DEPARTMENT OF CHILDREN'S SERVICES
Homeschooling families are not exempt from possible accusations from well-meaning family, friends, or neighbors concerning parenting issues. While most accusations are false, some of them unfortunately may require intervention. A family’s choice to homeschool is NOT a sign of irresponsible parenting. But homeschooling families may be confronted by the Department of Children Services over anonymous accusations.
Horror stories of children being torn from their families by workers from a state's Department of Children's Services (DCS) often train home schoolers to fear "the dreaded knock" on their door by any civil servant. One's personal goals and emotional reactions, the philosophical agenda of a support group, the advice of a home school legal defense fund, and one's perception and interpretation of a given contact, all play major roles in whether one exacerbates the problem or becomes a part of the solution. In addition to addressing these issues, this article will suggest some comprehensive steps to responding to "the dreaded knock."
Home schoolers who believe every motive and action by legislators, public school officials, or DCS workers are against them, are usually the victims of paranoia created by sincere, but misguided, leaders. This is not to deny the fact that some DCS workers have abused their powers and over reacted in certain cases.
Some families, when contacted by the DCS, have been advised by their home school legal defense to respond in a manner which converts the contact to a "privacy" issue, rather than dealing directly with the initial allegation and purpose of the contact. The DCS worker has the legal duty to determine the validity of the allegation before he or she can make a charge or resolve the matter. When a family resists the DCS worker's attempts (the worker is not there to discern whether a family's reaction is from a sincere concern over privacy or a dysfunction) he or she is legally, and constitutionally, obligated to take additional steps in gaining access. Continued resistance could result in the children being removed unnecessarily from the home in order for the DCS to fully assess the allegations. DCS workers are human too, and like many home schoolers, can be ill-equipped in dealing with emotionally charged situations.
Occasionally home school legal defense advice can explode an already volatile issue into something never intended by the DCS. It may further propagate unnecessary paranoia in the home school community.
Whether the allegation has been fabricated by a relative or neighbor, or contains some element of truth even for a normal family (although there is nothing to hide), how one responds to the DCS worker is crucial to resolving the issue. Every rational family, and every home school administrator, can be taught how to help the DCS worker find the information needed, respond in a non-defensive manner, and close the case. Where allegations prove to be true, intervention is necessary. In cases handled by our office where false allegations have been made, every one of them has been closed in an expedient and favorable manner. Additionally, the home school family is often encouraged, and the DCS worker has become home school-friendly, often referring families to established home school programs.
Should home school families "let" the DCS worker into their homes? Should they "permit" them to question the children alone? Should they show them the curriculum or "consent" to an inspection of the house? Let's look at some answers to these questions.
First, it is both appropriate and useful to inquire about the allegations. Once you know what they are, stay focused, try not to become distracted or distressed, and help the worker to find the answers to his questions. Sometimes more than one visit is necessary. Be patient. Contact your ISP (independent study programs) administrator and inform him of the contact, and ask him to provide you with counsel and assistance. If you just cannot remain unemotional during a visit, ask a neighbor or friend to be there for that extra measure of confidence you need while being interviewed. Sometimes an unbiased third party helps to hold everyone accountable and settle an otherwise tense situation.
Should a home school family "let" the DCS worker into their home? The DCS worker is obligated to take any appropriate and necessary means in attempting to investigate a case. Entering the home for observation and conversation is part of the legitimate means for the worker to gather information. If abuse, neglect or health allegations are involved, home assessment is mandatory for the case worker. If a family's resistance persists, the worker will leave and return with police and/or a search warrant in order to complete the investigation. The worker will not know if the allegations are false unless the facts are gathered. The role of the family is to help establish the facts, and to vindicate itself of the allegations if they are false. Let the worker in, giving him time to get comfortable. Offer him a seat and something to drink. Be clear and direct--not rude, defensive or pushy--in conversing with them. Try to find a common bond with the worker (such as, does he have children, etc.). Do so without becoming the interviewer. This can help balance the power and change the setting to "peer review."
Next, should a home school family "permit" the DCS worker to question the children? According to the law children can be questioned, but families have the right to decide whether it is done privately or in their presence. The presence of a third party is highly recommended. Parents should also express their preference in the location of the questioning. They can suggest places such as in the kitchen or a couch in the living room. The DCS worker will legally obtain access to your home if forced to do so, but for the family, the path of least resistance usually moves the case to a speedy close.
Should a family show their curriculum or "consent" to the worker looking through the house? To the DCS worker, your curriculum is not usually the issue. Offer the worker information regarding the home school program your children are enrolled in, providing the name and telephone number of the administrator. The administrator should be willing to give counsel and, if possible, come to your home for support and assistance.
A DCS worker may want to look through the home, for signs of substance to the allegations. He may stick his head in a bedroom or bathroom, or look in a closet. If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. An unkept home is not necessarily a reason for concern, even if its state of order does not meet the DCS worker's personal standards. But an unsanitary house (bathroom mold, dirty dishes, old food in the living room, etc.) will influence a worker's assessment if health or general neglect is involved.
Several additional factors in schooling children at home and to the family's relationship to social order are important to keep in mind. Little more than common sense is required to see their value, but their neglect tends to increase the likelihood of misunderstandings and suspicions. If a worker comes to the door during regular school hours and an adult or parent is not home, specifically with younger children, things can intensify.
Parents should not leave younger children home unsupervised. The appropriate age of independence depends somewhat on the child. A sixteen-year-old may discover that idle time easily turns into trouble, while a fourteen-year-old is responsible beyond his years. No child thirteen-years-old or younger should be left home alone for a length of time. If a DCS worker should come to visit and find younger children left home alone, they could pursue taking the children into custody. Children should always be able to reach a parent at any time for help with homework, as well as in the case of accidents, illness or unexpected visits (a cell phone can be a helpful aid, although they are not 100% dependable). Children should know how to properly answer the telephone and the door. Home schoolers should maintain integrity in schooling and caring for their children.
Some home school communities, while endeavoring to protect their interests, can develop tunnel vision and miss the bigger picture of the world around them. Anyone who has spent time working with a local police department, hospital emergency room, family court, DCS, or a public school's Department of Student Services, knows that a percentage of children aren't properly cared for (home schoolers included). Therefore, every state has a public interest in developing legal ways of intervening for its children at risk. In the course of intervention, there will always be human error. But the lesser of two evils is attempting to provide it, rather than to avoid it for fear of error or the delusion that every parent is a good parent.
Just because a parent feels love for their children and cares about them does not mean they will parent them properly or know everything they need about their growth, education and development. No state has exclusive rights in determining proper parenting styles, but can set guidelines for dealing with inappropriate behavior (such as, sexual and physical abuse) and provide for intervention. The problem lies in understanding the American process for setting guidelines. Many families feel trapped in an out-of-control government system which may not reflect the values of their family or of the public majority. As a result, some may believe (even as christians) they are above the system and may resort to anarchy as a means to protect their interests.
Contacts from the DCS can become welcome events by ISP administrators for a variety of reasons. They help defuse unrealistic paranoia among home schooling families. They provide ISP administrators opportunities to develop working relationships with civil servants (police, DCS workers, and even public school officials). They identify families that really need intervention. One home school family reported that it was grateful for intervention, because nothing else was working for it. home schooling does not exempt families from having problems.
An important thing to remember, if you are a normal and reasonable family, the worker will recognize this! If there is no evidence to support allegations of wrongdoing, the DCS worker can close the case. You will have cooperated with a system designed to promote a healthy society and protect its children. Let's not be afraid. If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear!
Permission to duplicate this article is granted and encouraged, if copied in full with credit given.