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A few years ago, I wrote a blog post about the minimum sufficient level of care that the state expects to be provided for children. I started volunteering as a CASA and being exposed to truly awful situations of abuse and neglect. One thing that bothered me at the time was the fact that having no electricity or running water were factors for neglect. At the same time we were expected to have a degree of cultural sensitivity as CASA volunteers that would serve to keep us from imposing our own cultural views on the families we encountered. There’s a bit of nuance for true poverty situations, but society in general has an expectation that everyone should be able to access the resources they need to maintain adequate shelter (read: a barrier from the elements, running water and electricity) and basic needs. Without those things, the state can remove your children.
It was particularly difficult for me as an idealist, fond of backcountry camping, to navigate the fine line between simplicity and neglect. For my family I had to rule out some of the backcountry-style habits that I might have adopted if it were just me. Those are things like the DIY solar water, solar oven, rainwater catchment and a few other things I wanted to do. Not saying those things would have led to neglect, but the time and effort required to maintain those kinds of systems would have drawn me away from my family and impaired our ability to have reliable infrastructure. Having dealt with a few serious staph infections and other health problems in my house, I can say now that I have a huge appreciation for abundant, reliable amenities like hot water and air conditioning. Luxuries, absolutely, but basic luxuries like these makes the burden of life so much lighter.
I didn’t grow up with air conditioning myself. I also spent part of my childhood raised by an aunt who served in the Peace Corps in a small village in Kenya where people used only a few liters of water a day. She ingrained in me some basic ideas about true necessities that leave my standards quite a bit lower than many of my peers. As an adult I’ve had plenty of experience with housing that would probably be considered substandard to most, so, I do see things like a/c and on-demand hot water as privileges. With that comes a little bit of guilt for indulging.
All of this is to say that I think I have some knowledge of the off-the-grid prepper culture and the intensity of these fairly radical views about lifestyle. At least, I’m familiar enough to speak to a few points in a recent story that has been getting a lot of attention. To state it briefly, 10 kids were removed from their parents’ homestead because of unsafe living conditions. The parents practiced an off-the-grid lifestyle, ‘unschooled’ the kids, had unassisted homebirths, refused vaccinations, raised animals and veggies, and aspired to a vision that is so fondly familiar to me that it makes me queasy. And it breaks my heart that this has happened.
Apparently this story has been in the news for several weeks now and the internet is abuzz with people who are condemning all aspects of this family’s life. The first thing that I thought when I looked at the pictures was… cool projects! Cool tent! Briefly, from the outside, the homestead looks like a sprawling backcountry camp. Something admirable, perhaps, until you pause to consider the daily burden of raising 10 kids, a mismatch flock of livestock, gardens, and planning/building off-the-grid infrastructure from the ground up… and then it must become desperately clear that the conditions are the way that they are because this family has barely managed to scrape along.
Photographs now scattered across the internet show the private lives of this family in stark honesty– a scummy green pond, bare dirt, children and animals mingling, unrestrained, an open fire for daily cooking, piles of dirty laundry, trash strewn about, dirty, deeply dented cans of food.
This is where the family of 12 lived 24/7, through all types of weather, in a makeshift tent made from tarps, 2×4’s, wooden pallets and small trees or limbs.
There is enough in photographs and documentation on the internet (Facebook, the family blog, etc) to demonstrate serious safety concerns for the children. RL Stollar at homeschooler’s anonymous has posted a guest post by someone going by the pseudonym “Gary”, who has written quite eloquently about why the environmental conditions on this specific homestead are unsafe for children.
The situation at the homestead, based off the photos and posts available, seems to be getting worse. There are several reasons for this, and they have to do with the effects of animals (goats, chickens, dogs, etc.) and human habitation on a spot of land. In the beginning the pond appears to be a real pond (turtles and fish are pictured), by the (apparently) latest photos, the pond has turned into a filthy mud pit devoid of most life. This is the natural consequence of animal dung running off the surrounding landscape with the rain and melting snow, the traffic of people, animals, etc.
This same trend can be seen in the yards and areas surrounding the shack. At first the dirt is held down by plant roots, but as the small trees were killed by the goats or chopped down to form fences, the dirt turned to mud. This mud gets mixed with the animal dung (goat, chicken and dog) and gets tracked by the bare feet of the children over every surface of the homestead. This state of affairs is clearly visible in the photos.
With this comes water from rain running straight off into the pond, carrying with it animal dung and any and all other forms of filth, from oil and gasoline from the generator, to cooking and food waste. This means that any photos taken at the beginning of this homestead experience simply can not be relied on to show the true living conditions of the current day.
We do see some photos of a shallow ditch covered by a few muddy boards, that was dug in an attempt to keep this filthy rain run off from flooding the shack.
Farms are rarely neat and tidy. They can be quite a mess and environmental degradation to some extent is to be expected on many farms. The environmental conditions, as awful as they are, might be overlooked if the children actually lived in a shelter that could serve as a barrier between them and these hazards. They don’t have a proper shelter, though. “Gary” astutely points out.
This family isn’t “homesteading”, they are, for all practical purposes, homeless.
This is really the crux of the problem, from what I understand.
I don’t get the sense from the family or from any other sources that this is an issue of poverty. In an interview with Off The Grid News, the father explains that the tent living was a temporary setup while they put their money into getting the wife’s business started. I have no clue how much money he’s talking about, but this statement makes me furious. There is no way that a business endeavor should take priority over proper, safe housing of children. Neither should political idealism get in the way of seeking government assistance when finances are an issue– but that’s another matter. Where I keep finding myself drawn to sympathize with this family, these conscious choices to reject assistance for their kids, and the choice to invest in their own business endeavors instead of a stable structure for 10 children to live in, undermines any feelings of support I might extend to this family.
They are living this way by choice and subjecting their children to filthy, unsafe conditions. In the same interview, the mother attempts to explain away the scum in the pond by saying that they’re letting it revert to it’s natural condition, unable to recognize the eutrophication and erosion that will not just spontaneously recover by letting it go “natural.” This kind of ignorance seems to be at the root of the family’s crisis. The health and safety hazards can’t just be dismissed or, worse, embraced as mere lifestyle choices. This is truly tragic.
Since their children were removed from the home, the family has received almost $45k in gifts from people all over the country to help out with these most basic of requirements, like providing a decent shelter, needed to have the children returned. Apparently some other legal issues have come up for them but since those are unrelated to homesteading and pertain to actual allegations of abuse, I’m not going to get into that right now.
It’s surprising to me just how many people are coming to the defense of this family, and not just the parents but their living conditions! Every topic now leaves my head spinning with the justification of things that not long ago might have been regarded as clearly unacceptable. At the end of the day, I am just grieved over this situation. There is not much else to say. The conditions speak for themselves. What’s left, I suppose, is for outsiders– deeply divided– to bicker over the details.