Is This Child Abuse?

Is it a crime to keep young people isolated from the wider community?  To teach them nothing that will allow them to thrive as independent adults?

From Frimet Goldberger in the Jewish Daily Forward we hear accusations that Hasidic communities in Ontario perpetrate educational crimes on their own children.  She shared a disturbing video in which a journalist asked young men basic questions.  Do you know the name of the Prime Minister?  The names of Canadian provinces?  Do you know anything about Canadian history?  The parts of the body?

The students, all apparently members of the Lev Tahor community—a group of about 40 families—did not seem to understand much about what they were being asked.  Most of the difficulty seemed related to their lack of English language skills.  But the boys did not seem able to answer in Hebrew, either.  One student, for example, asked to explain what he had learned about biology, explained haltingly that it is not healthy to jump too much right after eating.

The Lev Tahor community faces more serious challenges, too.  Some of the members are on the run from Canadian police, facing charges of child neglect and abuse.  Goldberger asks the question we want to hear: Does failing to teach children English or French count as abuse?  As Goldberger puts it, “These boys are lacking the basic language tools to take one step out of the community, to communicate with anyone outside their community.”

The United States has long wrestled with these questions, too.  Most notably, the US Supreme Court ruled unanimously in 1971’s Wisconsin v. Yoder that dissenting parents had the right to remove their children from public school.  These days, accusations of abuse in the growing homeschooling community have prompted calls for more government oversight.

Does a dissenting community have the right to restrict their children’s future?  If so, how can the wider society make any claims to regulate religious schooling?  And if not, who gets to decide what knowledge (or lack of knowledge) constitutes a limit?  Is young-earth creationism a limit on children’s futures?  Is a belief in faith healing?

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  1. Honestly, I wonder about similar things every time some of my more conservative friends are in an uproar every time (supposedly) parental rights are getting taken away. I don’t want to see well-intentioned (but imperfect) homeschool parents behind bars, but at the same time the state has to have SOME oversight and authority in order to rescue children from legitimately abusive situations.

    I don’t know what the answer is.

  2. I agree with Athena. I believe the local BOE ought to have some oversight capacity when it comes to home schooling parents. There are standards in place, educational milestones to be met, and laws preventing child abuse. I can also see some real problems with trying to carry out the oversight.

    Do the authorities in the schools have the right to enter a home in order to assess the adequacy of any home school? After all, lesson plans could be submitted, and the children tested to make certain they are getting a good education. None of that has to be accomplished by a home visit. (However, visiting a home can certainly help to identify neglected or abused children).

    I’m not sure how to accomplish necessary oversight. That’s above my pay grade.

    • Mine, too. But it seems there is a tension between having some level of protection for children and some level of freedom for families. MUST every family prove that it is not abusing its own children? That seems extreme. But can the government turn a blind eye to the possibility that families MIGHT be sequestering away their children for all sorts of abuse?

  3. Agellius

     /  March 17, 2014

    “Does a dissenting community have the right to restrict their children’s future?”

    Rather a loaded question the way it’s phrased, don’t you think? : )

    I can understand the concern theoretically. The idea of homeschooled children being sequestered away for abuse is scary. But that’s different from there being reasonable grounds for believing that it happens more in homeschool families than, say, in public schools. (The article being reviewed in the linked article, regarding the situation in Missouri, is apparently based on anecdotal evidence and it’s “unclear” whether one of the cases “even involves homeschooling at all”.)

    Frankly I can’t help suspecting that homeschool families are being singled out for special suspicion and scrutiny because they tend to be conservative, and homeschool in order to avoid the dominant liberal educational paradigm. Liberals can’t stand that. : )

    It might be easier for me to buy into the concern, if not for the fact that I know many homeschool families personally, and their kids tend to be among the most apparently happy, friendly, well-adjusted kids I have ever seen.

  4. Agellius

     /  March 17, 2014

    “Is it fair to ask dissenters to prove that their dissent will not hobble their children’s futures?”

    Right. Especially since it largely comes down to how you define being “hobbled”.

    A lot of people believe that modern liberal culture stunts spiritual development, and that that can have much longer-lasting consequences, if you know what I mean. Therefore, sending kids to public schools is also judged by some to be “abuse” or at least neglect of a sort.

    This is precisely what freedom of religion and “the pursuit of happiness” was all about: We weren’t all going to agree on the best way to raise our kids and save our souls, or whether preserving our kids from bad moral influences was more important than making sure they could easily get a good job when they grew up.

    I do agree that there should be a way for some poor kid to let someone know if he’s being abused. But I also understand parents resenting any abridgment of their duty to raise their kids in the best way they know how.

    People love the idea of “doing your own thing” when it comes to the things that they approve of, but the fact is that everyone, left or right, has values that they would like to impose on other people.

  5. Donna

     /  March 18, 2014

    What seems reasonable to me is every homeschool parent needs to submit a declaration of intent to homeschool with names and birth dates of kids, what subjects they are going to cover for each child, and either submit a standardized test, portfolio, or teacher evaluation at the end of the year. It is reasonable for a parent to pay for one of these end of the year assessments, and for those in states that require these, they already do pay for one.


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