When mandated reporter calls to child protective services are used as a weapon against parents.

Nov 17, 2018 by

Many school employees are legally obligated to report any suspicion of child abuse and neglect, but sometimes that authority is misused

The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services began investigating Tiffany Banks for alleged child neglect and abuse, she says, around the time her son started to misbehave in school and she pushed back on a plan for his educational services. Banks says she feels the school was trying to strong-arm her into transferring her son to a different institution.

The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services began investigating Tiffany Banks for alleged child neglect and abuse, she says, around the time her son started to misbehave in school and she pushed back on a plan for his educational services. Banks says she feels the school was trying to strong-arm her into transferring her son to a different institution.

This story about schools and child protective services was produced as part of a series, “Twice Abandoned: How schools and child-welfare systems fail kids in foster care,” reported by HuffPost and The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

CHICAGO and NEW YORK — Tiffany Banks sat in her living room, a ruby-red wall decorated with family photographs behind her, listing all the ways her life had unraveled over the past year. Her 6-year-old son had been removed from her care for more than a month. She was forced to close an in-home child care business, and she’d been temporarily displaced from her preschool teaching job, which she’d held for 17 years. Her teenage daughter refused to talk to the 6-year-old, blaming him for the family’s troubles.

Banks didn’t blame her little boy. She blamed his school, and the investigators from the state’s child welfare agency they’d sent to her door.

Until last fall, Banks had only good things to say about her children’s school. She’d carefully chosen the K-8 institution, a magnet school across town from her single-family house on Chicago’s West Side, for its academic rigor and diverse student body. Her daughter, now 16, had thrived there, she said, and her middle son did well too. But when her youngest son entered first grade last year, he started misbehaving and making trouble for teachers. “He really struggles behavior-wise,” said Banks, a tall, self-assured woman who’d attended neighborhood public schools in Chicago and desperately wanted something different for her kids. “And at this school they have a low tolerance for it.”

The school wanted the boy to enroll in classes exclusively for students with disabilities. But Banks felt differently: Despite his behavior problems, for which he was eventually diagnosed with attention deficit and mood disorders, he did well academically, she said. Banks pushed back, going so far as to make complaints to the city’s education board and entering mediation with the school.

This was unfolding around the time the workers from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, or DCFS, began investigating her for alleged child abuse and neglect.

School employees in most states have a legal obligation to report any suspicion of abuse and neglect, and they can play a critical role in helping keep children out of harm’s way. But in nearly three dozen interviews conducted by The Hechinger Report and HuffPost, parents, lawyers, advocates and child welfare officials said that schools occasionally wield this authority in inappropriate ways. Fed up with what they see as obstinate parents who don’t agree to special education services for their child, or disruptive kids who make learning difficult, schools sometimes use the threat of a child-protection investigation to strong-arm parents into complying with the school’s wishes or transferring their children to a new school. That approach is not only improper, but it can be devastating for families, even if the allegations are ultimately determined to be unfounded.

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Banks’ first brush with DCFS came after the school sent her son to the hospital because he was acting out, she said. They wanted him to receive a psychiatric evaluation, she said, but Banks refused because he already had an appointment with his doctor for the following week. The second time a caseworker investigated her, she said, it was because her son’s doctor had prescribed him a new medication and the school hadn’t been properly notified. Next came an investigation after her middle child wrote a paper that Banks was told contained troubling content. One time, she gave her youngest son a spanking for running away from school. After he told school employees about it the next day, he was removed from her home for more than a month and sent to live with her sister-in-law while the child welfare agency investigated her for abuse, according to Banks. The most recent case was the most incomprehensible to her: Banks said she was investigated for letting her middle child go to school with a bad haircut he’d given himself. The haircut, Banks said she was told by an investigator, could amount to emotional abuse.

As a teacher, Banks herself had sometimes called the state child welfare hotline over the years, when she worried that her students were being abused or neglected. But in her case, she believes the school simply wanted her son gone. Banks said she’d heard from a handful of other parents who’d found themselves in similar situations, all of whom are African-American like her and whose children have disabilities. “All I’m looking for is a good education for my kid,” said Banks. She felt the allegations against her had been twisted and exaggerated to fit a narrative that she was a bad mother. “It severed the relationship that we’re supposed to have as a parent and teacher community.”

Emily Bolton, a spokesperson for the Chicago Public Schools, wrote in an email that the agency cannot comment on specific cases but that employees take seriously their responsibility as mandated reporters of abuse and neglect, and that there is no evidence of widespread misuse of the DCFS child-welfare hotline.

But even some former child welfare officials say the practice isn’t as rare as they’d like. “If schools don’t get the parents to agree to what’s being recommended — not all the time, but sometimes — they will call ACS [the Administration for Children’s Services, New York City’s child welfare agency] to pressure them,” said Don Lash, a former lawyer with ACS and author of the book, “ ‘When the Welfare People Come’: Race and Class in the US Child Protection System.”

He and many other experts also note that because of legitimate fears of overlooking kids at risk and vague definitions of abuse and neglect, school workers may sometimes be overzealous, calling in allegations over relatively minor issues such as broken eyeglasses, inappropriate clothing or small scratches. In interviews, more than a dozen lawyers said these investigations disproportionately affect low-income families of color, who tend to live in neighborhoods and attend schools that have bigger police and social services presences and whose children are more likely to show markings of poverty that can be confused with neglect.

Such families also have fewer resources to fight back. When a family in a wealthy Brooklyn neighborhood learned roughly two years ago that their child’s school had initiated an ACS investigation against them, they sued the city education department. Parents from lower-income, majority-black and Latino neighborhoods, few of whom can afford that option, say such investigations can be a regular, even expected, part of parenting. According to ACS data, there were 2,391 abuse and neglect investigations last year in East New York/Starrett City, a low-income neighborhood in Brooklyn, compared with 255 in the affluent, and far more populous, Upper East Side.

Race, and racial bias, can also play a role in whether families are referred to and investigated by child protective services, research suggests. Nationally, black children are roughly twice as likely as white children to enter foster care, and in New York and Illinois, more than four times as likely. Research reveals racial disparities at every step, from the numbers of calls to the child welfare hotline to the numbers of investigations and court findings of neglect.

“I don’t think I can think of a white family where I’ve ever seen it arise,” Chris Gottlieb, co-director of New York University’s Family Defense Clinic, which represents clients in child welfare cases, said of these types of school-driven investigations.

An intimidation tool?  

Accusations that officials with Success Academy Charter Schools have sometimes threatened parents with ACS involvement have been a focal point of legal and civil complaints against the charter school network, New York City’s largest. One lawsuit against a Success Academy school in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn alleges that the school unfairly singled out kids with disabilities for discipline. In an August ruling allowing the suit to proceed, a judge said allegations that school employees called police or child protective services on 4- and 5-year olds, would, if true, help to demonstrate enough “bad faith or gross misjudgment” to sustain the discrimination claims.

Nicey Givens, one of the parents in the suit, said she was told at least twice that Success might involve ACS if she didn’t quickly pick up her child from school in the middle of the day. The boy, who’d been given diagnoses of attention deficit and oppositional defiant disorder, often misbehaved, and Givens said she felt the school was pressuring her to remove him. Once, she said, the threat to involve ACS came after she’d sent the boy to school in boots instead of his uniform shoes on a cold, wet day.

“Calling ACS is one of the tools in their repertoire to make the parents comply,” said Irene Mendez, a staff attorney with New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, one of several groups that filed the suit. A 2016 civil complaint filed with the federal Department of Education includes an allegation that a Success school in Manhattan initiated an ACS investigation against the mother of a 6-year-old as part of an effort to encourage her to send him to another school. Another lawsuit alleges that one of the network’s Bronx schools repeatedly threatened to call ACS to pressure a parent to remove her son from the school.

Success Academy officials dispute the suggestion that any of the network’s schools misuse calls to ACS. Ann Powell, executive vice president of public affairs for the charter network, said she could not comment on the specifics in the lawsuit involving the Fort Greene school because it is ongoing, but said that the network disagreed with the way Givens described her interactions with the school. Success also disputes the allegations made against the Manhattan and Bronx schools. Powell noted that as legally mandated reporters of child abuse, school employees must report any suspicion of abuse and neglect, and that “using that in a threatening way is just not credible.”

continue: When mandated reporter calls to child protective services are used as a weapon against parents.

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