By Chrissy Stroop / OpenDemocracy
- Warning: Contains descriptions of child abuse
As regular readers of this column will know, I was born and mostly grew up in Indiana – the funny-shaped state just south of Michigan. I was raised in right-wing evangelical Protestantism and given a Christian nationalist education at Heritage Christian School in Indianapolis.
“Spare the rod and spoil the child” is not just the norm where I come from – it is prescribed from the pulpit, and parents who refuse to spank their children are frequently shamed. My sister and I were sometimes spanked with a wooden spoon growing up, but many conservative Christian kids had (and have) it worse than that.
In Christian schooling and homeschooling communities, parents discuss which objects they can beat their children with to inflict considerable pain without leaving the kind of marks that could get them reported to Child Protective Services (CPS), a part of the government hardcore “parental rights” advocates believe should not exist. Many prefer industrial glue sticks.
This week, one such case involving the use of glue sticks by a south-central Indiana father of 11 children, Scott Blattert, caught my eye. I can’t say I was surprised that Scott and his wife Cherry Blattert “justified” their brutal treatment of their battered children with assertions of “religious freedom” and claims to be following god’s commandments.
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Blattert, a chemical engineer, was jailed for over 11 years for strangling one of his children and beating her severely with glue sticks, a belt, and his hands – open palms and fists according to the testimony of his brave daughter. Her use of a mobile phone to capture part of the incident is likely the only reason the Blatterts have faced any legal repercussions for their actions. The Blatterts’ daughter also explained that her parents used videos from Vision Forum Ministries as part of their homeschooling programme. Shut down about a decade ago amid the founder, Doug Phillips’, admission to marital infidelity and allegations of sexual misconduct against him, Vision Forum pushed a patriarchal vision of Christianity in which fathers have absolute authority over their children, parents are expected to have as many children as “god gives them,” and homeschooling is prescribed.
At his sentencing, a completely unrepentant Scott Blattert explained why he and his wife refused plea deals by stating: “My wife heard a voice saying to fight for our children. I recognised that as the Holy spirit.”
When a scandal like this comes to light, Christian homeschooling advocates are quick to dismiss people like the Blatterts as “fringe,” but the anecdotal experiences of numerous survivors of right-wing Christian homeschooling suggest such severe abuses are far more widespread than these advocates would like to admit.
And tellingly, homeschooling advocates (who also tend to be parents’ rights advocates) generally support little to no state regulation of the sort that would make abusers likely to get caught. The case of the Blatterts is undoubtedly exceptional – one of the family’s children managed not only to report her parents to CPS, but to bring the kind of evidence necessary for such a report to be acted on. But we cannot place the burden on vulnerable children alone to free themselves from their abusers.
Last week, a local Indiana network ran a story about the state being named “among the best for homeschooling” by Homeschool+, a branch of the Age of Learning company that runs the immensely popular ABCMouse.com Early Learning Academy.
That evaluation is based on some criteria that sound like (and in many cases may well be) good things: homeschool-related groups per capita and access to state sports and extracurricular activities, for example. But another key measure – laws and regulations (or, more precisely, the lack thereof) – perfectly illustrates why these two stories are related.
New Jersey, touted on the front page of the Homeschool+ report as “the least regulated state for homeschooling,” comes 13th out of America’s 50 states in the overall rankings. As for Indiana? The only records homeschooling parents are required to keep are attendance records, and parents must submit a formal letter of withdrawal when placing their high school aged children in homeschooling. There are no curriculum requirements, vaccination requirements, assessment requirements, or required visits with anyone who might notice signs of child abuse.
The under-regulation of homeschooling and Christian schools is a nationwide issue – one Americans should be even more concerned about in light of the recent growth of homeschooling and state-funded “school choice” programmes.
The book-banning right’s current moral panic over LGBTIQ inclusion and so-called “critical race theory” in public schools, with “parental rights” as its rallying cry, has led to a renewed legislative push for “choice” in conservative states.
This follows on the heels of an apparently very successful right-wing effort to use the pandemic to attack public schools – not least over reasonable vaccination and masking policies – and popularise Christian extremist homeschooling and private schools. As I documented in my reporting on the issue, right-wing homeschooling advocates are well aware that most homeschooling curricula and, in many locales, homeschooling co-ops, push Christian nationalist ideology and may serve as a means of radicalising parents and indoctrinating children, in addition to promoting “divinely prescribed” corporal punishment.
According to data from the Indiana State Department of Education, the number of students switching to homeschooling doubled from 11,909 in the 2019/20 academic year to 20,888 the following year. And Indiana is not alone. While available data shows homeschooling tapered off in 2022, it is now well above 2019 levels.
This should concern all of us who believe children have the right to a robust education and safety from harm.
I understand the valid reasons some parents opt for homeschooling – public schools may have insufficient accommodations for their children with special educational needs, or their children may face racism or bullying in the local public schools.
But the loudest and most influential voices in American homeschooling are clearly motivated by the desire for absolute power and control over their children. While making any progress in this area is an uphill struggle, particularly in a time of moral panic, it would help if those who homeschool for the right reasons would organise and advocate for reasonable regulations to protect homeschooled children from miseducation and abuse.
An ex-evangelical writer, speaker and advocate, Chrissy Stroop is (with Lauren O’Neal) co-editor of the essay anthology ‘Empty the Pews: Stories of Leaving the Church’. A senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches, her work has also appeared in Dame Magazine, Foreign Policy, The Boston Globe, Playboy, Political Research Associates and other outlets, including peer-reviewed academic journals. Stroop has a PhD in modern Russian history from Stanford University, and is a senior research associate with the University of Innsbruck’s Postsecular Conflicts project. In 2019, she came out as a transgender woman and began her journey of medical transition. She lives in Portland, Oregon, US.