It was a beautiful spring evening, ten years ago. We’d just finished eating dinner when an older woman knocked on our door and identified herself as an employee of the Department of Child and Family Services. “Were you at Target yesterday?” she asked. “With children?” Well, yes, I was. And someone had filed a complaint against me, turning in my license plate number, accusing me of child abuse.
I remember the panic and the humiliation that swept through me. This very thing – being accused of child abuse, having the official standing on my doorstep questioning me – was one of my parenting nightmares. Guilt or innocence had very little to do with the fear I was feeling in that moment. As I listened to the social worker speak I silently prayed one of my most frequent prayers, used in a variety of circumstances: “Please, Lord, no matter what, help me to tell the truth.”
This turned out to be an easy truth to tell. This was back in the days when I still spanked, but I wasn’t being asked about that. Instead I had been accused of having shaken my baby. I could say with complete conviction that I had never, ever shaken her. “I do spank the other kids sometimes,” I confessed, even though she hadn’t asked, “but I promise you, I’ve never shaken a baby.”
The DCFS worker was not unkind. She asked to question my children without me, and I allowed her to do so. She told me that she would be reporting the case as unfounded, and eventually – after 90 days? My memory is fuzzy – unless I was accused again the case would be closed with no permanent record of the accusation. “Spanking isn’t illegal,” she added. “But do it in the privacy of your own home. Some people are nosy, or they have an axe to grind.”
You know that gooey therapeutic saying, “You’re only as sick as your secrets”? Well, I don’t think it’s quite right – after all, some people who don’t keep secrets still seem pretty sick to me. But I do think there’s healing in telling someone the things you’re afraid to admit. Having a DCFS worker show up at my house to investigate me for child abuse ranks up there as one of the most humiliating experiences of my life, but at least I had the good sense not to try to hide it from everyone I knew. I was involved in a MOPS group at the time, and I told the whole group – endured their shocked expressions – just so I wouldn’t have to carry that memory as a shameful secret.
Even so….sharing it here? With anyone who happens to read this blog? Still embarrassing.
But I’m writing about that experience for a reason. I was falsely accused, anonymously, and I still don’t know why. I was having a hard time with the kids that day at Target. Maybe someone saw me and thought, “That crazy woman looks like she could lose it on her kids.” Maybe someone was extra-sensitive to the dynamics in an (obviously) adoptive family. Frankly, after reading the stories of adoption and abuse that I’ve seen recently, I wouldn’t blame them. Maybe the tipster was just a jerk. All I know is that it was a false accusation: it was frightening, humiliating, traumatic. And it was unfair. Because I was innocent.
But what if I wasn’t?
What if I really had shaken my baby in the parking lot at Target? There’s nothing special about me that makes me above suspicion, is there? (Let me go ahead and answer that: no, there is not.) The woman from DCFS was doing her job, and I’m glad that she showed up and questioned my children and me, because if the allegation had been true my baby would have needed someone to act on her behalf.
DCFS was not my enemy.
Libby Anne, a Patheos blogger, recently published a series of posts about the Homeschool Legal Defense Association, essentially accusing them of…well, let me give it to you in Libby Anne’s own words:
Put simply, HSLDA is doing everything it can to keep people from reporting child abuse and to inhibit child abuse investigations, has opposed laws against child abuse, and is working to undo compulsory education laws altogether, effectively decriminalizing educational neglect.
The HSLDA is sacrosanct among many of the homeschoolers I know, and it is with some trepidation that I tell you, I think Libby Anne has a point.
I have never joined HSLDA, despite being strongly encouraged to join by other homeschoolers. Why not? My reasons aren’t especially well thought out. I’m not much of a joiner; I don’t like the alarmist tactics I’ve seen the HSLDA use; my relationship with the public schools in my area has been largely positive, rather than adversarial. It just didn’t seem necessary.
If I had been a member of the HSLDA, and if I followed the advice they give to their members, things would have gone differently the evening that the DCFS showed up. I would have immediately assumed a defensive posture with the caseworker, declining to answer her questions until after I’d contacted my HSLDA lawyer. I certainly would have refused her request to interview my children. That honestly didn’t occur to me that day, when the caseworker was at my door. As alarmed as I was, I trusted in God and the truth
I understand that I was not guaranteed such a positive outcome. If the caseworker had not believed me that night could have been the beginning of a long ordeal. I know that the system doesn’t always work the way it should. But we need that system, as imperfect as it may be. Too many homeschoolers operate as if every homeschool parent is loving, every home is a sanctuary, and the only threats are from outside (the government, the public schools, the child welfare system). The reality is that abuse and neglect take place in some homeschool families just as they do in every other kind of family. The difference is that many homeschoolers, spurred on by the philosophy of HSLDA and the conservative homeschool movement, believe that they are sovereign over their children, that their authority is nearly absolute – limited only by God and perhaps the church, but certainly not by the state. I think we’ve underestimated sin. We’ve been on the alert against the abuse of power by the government but oblivious to the abuse of power in our own families, our own communities, our own homeschool groups.
What if HSLDA simply stepped up and acknowledged that abuse takes places everywhere, including among its member families? What if they utilized their platform to educate homeschoolers on how to recognize and report abuse when they encounter it? If you think this is beyond the scope of HSLDA’s work, remember that they have campaigned to “reform” (translation – “loosen”) child welfare laws. Why not take responsibility for protecting children as well as parents?
I’m not suggesting that HSLDA has never done anything beneficial for the homeschooling movement. I’m simply hoping that HSLDA will use its considerable influence to address child abuse in the homeschool community. Please, stop making it easier for abusive parents to hide themselves behind homeschooling.
I’ve read enough stories of children starved, beaten, burned, molested, exposed, caged and murdered to stay with me for a lifetime. Homeschoolers, those were our children! I don’t care if their parents were “sincere” homeschoolers who lost their way or frauds who identified as homeschoolers to make abuse and neglect easier to conceal. Through our resistance to transparency and accountability, our insistence that parental rights are the greatest good – we have become part of the problem.
I’m sure that there are incompetent and corrupt CPS social workers out there, but I’d like to thank the rest. They are on the front line of a battle we all should be waging. DCFS, CPS – they are not the enemy. Child abuse is the enemy, and the homeschool community needs to fight against that abuse and for our children – all children.
HSLDA, why don’t you lead the way?
Note: This issue is much, much wider than Libby Anne vs. HSLDA. For an overview of the controversy and other reactions, including the response HSLDA posted to their Facebook wall, see this post at Homeschoolers Anonymous.