Questions for HSLDA’s Michael Farris

“I wish Mr. Farris would address all the criticisms and questions about HSLDA/F. However, he seems satisfied to allow his critics to do it for him, then attack them for doing so.”
-Mary McCarthy

Through John Holzmann, publisher of the Sonlight curriculum, HSLDA founder Michael Farris requested I present my unanswered questions to him. Having heard that Mr. Farris prefers specifics, I offered them with my questions, and gave details for the reason of my questions inconsistencies I have seen in HSLDA materials, speakers and actions).

However, Mr. Farris declined to answer the questions, asserting they were not reporter-like–and later referred to them as “a lengthy attack.” Yet, I had run the questions by a professional journalist, who said they were exactly the kind of questions a reporter–who has a clue about the goings-on–would ask. These were requests for specifics, on topics for which HSLDA has made generalized statements but has not supplied the figures that would verify the claims.

Mr. Farris responded by answering questions he provided. You decide whether he answered mine.
-Shay Seaborne

“The lady from vegsource wrote me a lengthy attack piece.”
– Michael Farris, CrossWalk chat night of Feb 29, 2000

From: Shay Seaborne
To: Michael Farris
CC: John Holzmann
Date: Sun, 13 Feb 2000 22:32:10 +0000
Subject: Questions

Dear Mr. Farris,

I appreciate your offer to reply to my questions. Most arose from inconsistencies I observed at the HSLDA Support Group Seminar last fall. The questions, which relate to topics ranging from Social Services to advocacy work, are surfacing in support group conversations and on Internet message boards and E-mail discussion lists. As you know, the homeschooling community is divided on these and other issues. Perhaps your answers will help resolve some of the discord.

Attached is background information, including excerpts from the E-mail correspondence between Mr. Woodruff and me.

  1. Social Services

    1. How many of the parents who contacted HSLDA in 1999 stated that someone had reported them to Social Services anonymously? What were these anonymous tips about?
    2. In 1999, how many homeschooling parents were reported to Social Services for using corporal punishment, as opposed to neglecting their children? Please give specifics. Also, are most of the anonymous tips found to be plain harassment?
    3. When HSLDA members were reported anonymously to Social Services in 1999, did a call from HSLDA resolve the investigation? If not, what additional action, if any, did HSLDA take? Please give specifics.
    4. How many homeschooling families, and in what locations, were forced to enroll their children in school in 1999, solely because of an official’s bias against homeschooling?
    5. How many families informed HSLDA that they were reported to Social Services for educational neglect in 1999; in which states; and in how many instances were these reports passed on to school district officials or truant officers for further action? Please give specifics.
    6. In a recent E-mail, HSLDA attorney Scott Woodruff stated that Social Services investigations of homeschoolers are rare, and it is accurate background information that helps families protect themselves. If this is his belief, why then does HSLDA use frightening scenarios from extreme cases?

      For example, the Seminar workbook contains two lengthy fear-inducing scenarios illustrating how and how not to handle social workers. It is interesting that these dialogues have been presented at various homeschooling conventions around the country. Portraying these scenes incites the kind of fear that propels people to buy what they perceive as protection: a membership in an umbrella organization such as HSLDA.

      Continuing the threatening tone of worst case scenarios, another workbook section-

      “What is HSLDA?” -begins with:

      • “A truant officer is at the door. He pushes his way in. He will not leave until he can take your children to the public school. What can you do?”
      • “A police officer is at your door with an arrest warrant to take your six year-old child. Who can you call?”
      • “The local public school official insists that your home school arrangement is not legal and threatens you with criminal charges. Where can you get help fast?”

      However, a glaring contradiction to the implied risk to homeschoolers was revealed when David Gordon, another HSLDA attorney, interrupted Mr. Woodruff’s presentation. Standing in the back of the room, Gordon took the high road when he interjected:

      Out of the sixty thousand members, if I got one call a day [about Social Services problems]–about two hundred per year– which I don’t, that would equal only one third of one percent of members. Nobody here should be afraid. Most [Social Services] reports come through public schools. Nine out of ten end up unfounded or unsubstantiated.

      It was conscientious of Mr. Gordon to make this statement about the small number of members contacted by Social Services–but it wasn’t enough to allay the strong fears incited by the materials and talk. Those scenarios would strike terror in any parent’s heart. It would help to reduce fears if a statement were made *prior* to the talk–one to the effect that it rarely happens. Indeed, similar comments threaded throughout the talk would have helped keep the issue in perspective. Knowing the facts and figures enables parents to make informed decisions about the genuine likelihood and risks of an encounter with Social Services.

    7. Are homeschoolers investigated for child abuse and neglect more frequently than the general population? If so, why?
  2. Representation

    1. Have you said you speak only for HSLDA members? If so, where, when, and what did you say?
    2. And, if indeed you speak only for HSLDA members, why you would not want to include phrases to that effect in your statements and in HSLDA materials?
  3. In your cover letter to the Proclaim Liberty Rally packet-the one intended for distribution to members of Congress-there is no mention of HSLDA representing only its members. Throughout, the material refers to “home schoolers,” even when presenting your position on issues that many homeschoolers do not necessarily agree with.

    In fact, many parents might not consider issues such as the Religious Liberty Protection Act a homeschooling issue. Other issues in dispute include: the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Straight A’s Act, and the Teacher Empowerment Act. None of the Proclaim Liberty Rally materials informed the reader that HSLDA speaks only for its members. Instead, the implication was and remains that all homeschoolers are in agreement with HSLDA’s positions, which, as you know, is not the case.

    Consider this: during a recent “Morning Line” interview on Lynchburg’s WLNI radio, I was queried as to my position on HB 68, the Tax Credits for Non-Public Education bill currently before the Virginia General Assembly. I am a member of several homeschooling organizations, facilitator of a support group, and moderator of a statewide discussion list-with total memberships in the thousands. Nevertheless, I stated: although homeschoolers are a diverse population, I represent only myself. This statement was a conscious effort to let the listeners know that at that moment I stood alone.

    Until I poll the members of these organizations, and receive permission to speak on their behalf, I will continue to make it clear to the media and others that I am not speaking for anyone else. Even so, the responses to my disclaimer were very positive. One homeschooling mother wrote me, “I can say that you did speak for me,” she stated. Another listener posted on an Internet message board, “I especially like Ms. Seaborne’s comment about not speaking for all homeschoolers. I think that’s probably one of the biggest misconceptions facing homeschoolers right now, the thought that we’re all one big, happy, homogeneous group.”

    Homeschoolers have increasingly expressed this idea on many E-mail discussion lists and Internet message boards. “Who represents homeschoolers” is a growing concern. Because the media can easily misconstrue who a speaker represents, it behooves us to clarify-as often as necessary-for whom we speak. There seems to be some confusion within your own ranks. Take Mr. Woodruff’s response to the question regarding representation. In a recent correspondence, he recalled that you made a statement that HSLDA speaks only for its members. But he seemed uncertain as to where and when. If homeschooling organizations are to be taken seriously, these discrepancies have to be resolved.

  4. Virginia

    1. Why did HSLDA decline to work with VHEA? Please give specific reasons.
    2. Since the Virginia Home Education Association is an established state association, one would expect to find it included in the list of state organizations on HSLDA’s web site. However, it is omitted. Who oversees the selection? Please explain the process.
    3. Senate Bill 486, presently before the Virginia General Assembly, is designed to increase homeschooling freedoms, such as under homeschooling Option IV, which frees homeschooling parents from the local superintendent’s judgment as to sufficiency of curricula and qualification to teach. The bill also frees all homeschooling parents from the local superintendent’s judgment as to evidence of adequate educational progress. Why doesn’t HSLDA’s web site “Alert Pager” list SB 486?
  5. Will Shaw, president of the Virginia Home Education Association, said he approached HSLDA in June of 1999, “to discuss concerns, share information, promote coordination and cooperation, and improve relations.” HSLDA made it clear it has no obligation to work with any state association.

  6. Daytime Curfew

    1. Is there any reason why HSLDA representatives would not mention such amendment?
  7. The Support Group Seminar panel also discussed the threat of daytime curfews. However, no representative of HSLDA-of which I believe there were two-revealed that Virginia law was amended in 1998 to specifically prohibit daytime curfews.

  8. Religious Freedom

    1. Is the Religious Tolerance web site correct in this assumption?
    2. If yes, why does HSLDA support the boycott?
    3. Perhaps more information or education needs to be disseminated?
  9. A motto of HSLDA’s web site is “Advocates for Family and Freedom,” and its “Alert Pager” promotes the Virginia Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Yet, according to the Religious Tolerance web site, HSLDA* and the Madison Project support a boycott of the Army, because that branch of the armed services does not prevent adherents of Wicca from performing their religious ceremonies. So, it seems that in today’s climate some religions are more valuable than others.

    [author’s note: Several months later, HSLDA informed me that it had not supported the Army boycott.]

  10. New York State

    1. What changes are being proposed?
    2. And which New York State homeschooling organizations are involved?
  11. I understand HSLDA is considering initiating changes to the homeschooling regulations in New York State.

  12. Advocacy Work

    1. Given that homeschooling is often challenged during divorce or custody hearings, as Smith suggested, is it part of HSLDA’s advocacy effort to provide information that assists family court lawyers in effectively arguing homeschooling cases?
    2. If so, in what specific ways?
  13. In a recent issue of the Florida Bar Journal, author Kevin P. Smith reported on the importance of homeschooling advocacy organizations providing information that would defend the validity of homeschooling in custody and divorce proceedings. He stated that, “The issue of educating the parties’ child at home by one of the [divorced or divorcing] parents may be a hotly contested issue and a more frequent one as the number of [homeschooling] programs increases.” In concluding, Smith further noted that family court lawyers need to understand the merits of homeschooling so they can effectively argue that it is in the best interest of a particular child to be homeschooled.

    Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions. Perhaps you have some questions for me, as well. I would be happy to discuss them with you. Do not limit yourself to the above topics. I am hoping your answers will help to dispel some of the divisiveness in the homeschooling community, particularly since homeschooling is receiving increased attention from the media. I look forward to your reply.

    Shay Seaborne

From: “HSLDA Office of the President”
To: Shay Seaborne, John Holzmann
Date: Mon, 14 Feb 2000 14:17:16 -0500
Subject: Re: Questions

Dear Shay,

I deal with reporters from every imaginable source. Your questions are not reporter’s kinds of questions but much more like interrogatories that lawyers send each other when they have a case they are trying to prove.

First and foremost, all of your requests for specific dates, numbers, etc. are simply impossible to answer because we do not keep specific centralized data on each contact that we have here at HSLDA. I would have to go to each lawyer in the office and ask him and his legal assistant to spend several hours going through records to accumulate the data you ask for. We have no reason to do that for our own purposes. So it is simply not realistically available.

If you want to rephrase your questions in a more reporter-like fashion, I would be glad to look at them.

Please use the email address [snipped] rather than the one you used if you choose to send me more questions.

Let me give you two quick statements which are an attempt to be responsive to your general concerns.

  1. How likely is it that home school families will have social services trouble? Does their home schooling have anything to do with increasing the likelihood of being reported?
  2. Most home school families will go through their entire child-rearing years with no contact whatsoever from social services. It is impossible for us to say with any accuracy what the percentages would be, but it is not insignificant–that is some number approaching zero.

    We have found that one of the real benefits from our continued publicity of the issue is that more and more families are keeping social workers out of their home and away from their children by knowing what to do.

    No family should feel afraid of this scenario. But every family should be prepared. Part of this preparation is accurate knowledge of their rights and the current state of the law. It is fair to say that HSLDA has done more than any other group in the country to advance both knowledge and recognition of family’s Fourth Amendment rights in this area.

    Having done a lot of litigation in this area, it does not seem to matter what the original reason for the call is, (spanking, refusing immunizations, concerns about nutrition, etc.) if a home schooling family is involved, home schooling ends up being listed as a risk factor in the social services evaluations. We have seen this in written reports. And I read a newspaper article on this in Pennsylvania where a state conference of social workers urged that home schooling was in fact risky behavior and should we watched closely.

    Based on nearly 18 years of defending home schooling, it is my opinion that the activity level for social worker investigations approaches a similar level of that done by truant officers in the early to mid 1980s. Lots of contacts, but it will always be a minority of families who are contacted.

  3. Who speaks for the movement?
    1. Does HSLDA believe we speak for all home schoolers?
    2. No.

    3. Do home school leaders who have a different point of view think that HSLDA speaks for all home schoolers?
    4. No.

    5. Do government officials we try to influence think that HSLDA speaks for all home schoolers?
    6. No.

    7. Does the media think that HSLDA speaks for all home schoolers?
    8. No.

  4. The National Organization for Women claims to speak for women. Concerned Women for America claims to speak for women. They have very different voices and messages.

    No one speaks for all women and no one speaks for all home schoolers.

    Both NOW and CWA will issue press statements saying, “Women believe x, y, and z.” That is the nature of politics. Everyone in politics understand such statements to reflect a particular point of view and not a truly universal voice. This is well recognized in so many ways. The Catholic Bishops don’t speak for all Catholics. The Union heads don’t speak for all union members, etc. etc.

    Accordingly, I would suggest that no one relevant to the process believers that HSLDA speaks for all home schoolers.

    So your points about isolated language from various documents simply misses the context in which those documents are circulated. They are circulated in the context of public policy debates and everyone in those debates knows that no group can ever claim to speak for all people within that group whether women, environmentalists, lawyers, Catholics, union members, etc. etc. etc.

    So if you or others have a different point of view on issues, by all means write your Congressman or whatever you feel is appropriate. We have no intention of changing our practices which we believe (judging them on a whole) make it clear that we are giving our opinion, but that it does not necessarily reflect the opinion of everyone. If people want to support us they can, no one is required to join us.

    On state organizations, we link to state organizations that have a positive working relationship with us. Having read many attacks on HSLDA that flow from VHEA, we are not interested in linking to them. We have no intention of reciprocating, but we are equally disinterested in promoting those who dislike us.

    One final note. I am willing to answer in good faith a single set of follow questions (if they are of a kind that reflects a good faith desire to know our position rather than a grilling to help you prove some point you are trying to make). I am not willing to engage in protracted debates. I hope you can understand the time pressures I am under that require this.

    Mike Farris  

From: Shay Seaborne
To: Michael Farris, John Holzmann
Date: Thu, 17 Feb 2000 19:23:00 +0000
Subject: Re: Questions

Dear Mr. Farris,

Thank you for your thoughts on the topics of Social Services and on Representation. It surprises me to learn that HSLDA does not keep data on each member contact; it seems doing so would well serve such an organization, by providing evidence of its effectiveness, as well as documentation of various threats to homeschooling. HSLDA’s office must be organized quite differently than those of regular attorneys. As you know, questions similar to mine are arising with increasing frequency–in support group meetings, Internet bulletin boards and E-mail discussion lists. The lack of clear answers reflects poorly on the image of HSLDA.

If I were the head of an organization being questioned as HSLDA apparently is, I would want to clear up the inconsistencies and improve my staff’s responses, so my organization’s integrity would be clear. I understood that you are a man who prefers specifics, and I spent a good deal of time preparing my specific questions. Now you require questions that fit some other format.

I respect your choice to not answer my questions, but strongly disagree with your assessment of their validity. A professional journalist reviewed my questions and informed me that these are exactly the kinds of queries a good reporter makes. My questions are specific and valid. I comprehend the reply you provided, and choose to let my questions stand.

Shay Seaborne

From: “HSLDA Office of the President”
To:Shay Seaborne
Date: Mon, 21 Feb 2000 16:03:54 -0500
Subject: Re: Questions


We keep individual records of every contact. We do not accumulate group statistics. Most lawyers do the same thing.

You asked for group statistics. We do not have those and it would take substantial work to produce them. We would have to review all of our thousands of individual records.

I hope you convey what I have told you accurately.

Mike Farris

From: Shay Seaborne
To: Michael Farris, John Holzmann
Date: Sat, 26 Feb 2000 07:08:11 +0000
Subject: Re: Questions

Dear Mr. Farris,

Thank you for the clarification. How does HSLDA decide which elements pose a threat to homeschoolers?

Shay Seaborne

Mr. Farris has not responded to date. Nor did he provide information that might give insight to the number of homeschoolers HSLDA has helped, the number and kinds of cases the organzation has won, or verification of the “many attacks on HSLDA that flow from VHEA.”

[The following was sent as attachment to my original message to Mr. Farris]

Background Information Re: E-Mail Communications Between Scott Woodruf and Shay Seaborne

Social Services

In a Support Group Seminar presentation titled “What Parents Should Know About Child Welfare Agencies,” HSLDA attorney Scott Woodruff related stories of Social Services case workers and assorted law officers forcing their way into families’ homes to interrogate the children. Woodruff also told a horror story of a family whose children were influenced by Social Services questioners, regarding the possibility of sexual abuse. Accompanying this frightening talk was the 16-page section of the Seminar workbook entitled “Dealing With Social Services Contacts.” The first page of which begins:

“More and more frequently, home schoolers are turned in on child abuse hotlines to social services agencies. Families who do not like homeschoolers can make an anonymous phone call to the child abuse hotline and fabricate abuse stories about home schoolers.”

The section ends with “How to Handle Visits From Social Service Agencies.” It is compriesed of two lengthy fear-inducing scenarios to illustrate how to and now not to handle social workers. The workbook also contains “What Is HSLDA?” Continuing the threatening tone of worst case scenarios, this publication starts with:

  • “A truant officer is at the door. He pushes his way in. He will not leave until he can take your children to the public school. What can you do?
  • “A police officer is at your door with an arrest warrant to take your six year-old child. Who can you call?
  • “The local public school official insists that your home school arrangement is not legal and threatens you with criminal charges. Where can you get help fast?”

WOODRUFF: I have helped a number of families who have been threatened with having their kids taken [into Social Services custody] just because they were home schooled.

SEABORNE: How many families, who were threatened because of homeschooling, have you helped, and in what ways? A rough estimate would be fine. How serious was the threat? Was it the Social Services agency itself that threatened, or just a tipster? Of those families investigated, was there a real threat of losing the children because they were homeschooled?

WOODRUFF: No family has been forced to put their children back in public school. I have heard reports of this happening to other families, but I don’t know the details.

SEABORNE: Again, I would need more details to see the picture clearly. I don’t need names. I can’t accept a premise based on someone having heard of cases.

WOODRUFF: A number of states define neglect to include educational neglect. When someone calls in a complaint alleging the kids are not being educated (i.e., not being sent off to school during the day), home schooling is immediately under attack. I do not want to give names without the permission of the families, but this definitely goes on.

SEABORNE: Once more, I don’t need names, but some figures would be helpful.

WOODRUFF: I wish I could convey to you the anxiety and helplessness many families feel when this happens, and how appreciative they are for the help we provide.

SEABORNE: I have asked all the folks on the state discussion list, all the homeschoolers I know personally, and all the homeschoolers on a busy discussion board, and of the few who said CPS contacted them, only one said it was about homeschooling and that was easily resolved when CPS was informed of the state law. Furthermore, the other respondents said that the CPS visit was not a big deal. They felt they had nothing to hide, invited the representative in, chatted a while, and the case was closed.

I’m not saying that your members, who have been helped through a CPS contact, did not feel anxious and helpless or appreciative of your help. Just that I haven’t seen this situation elsewhere.

WOODRUFF: The likelihood of this [a homeschooling family being reported to Social Services] happening to any one family is small, but since the impact can be devastating, everyone should have accurate background information.

SEABORNE: I agree. However, I think it is detrimental to call up frightening scenarios, such as, “A truant officer is at the door. He pushes his way in. He will not leave until he can take your children to the public school.” It helps for people to know their rights, and the actions they can take, but it is not helpful to invoke scenarios from extreme cases.

WOODRUFF: As to the social worker issue, our members appear to be subjected to investigations at roughly the same rate as the general population.

SEABORNE: This is contrary to. . . phrases like, “More and more frequently, home schoolers are turned in on child abuse hotlines to social services agencies.”

When Mr. Woodruff queried the source of this phrase, I referred him to the section “Dealing With Social Services Contacts” of the Support Group Seminar workbook, the first sentence below the bold face heading, “The Social Worker at your Door.”

[Mr. Woodruff did not respond to any of the above questions.]


WOODRUFF: As to speaking for all home schoolers, I believe Mike Farris has put in writing that we speak for our members, not all home schoolers in general.

[But he did not answer my question about when and where.]

SEABORNE: Can you tell me when and where? I’d like to see it, because it would be quite different to what I have read, which is that Mr. Farris wrote, ‘Who gets to speak for the homeschooling movement? The majority speaks for the movement. Why should it rattle anyone’s cage for the majority of homeschoolers to define the position of the movement? I would hope that non-Christian homeschoolers would endorse the rights of Christian homeschoolers – including the right to vote our convictions and the right to majority rule.’

WOODRUFF: Because we are one of the largest national home school organizations, some assume we speak for the entire group.

SEABORNE: That is why it is important to make it clear that you do not. Simply including “our members” or “this organization” would go a long way toward that.

WOODRUFF: When we speak, we speak only on behalf of our members. If there is anything on our site or in our printed materials that you think is inconsistent with this, please let me know.

SEABORNE: An example is materials from the Proclaim Liberty rally the ones intended for distribution to members of Congress in the position papers describing ‘Why Home Schoolers Support’… ‘The Straight A’s Act’ and ‘The Teacher Empowerment Act’; and copies of Issues Alerts indicating opposition to the Commerce Clause Provision of the Religious Liberty Protection Act and the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child


When I asked Scott Woodruff why the Virginia Home Education Association wasn’t included on HSLDA’s web site list of state organizations, even though VHEA has requested such a listing, he replied: “I do not control our web site links.” Queried for the name of the person who does exert such control, Mr. Woodruf ignored my request.

Daytime Curfews

In discussing daytime curfews, a Seminar panelist invoked the frightening phrase, the “police will take your child to the closest public school or curfew center.” When another speakers mentioned localities that previously attempted to implement daytime curfews, an HSLDA representative said, “Let HSLDA know that your area is considering a daytime curfew.” However, no one on the panel mentioned that Section 15.2-926 of the state law was amended in 1998 to specifically prohibit daytime curfews.

I then asked Mr. Woodruff why no HSLDA representative mentioned that daytime curfews are illegal in Virginia.

WOODRUFF: Curfews are still a significant issue. Some localities may not be well advised as to the constitutional and statutory issues involved, so we must anticipate that there will still be some attempts to pass daytime curfews at a local level. We ask, therefore, that people tell us at once if they hear of any such efforts–so we can promptly explain the law to the municipalities. We believe the statute you are speaking of prohibits daytimes curfews, but there is no guarantee all localities presently agree with us.

New York State

SEABORNE: It has come to my attention that HSLDA is considering initiating changes to the laws pertaining to homeschooling in NY. Mr. Woodruff, can you fill me in on the proposed changes, and which NY State homeschooling organizations would be involved?

WOODRUFF: No response.


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