that was willing to provide housing and support for a few months while the church developed a long-term plan to help her get back on her feet.

The pastor told me that this was not the first time his church had responded to a call for help like this. The church has developed a ministry to single mothers that includes a compassion fund for this purpose. The pastor believes it is the church’s job to roll up our sleeves and help people whose lives have “come apart.”

“These people need more than just a handout,” the pastor told me. “They need a hand up! This is a long-term commitment on our part. As they demonstrate their commitment to being faithful in following the Lord and living the way He wants them to, we are able to guide them and make available the kind of support that can really bring stability to these families.”

Over the course of the next two years, Jeanine was taken in by this body of Christians and cared for in a gracious and loving way. Entire families became involved in providing clothing, food, housing, teaching materials, advice, support, and guidance. A small team of men helped her develop a budget and a plan of action. Jeanine still had a large amount of household goods and property in her home state that had to be disposed of. These men arranged for transportation and helpers so that she did not have to go back to that state to retrieve her goods. Men in the church have also reached out to help mentor Jeanine’s 13-year-old son, recently holding a memorable coming-of-age ceremony for him.

Jeanine continues to homeschool her children, has moved into her own home, and at-tends church faithfully. Her children are also making great progress in settling down into a loving community. She marvels at how God “scooped them up” and put them where they are.

“I felt like I had to do everything on my own and ‘figure it out,’” she says. “Otherwise, I felt like people wouldn’t think I was a capable mother and deserving of having my children. In my greatest need, I cried out to God and He responded by putting people and others in my life who could help—people like Mike Donnelly and HSLDA and the pastor of our new church. They helped me through a critical period when I felt like I was being hunted down.”

Conclusion

Although my survey found that single homeschooling parents face many unique challenges and sometimes feel very alone, it also revealed that they are not alone. If you as a single parent believe that homeschooling is the right choice for your family, then there is a path that can help you do it. As the stories shared in this article illustrate, God can work directly or through the church and fellow homeschoolers to provide for your family's physical, emotional, spiritual, and academic needs. God cares deeply about you and your children! By relying on Him and others, you can conquer the challenges and help your children experience the benefits of homeschooling.

Single-parenting resources

WEBSITES

BOOKS

  • Raising Great Kids on Your Own: A Guide and Companion for Every Single Parent, David and Lisa Frisbie
  • Single Parenting That Works: Six Keys to Raising Happy, Healthy Children in a Single- Parent Home, Kevin Leman
  • Teach Them Diligently: How to Use the Scriptures in Child Training, Lou Priolo
  • Homeschooling for Eternity, Skeet Savage
  • Shepherding a Child’s Heart, Tedd Tripp

OTHER