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District of Columbia

February 5, 2008

Tragedy Prompts Calls for Heightened Scrutiny of Homeschoolers

Just weeks after Banita Jacks was arrested for allegedly murdering her four daughters, a Washington D.C. family received a visit from a D.C. Child and Family Services (CFS) caseworker.

Though the caseworker was there to investigate abuse allegations, she questioned the family about the children’s schooling. Upon learning that the Hansons (name changed to protect privacy) teach their children at home, she warned the family that because of the recent deaths of four young girls in D.C., CFS was “really going to crack down” on homeschoolers. She also told the Hansons they should be prepared to defend their educational choice and even suggested that they retain an attorney. The warning was linked to the controversy surrounding the Banita Jacks case, in which the mother supposedly escaped the attention of welfare workers after withdrawing her children from public school and claiming she planned to homeschool.

Concerned that homeschooling would become a major part of the investigation against them, the Hansons contacted the Home School Legal Defense Association for assistance. Fortunately, the family’s homeschool has not yet been threatened.

The danger is not over yet, however. In the wake of the recent tragedy, Mayor Adrian Fenty has promised to establish a system to “better track” homeschooling families in D.C., and is following through on that promise by commissioning the Office of the State Superintendent of Education to develop policies on homeschool notification and attendance. We see very few of these situations in the homeschooling community, but when they do occur, government officials are often quick to point out the need for more regulation of homeschooolers so that the state can protect children from abuse. Studies have clearly shown that the vast majority of homeschooling parents responsibly and effectively teach and care for their children.

Public officials should be reminded that the purpose of compulsory attendance law is to serve the state’s interest in education, not keep tabs on children or detect potential child abuse. Research shows that this is what occurs—84% of child abuse and neglect reports come from community and professional sources, not educators (United States Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, 2007). Furthermore, those who argue that homeschooled students are at a higher risk of being abused in secret should consider that homeschoolers are more socially active, particularly with adults, than conventionally schooled students, and that abuse and neglect occur far more often in non-homeschooling families than in homeschooling ones. Thus, arguing that rare instances of severe abuse justify more scrutiny of homeschooling is unfair.

Public policy makers should also remember that the Supreme Court, in Parham vs. J.R., recognized that “the natural bonds of affection lead parents to act in the best interest of their children,” which is, of course, what occurs in most cases. Given these facts, public officials should be careful to avoid an overreaction that imposes more regulation on homeschooling families.

When HSLDA becomes aware of situations like Banita Jacks’, we emphasize that homeschooling is still an effective way for parents to educate their children, and that in a free and democratic society, we must be careful not to sacrifice constitutionally protected freedoms for increased regulation in reaction to the criminal activities of the very few. In the Jacks case, homeschooling was mentioned, but it did not cause the tragedy. In fact, Mayor Fenty recognized CFS’s role in the situation by firing several caseworkers for failing to follow proper protocol.

Extensively regulating homeschoolers is not the solution to these types of problems, and HSLDA is actively working to ensure that D.C. officials do not restrict homeschooling freedom. Recently, HSLDA attorneys met with those responsible for the new home education policies, and continue to actively communicate with them.