How the Austrian legal system encourages the misuse home schooling

An almost unconditional and legally well-protected basic right to home schooling without official requirements except for the annual audit and powerless authorities in case of suspicion of child welfare    endangerment encourage many parents to misuse home schooling.

According to the „position paper on home schooling and on teaching at a private school without public rules“ of the office of the ombudsman for children and young people of Austria, there are a large number of privately taught children who are educated to become extreme religious, esoteric or radical to xenophobic or even anti-state members of a closed social group (see www.kja.at under positions and statements: 05.09.2018.

In such closed social groups, the aim is to enable children to live out their own world views and to provide them with subjective educational content that is far from science. In most cases, such closed groups function to the exclusion of outside influences, often by violent subjugation of their members. Similar mechanisms work in living environments where the lives of children are reduced to the nuclear family.  If there is no chance of contact with the outside world for these children apart from the selective annual examinations, they have practically no possibility of receiving outside help in such closed systems in case of need (serious illnesses, mental illness, injuries etc.). In such cases of undetected threats to children’s well-being through violence or gross neglect in care and education, it is very likely that children will be exposed to these adverse living conditions throughout their childhood.

There are also parents who suffer from an underlying mental illness but do not seek medical treatment. These parents would be confronted with massive conflicts in regular contact with schools (parent-teacher conferences, consultation hours, etc.) in order to avoid these conflicts, some parents sign off their children for home schooling. For these children, this means growing up in a „sick“ world, which they often internalize as „normal“ due to the lack of contacts through the daily school routine.

For decades, parents have been successfully legally defending themselves against official controls in the context of home schooling. As a result, in an application procedure for home schooling, the respective education directorates now have only a few official task powers which they are allowed to perform administratively.

Reports of child endangerment in the context of home schooling are often based on vague suspicions by attentive neighbors or relatives. With such reports, the competent youth welfare offices have to carry out further control visits to the reported families in order to be able to make a complete risk assessment due to endangering the welfare of the child without getting into the parental accusation of having to perform official acts due to general suspicions.

It is therefore understandable that competent authorities should be very cautious with regard to the control of vague suspicions, even if they run the risk of underestimating an actual potential danger to the child/children, as was the case with the 13-year-old girl in autumn 2019, the family as a member of a sect, was known to the youth welfare office, but the authorities underestimated the potential danger, so that the 13-year-old girl, who was taught at home, died in autumn 2019 of a treatable chronic pancreatitis due to a failure to provide medical assistance.

In the case of a reported risk to the child’s well-being in the context of home schooling, the fact that many families in home schooling live in closed communities or closed in nuclear families makes it even more difficult to clarify the child’s well-being. In such closed systems, each member knows how he or she must appear to the outside world (such as standard sentences, empty phrases, staging etc.) in order to protect their communities. This manipulative information has the function of making it impossible to obtain a realistic, holistic picture of the reality of children’s lives and thus to cover up violations of children’s rights such as the use of violence, neglect, psychological torture, etc. In order to be able to carry out a complete examination of the reality of life in such social systems as well, other legitimate examination procedures would be needed than the current practice of the social worker. (for more information on the subject of other review procedures by youth welfare offices, please refer to the article „suggestions for amending the law on home schooling“).

If families want to escape official controls, they often manage to do so by changing their place of residence to another administrative district or to another federal state. Due to this flight from authorities, families are given new chances again and again to carry on as before, which they also use. Successful official tourism has been and continues to be a proven strategy to avoid unpleasant official controls and their consequences.