In April 2018, the Connecticut Office of the Child Advocate (OCA) released a follow-up report in its investigation of the 2017 death of Matthew Tirado, a teenage boy who had been severely abused and neglected by his mother. Because homeschooling was tangentially related to the situation (Matthew himself was not being homeschooled at the time of his death, but his sister was), the OCA decided to collect data on homeschooling families’ involvement in child abuse and neglect investigations.

In the three years since it was released, some have cited this report in attempts to tighten restrictions on homeschooling families. However, the report has numerous problems: its methodology, its data set, and its underlying assumptions about how the child welfare system works.

The Tirado case

Matthew Tirado died in February 2017. He was 17 years old. Investigators concluded that Matthew had suffered severe, long-term abuse and neglect by his mother, including beatings and starvation, which resulted in his death. His mother pleaded guilty to a charge of first-degree manslaughter and is now serving a prison sentence.

The OCA released two reports about Matthew’s death. The first focused primarily on significant, multiyear failures by the Connecticut Department of Children and Families (DCF) to properly investigate and remediate Matthew’s situation. But a section toward the end of the report discussed Matthew’s educational background. Matthew had autism and intellectual disabilities. Throughout his life, his school attendance had been sporadic, and the family had been investigated several times by the DCF while Matthew was attending public school. The report concluded that Hartford Public Schools (HPS) needed to do a better job identifying and reporting cases of abuse and neglect among its students.

This first report contained only a few scattered references to homeschooling. Investigators found that Matthew’s mother withdrew his younger sister from school to homeschool her in December 2016. Matthew was not withdrawn to be homeschooled; he was enrolled in public school at the time of his death. But the report also suggested that if the DCF had been notified of Matthew’s sister’s withdrawal from school to be homeschooled, the case might have turned out differently:

HPS officials did not notify DCF of the child’s withdrawal from school despite HPS having made 5 child protection reports to DCF within a recent 18 [months] regarding this child and her brother, Matthew. A call by HPS officials to DCF at this time, while the Juvenile Court case was still pending, could have potentially altered the trajectory of the family’s case, perhaps leading to DCF’s ongoing involvement and efforts to see the children.

Investigating homeschooling

A few months after its initial report on Matthew Tirado, the OCA issued a second report that focused almost exclusively on homeschooling. To prepare that report, the OCA asked six Connecticut school districts to provide them with the names of all children who had been withdrawn to be homeschooled between 2013 and 2016. The OCA concluded that “across the six districts, 139 out of the 380 students withdrawn to be homeschooled during the previous three academic years lived in families that were the subject of at least one prior accepted report to DCF for suspected abuse or neglect.”

Unlike a traditional study, which lays out its methodology and findings for peer review, the OCA report didn’t examine its data set, nor did it explain how it arrived at the “139 out of 380” number. Several Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests were made for the underlying data, but as far as we know, none were ever answered. Whatever the data was, it remains sealed in the proverbial black box, hidden from view.

Furthermore, there are good reasons to dispute the second report’s conclusions:

  • These potential problems with the report’s data and methodology did not prevent the OCA and others from basing certain conclusions on it.
  • The OCA saw these data as illustrative of the need for a “safety net” to protect homeschooled children from abuse and neglect. Other commentators have taken their conclusions further, seeing the numbers as suggesting exceptionally high rates of abuse and neglect in homeschooling families.

A safety net?

For proponents of homeschooling regulation, the fact that Matthew’s mother was able to homeschool his sister—despite a history of DCF involvement—signals a gap in child protection. From this point of view, children attending school are automatically safer than those being homeschooled because they are away from their (potentially abusive) home environments almost daily and because school personnel are mandatory reporters with training in identifying abuse and neglect. The presence of mandatory reporters acts as a safety net.

But this approach raises questions. First, whatever one thinks about the argument in the abstract, the fact is that this safety-net approach wouldn’t have saved Matthew, who was not only enrolled in public school at the time of his death, but was also already the subject of a DCF investigation when his mother withdrew his sister from school.

Second, the safety-net argument makes key assumptions about the child welfare system that are simply not true. In a perfect world, perhaps more communication between schools and DCF could identify victims of abuse in time to save them. But again, Matthew’s death isn’t attributable to a lack of communication between school officials and DCF: the Tirados had been the subjects of multiple DCF investigations, based on the reports of school officials, for years.

The reality is that child welfare departments are notoriously overworked and underfunded. They are tasked with investigating a broad range of maltreatment types, from benign to highly urgent, using vague protocols that sometimes treat parents as welfare recipients and other times as criminals under investigation. Relying on one bureaucracy (child welfare) to work with another (public education) to supervise and keep all children safe is an unrealistic and unworkable solution.

How many at-risk kids?

The report claimed that in these six school districts (five of which were unspecified), 139 out of the 380 students withdrawn to be homeschooled during the previous three years lived in families that were the subject of at least one prior “accepted report” to DCF for suspected abuse or neglect. The implication—which was not lost on the news outlets who covered the report in 2018—was that a significant number of homeschool students lived in abusive or neglectful homes.

That implication is severely misleading. An “accepted report” is a term of art in Connecticut: when a report is first made, it is vetted by DCF to determine if the allegation, if true, would meet the statutory definition of abuse or neglect. If so, it is “accepted” for further investigation.

For example, if someone alleged that a newborn had been left alone at home, that report would be accepted—even if it wasn’t true—because if the allegation was true, the child would be neglected. Conversely, if someone alleged that a parent had given their child blue ice cream instead of green ice cream, that would not be accepted—even if it were true—because giving your child blue ice cream instead of green is not considered abuse or neglect in Connecticut law.

The report has numerous problems: its methodology, its data set, and its underlying assumptions about how the child welfare system works.

The key point is this: if one looks solely at how many “accepted” reports are made against homeschooling families—as the OCA’s report did—all it will reveal is how many times people made allegations about those families. It tells us absolutely nothing about whether the allegations were true. In fact, it can’t tell us that, because reports are accepted before they are ever investigated.

To answer the question of how many of the allegations in the OCA’s report were true, the OCA would have had to use another term of art: of those accepted abuse and neglect reports, how many were also “substantiated”? A report is substantiated if, at the end of the investigation, DCF concludes that there is at least some evidence that a child was abused or neglected. But the OCA’s report never stated how many of the accepted reports were substantiated, and the underlying data it relied on was never released.

Without this clarification, the OCA’s data does nothing to quantify the actual danger posed to homeschooled children. By comparison, data collected by the US Department of Health has consistently found that the vast majority of accepted reports are ultimately determined to be unfounded. For instance, of the 21,617 Connecticut children investigated in 2019 (the most recent year for which data is available), nearly 60% (12,958) were the subjects of unsubstantiated allegations.

Not all “risk” is abuse or neglect

There is one more gap in the data. While the OCA document gives a number of accepted reports, it sheds no light on the type of abuse or neglect alleged by the reporter. There’s no doubt that the kind of abuse that gave rise to the report in the first place—the tragic, horrific death of a child—is both heinous and criminal. But an allegation of abuse or neglect covers acts that range from one-time errors in judgment (such as briefly leaving children alone in a car), to poverty-related failures to provide adequate shelter or supervision, to physical or sexual abuse.

Again, according to national statistics, most substantiated reports are for neglect. Connecticut reported 8,042 child victims in 2019. Of those victims, the overwhelming majority—6,917—were victims of neglect. In the next-highest category, 2,570 children experienced psychological maltreatment. The numbers for physical abuse (434), sexual abuse (376), and medical neglect (245) were significantly lower. Note that one case may involve more than one type of abuse: the total number of substantiated reports is smaller than the combined total of these categories.

Matthew Tirado would have been one of these cases. He suffered severe abuse of various kinds, and was the subject of many substantiated reports, before his tragic death.

The OCA’s report doesn’t explain these distinctions, which is unfortunate—especially given the seven other case examples it cites. These, like Matthew’s story, are incredibly troubling. But outside of these seven cases, there are no details as to how many accepted reports were for life-threatening situations, and how many were not. Or how many reports were based on evidence, and how many others were based on misunderstandings or were simply false reports made by people with grudges against the reported families.

That last possibility may seem farfetched, but unfortunately, it happens more than we’d like to believe. Just last month, a federal court in Connecticut allowed two parents to proceed with a lawsuit in which they accused a school social worker of reporting them to DCF for educational neglect. What was that neglect? The family had said they were thinking about withdrawing their child to homeschool. There’s a lot left to be done in the case—the parties are about to start collecting evidence for trial, so the parents still have to prove the worker made a deliberately false report about them—but the judge warned that if this was true, the social worker may have violated the parents’ constitutional rights.

Unfortunately, what the school social worker did in that case is not all that far removed from the course of action advocated by the OCA—treating the simple act of considering or beginning to homeschool like an act of abuse or neglect. Its initial report in 2017 concluded that the district “should have immediately contacted the DCF Careline with a new report” when Matthew’s sister was withdrawn from school. The subsequent 2018 report didn’t repeat that recommendation per se, but it did call for a “regulatory framework in Connecticut that will minimally ensure a child is withdrawn from school for the purpose of homeschooling is receiving an education and is making progress in instructed areas,” and that “DCF should consider . . . what processes it may best employ” when investigating families who have withdrawn to homeschool.

These recommendations underscore the chief misconception promoted by the second report. While the report borrows the dispassionate social science verbiage of a research study, it is really, at its core, a work of advocacy. It is designed to advocate for changes, summarized in its “strongly recommend[ed]” suggestions at the end. The data are arranged to facilitate its conclusions, rather than the conclusions following from the data. As a reliable study, it falls well short of the mark.