Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Homeschooling vs. Parenting

We've all heard or read terrible stories about children being treated in horrific ways. When those children have been homeschooled, the mainstream media have a field-day whipping public opinion into an anti-homeschooling feeding frenzy.

But child abuse is not about homeschooling; it's about parenting. Yes, it is possible for a few families to hide abuse under the guise of "homeschooling"; however, if they are choosing to homeschool for that reason, it seems to me that they are not truly homeschooling but merely keeping their children out of school. Clearly abuse also happens in homes where children attend school. From my stint as a school counsellor, I know that most children who are abused keep it a secret out of loyalty and love for, as well as fear of, their abusers. Abuse can easily go undetected even when a child attends school.

When these stories appear, when people start talking about the relationship between abuse and homeschooling and how that's a reason to further regulate homeschooling, we need to speak up. Society needs to be clear that abuse is about parenting, not about where children are learning. Abuse is a child protection issue and has nothing to do with homeschooling laws.

I suspect there will always be people, some well-meaning and others not, who will try to get policy-makers to do something about this or who will act out of their own limited understanding. And since these actions, well-meaning or not, could possibly affect your family (or the family of someone you know), there are some things you can do to prepare yourself for interference so that you are not caught completely off-guard.

Child Protection in BC

Child protection legislation is well-intentioned and is, unfortunately, necessary. There are children "out there" who are leading sad and scared lives, and laws are in place to support and protect them (once the abuse comes to light). In addition, we are all under a legal obligation or  "duty" to report child abuse. If a child discloses abuse to you or you see clear evidence of abuse but you do not report it, you actually commit an offense.

What comprises "evidence" of abuse is often what people don't understand. Sometimes people get it into their heads that a child who isn't reading at age 12 or who has emerging handwriting at the age of 10 must be neglected. Couple that with kids running around the yard during school hours (especially if there is no visible adult), maybe with some innocent and delighted screaming and yelling, maybe with some lack of clothing in younger children... and someone may decide that they need to report what's going on simply because they don't really know or understand what's going on.

What that someone likely doesn't know, however, is that in BC school attendance is not a child protection issue and is not covered under the Child, Family and Community Service Act. Social workers are quite firm, even with school personnel, that truancy is a school issue, not a child protection issue.

There have to be "reasonable grounds" to believe a child needs protection. Children not yet reading and running around the yard are not reasonable grounds. But if a call is made from the community, the key element is not that the child is not in school - it's the mix of that plus other things (often misinterpreted) that may cause your phone to ring.

What do I do if my phone rings?

Take a deep breath and relax. I've worked with community social workers on child protection issues. I know that they don't want to disrupt the lives of families and I've seen them do crazy contortions to try to make unworkable situations work for families. However, just as people have a duty to report, they have a duty to investigate. Most of them are experienced in these situations and they know what comprises child abuse. A messy house with toys all over the floor and children running around outside (supervised or not) do not equal abuse. In fact, I've heard stories where social workers have reassured parents that a house filled with toys (even on the floor) is a good sign of children happily and busily playing and they like that. And they are aware that no parent is perfect (as many of them are parents as well).

So, if they want to come visit, let them. If it's messy but your house is reasonably hygienic, don't panic about it. Instead, focus on things that will help you stay calm and relaxed, cool and collected. They'll want to ask you some questions (maybe about discipline, maybe about schooling), they'll want to see your children, and they'll need to get a picture of what's going on. That's it. 

Of course you'll feel nervous and uncomfortable. If you need a friend to be with you, feel free to invite one (especially one armed with homeschooling rationales). Or a supportive family member. But refusing access will result in deeper suspicion and the interference of the court, so it's always better to cooperate and provide as much information as possible. Although it feels deeply personal, it's not personal to the social workers who are there to talk to you and who ultimately want to support your kids. If you treat them like they are on your side, they likely will be.

The social workers will not tell you who reported your family, but you can request that they make it clear to that person that your family has now been investigated, that there is no evidence of abuse and that homeschooling is not a child protection issue.

You can also ask them if they plan to close the file. Yes, once a call has been made about your family, investigated or not, there is a file. If they feel there is no reason to keep it open, they may close it. I believe that you have a right to know whether they close it or not, so do ask.

If you aren't satisfied with the tone, tenor, or direction of the interview, feel free to call the social worker's supervisor and continue the conversation. Supervisors tend to be more experienced and are usually tolerant and understanding. They also have the authority to update the case file and to form an independent judgment on the situation.

How can I prepare?

Even though school attendance is not a child protection issue, you may be asked about it. Or the social workers may refer your case to the local school board office if they feel it's an issue of truancy or educational neglect. In the case of registered homeschoolers, regardless of where you are registered, the superintendent of the school district where you live will be required to follow up on any reports that you are not providing an educational program for your child.

If your children are registered as homeschoolers, keep a file, journal, or a blog of your child's learning adventures. This doesn't have to be a big production. It can simply be a collection of the most exciting or interesting things your family has been up to, including trips, field trips, art work, list of interests, and so on. Also, have your own philosophy of home education sorted out. If  you are an unschooler, don't worry about it but do have some clear reasons why you think this is the best way for a child to learn.

If your family is enrolled in a Distributed Learning (DL) program, the local superintendent has no jurisdiction over you. None. So, if anyone with any authority asks about school, you can show them your DL program or you can simply refer them to the principal of the school (do call the school yourself to explain the situation). That's it. The school will have report cards, records, etc. on file.

If you aren't registered or enrolled and you are hoping to fly under the radar, you may want to do a quick registration with a school you like if you ever find yourself in this situation.

Don't worry

One of the pieces of advice I give to myself on a frequent basis is "Don't worry, Act."

Worrying does nothing except makes me less available to my family and it makes my life small and less enjoyable. What helps me, personally, over the worrying hurdle is to think about what I can do to be proactive or active and then do it. And then let it go.

So, yes. I do suggest making sure you are prepared for any eventuality that might otherwise knock your socks off, such as that phone call.

But then, forget it about it. Enjoy your kids. People in BC are rarely investigated because they are homeschooling their children. If someone is investigated, it is usually a real child protection concern that has nothing to do with where or how their children are learning. The homeschooling part is irrelevant.

Are there some people who shouldn't homeschool?

Someone recently asked me about my response to the "parental qualifications" post on Psychology Today. I was asked if I thought it was eventually possible for homeschoolers to truly lack the ability and attention necessary to support their children's learning. What about people who just can't get it together to send their kids to school (being so overwhelmed with the circumstances of their lives) but don't actually "do" anything with their kids?

First of all, this is not homeschooling. Not sending your kids to school because you don't get around to it is not, by default, home education. In this situation, a parent who is not managing to take care of the day-to-day minutiae of life with kids is likely neglectful. This is a parenting issue influenced by personal circumstances, not a homeschooling issue.

In addition, most people who lead harsh lives (such as someone who has a "street" lifestyle) are probably happy to know that their kids are in school, having access to things that the parent isn't able to provide (including supervision). And, to be honest, most of those kids won't be with those parents for long if the living conditions are not safe for children.

Homeschooling is an extension of parenting, not the other way around

I have often felt that homeschooling is an extension of my parenting. It is just one of the many things that I do as a parent to support my child's development and well-being.

I didn't become a parent because I wanted to homeschool. Nobody does. Homeschooling will come and go depending on my child's needs. But now that I am a parent, I will always be a parent.

It seems obvious to me that when it comes to issues of abuse in the home, it is the parent who is responsible for the abuse, not the homeschooling.