Recently, America’s secretive “Christian homeschooling” movement found itself at the center of attention when a 19-year-old girl created a viral plea for help proving she really existed. Her parents had withdrawn so far from the rest of society that they had refused to get her a social security number, a birth certificate, or any form of medical history – in essence, the girl, now a young adult, was an undocumented illegal alien, despite having been born in Texas. The neglect has prevented her from entering into society on almost every level: She can’t get a job, she can’t attend college, she can’t rent or buy a home or car.
But if people assumed that the parental malfeasance displayed by her parents was the worst the movement had to offer, a new whistleblower has shown that these fundamentalist Christian communities can be infinitely more damaging than that.
Jennyfer Austin was adopted as a child into just such a home and was from then on blocked off from the outside world. During her formative years, Austin grew up under strict, oftentimes severe, religious parenting that she says only got worse as her mother was “egged on” by homeschooling friends and church leaders.
Christian fundamentalists often opt for homeschooling over public or private schools because it allows them to control every aspect of their children’s lives. A study released in 2013 found that homeschooling has been growing steadily in recent years. 77 percent of parents asked why they chose to homeschool their children said that it was a desire to provide moral instruction that they believe “secular” schools lack.
For Austin, being shut away from the watchful eye of the public school system allowed her parents to keep her near. Even when she reached adulthood, Austin was prevented from going out into the world. Unlike many Christian homeschooling children, Austin knew that she had a birth certificate and social security number (because of her adoption), but her adoptive mother hid the documents as a way of keeping Austin close.
Austin’s description of life in her home sounds like something out of Saudi Arabia, not California:
‘Dating was a complete no-no. I might be able to have a parent-approved courtship and go places in public, but I couldn’t possibly do something like hold hands with a boy.’
She was forced to wear long skirts and blouses with high necklines and long sleeves. If she chose a skirt which went to mid-calf, she would have to put on knee-length boots so no leg was shown.
‘Even my swimsuit went down to my knees and had sleeves,’ she recalled. ‘I wasn’t allowed to shave. My grandfather felt that any part such as my legs that needed to be shaved should not be shown off in public.’
Most appallingly, at the age of 20, Austin was told by her parents that she had been “sold” to a man twice her age, a situation that Austin and others like her say is disturbingly commonplace. She says her parents’ asking price for her was $25,000, a fee that was much smaller than the average (around $50,000), because due to her being molested as a child she was considered within her Christian community to be “damaged goods.”
Thankfully, Austin managed to escape from her appalling life, which was, to be frank, little more than an imprisonment. Escaping was nonetheless difficult. After refusing to marry the man her parents were paid to deliver her to, her mother said Austin owed the would-be husband a refund of his $25,000 down payment. Instead, she fled.
Austin is now married, albeit to a man that she actually chose to be with. She now says that she is focusing on rebuilding her life in a society that her parents had tried for her entire childhood to keep her from.
She says that because of her experience that she no longer identifies as a Christian. Her adoptive parents may not have been representative of all of Christianity, but Austin can certainly be forgiven for not wanting any part of it.
According to a report by the AHA Foundation, a group which focuses on protecting the rights of women, America is home to a large number of forced marriages. Concrete numbers are hard to come by given the secretive nature in which they take place, but the group identified as many as 3,000 cases in just the last two years. Many of the cases involve immigrants who maintain the customs from their home country, however there is anecdotal evidence to suggest the fundamentalist Christian movement is also implicated