Monday, June 21, 2010

Child welfare’s back alley: “Educational Neglect”

Late last year, the highly-regarded Vera Institute of Justice, based in New York, issued a report on one of the seedier back alleys of child welfare: "Educational Neglect." The majority of states, wisely, don't even include such cases in the mandate of their child welfare agencies. Unfortunately, New York, is not one of them. There, educational neglect reports serve one primary function: They're a lever schools can use to force parents to do what they want – like, for instance, not demand too much in the way of special education for their kids, or not complain about school safety.

Here are some highlights from the Vera Institute study, which focused on New York State but applies to any state that still lets CPS investigate "educational neglect":

Overwhelmingly, these are low-risk cases, and it's idiotic to waste the time of child protective services dealing with them. (While that may be obvious, they've got an actual case reading, from Orange County, to prove it.) In addition to wasting the time of CPS workers, sending a CPS worker to the door only makes the family defensive and makes it harder to solve whatever problem may be causing absenteeism.

The notion that educational neglect is the "tip of the iceberg," a sign of some other, deeper problem, (the primary excuse for CPS investigating such cases), is nonsense. Generally, "educational neglect" is the tip of nothing except some kind of school problem, often one that is not the parent's fault.

The extent to which CPS workers' time is wasted, and families are needlessly disrupted, is particularly striking in New York City. Statewide, about ten percent of all children with maltreatment allegations were the subject of at least one allegation of educational neglect; in New York City it was 19 percent – nearly double the state average.

There's no mystery to this. Schools took a lot of the blame after Nixzmary Brown was killed in 2006, despite repeated warnings to the city's Administration for Children's Services. Ever since, schools have been hyper-defensive about reporting, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg and ACS Commissioner John Mattingly have done nothing to calm them down and curb what are often, in fact, CYA referrals.

This can be seen in a striking statistic in an Appendix. In 2005, there were 12,767 children subjected to at least one allegation of educational neglect. Nixzmary Brown died in January, 2006. That year, the number soared to 19,967, and in 2008 it still was 17,299.

In Yonkers, school officials will call in a report of educational neglect if they simply can't reach a parent by phone, or the family's address has changed and they don't know where to find them.

While few educational neglect cases wind up with children placed in foster care, many families get dragged into court – and the investigations can devastate families and scare them away from help – not to mention contributing to the overload in Family Court – the same overload Mattingly has used as an excuse for children languishing in his foster care system.

The report suggests that New York consider not accepting such reports for children over age 13 at all.

For reports involving all ages, the study suggests much more rigorous screening of educational neglect allegations by New York's child abuse hotline – and it's not just a vague suggestion; the study offers detailed protocols for such screening.

The study also suggests that where such reports are screened in, they should be handled through "differential response" in which workers are sent out to offer voluntary help instead of a coercive investigation. (More on this in a future post).

The report profiles some excellent alternatives to using CPS in these kinds of cases, including striking examples from P.S. 55 in the Bronx and Good Shepherd Services in Brooklyn.

None of this information came my way via the city's major newspapers. Instead, I first learned about the Vera Institute study from Rise, the excellent magazine written by parents who have lost children to child welfare systems. Last Fall's issue discusses the report, and does a superb job of putting a human face on the findings.

And, as I noted in a previous post to this Blog, the follow-up came not from The New York Times, the Daily News, or the Post, but from students in Prof. LynNell Hancock's education reporting class at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. They did an excellent story on the overall issue, and a sidebar about how ACS briefly promised reforms, and then reneged – a promise I suspect was half-hearted to begin with. Fortunately, the stories were picked up by The Huffington Post.

IN A FUTURE POST: ACS RETREATS FROM REFORM AGAIN – THIS TIME ON TWO FRONTS AT ONCE