Friday, August 30, 2019

Weaponizing CPS: In DC, if you’re late to pick up your child from school, you may have to pick him up from Child Protective Services (assuming they let you have him back)

UPDATE, SEPT. 30: See NCCPR's perspective in this follow-up story from WUSA9

Remember the school district that got national attention for threatening to turn families in to child protective services if they couldn’t afford to pay for their children’s school lunches?

It turns out it’s not just one school district.  The Philadelphia Inquirer found that in Southern New Jersey alone, at least eight school district that have policies allowing schools to do the same thing.

In New Jersey, as in Luzerne County, Pa., where the practice first came to light, the child protective services agency made clear schools should never do that, calling such threats “a misuse and misrepresentation” of the agency.

But in Washington, D.C., the CPS agency gave a disturbing non-answer when asked about a practice in the District that is as bad or worse: turning in parents for alleged neglect if they’re so much as a minute late picking their children up from school.

The practice was revealed by WUSA-TV, after they heard from a parent.  

She, and other parents at Paterson ElementarySchool, received a “welcome back” to school letter from the school principal that is anything but welcoming.  It is so dripping with condescension and filled with boldfaced, underlined, all-caps finger-wagging admonitions that one can only wonder: If this is how they treat the parents, what is it like to be a student there?

But one threat is particularly disturbing:

If you choose not to have your child remain in the Afterschool Program, then he/she MUST be picked up promptly at 3:15 p.m. For those students that are not picked up on time (3:15pm) the Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) will be contacted, and parents will be required to pick their child up from their office." [Emphasis most definitely in the original]

Notice the part about the afterschool program.  It’s not as if the school would be empty by 3:30.  On the contrary, when a parent is simply stuck in traffic, or has some kind of emergency, or just thought it was someone else’s turn to pick up the child, presumably the school could simply allow the child to sit in at the afterschool program.  (And if, by some chance there’s some stupid bureaucratic rule prohibiting this, then surely there are adults who could stay a little later to watch the child.)

This cruel policy appears rooted either in making things more convenient for the school or contempt for the families who send children to Patterson Elementary School.

Guess who goes to Patterson Elementary

If you haven’t already guessed, the student population is 99 percent Black.  The other one percent is Hispanic/Latino.  One hundred percent are listed as economically disadvantaged.  These are precisely the parents who generally have the most stress in their lives, and are likely to find it hardest to always get to the school at precisely 3:15pm.

Officially, this appalling infliction of trauma on children is district-wide policy – but do you really think they’d get away with this at a school in tony Georgetown?

Worse than the threatening letter is the fact that schools in the District have, in fact, been carrying out the threat, and CFSA has been going along with it. 

Back when the Pennsylvania school lunch story broke, and the county child welfare agency responded the right way, I wrote this:

I suspect that, while most CPS agencies wouldn’t have endorsed what the school district did, they wouldn’t condemn it either – since their party line is report! report! report!  Call in with anything and everything, no matter how absurd, they say, and let our “professionals” decide.

And sure enough, CFSA lived down to my expectations.  According to WUSA:

[CFSA] Deputy Director Robert Matthews said that in many cases, they call mom or dad to find out they’re just stuck in traffic. CFSA couldn’t tell WUSA9 how often this happens because they don’t keep records of that. But he said they work with schools to track families down. 

Wait. Don’t schools also have telephones?  Why doesn’t CFSA tell the schools to do this themselves – instead of traumatizing children first?

What CFSA should have said is:

We are not in the business of doing the school district’s scut work for them.  We have real cases of abuse and neglect to investigate.  And we’re not here to inflict trauma on children for your convenience.  We will refuse to send our overloaded caseworkers to your school just because a parent is late to pick up a child, and we demand that you immediately stop calling us in such cases.

Instead, they said only this:

Situations like this do not automatically mean it’s a case of neglect or cause for investigation.

Well, isn’t that reassuring.  There are several problems with this.

From the 19th Century, when Societies for Prevention of Cruelty to Children were known in poor neighborhoods as “the Cruelty,” to today, children in those neighborhoods know exactly what an agency like CFSA is all about.  They have to. For one thing, one recent study says a majority of African-American children will be the subject of a child abuse investigation at some point in their childhoods.

So children have every reason to be scared when caseworkers show up at the school and take them to the CFSA offices downtown.

And while this is not automatically deemed cause for investigation, that call is the equivalent of issuing CFSA a fishing license to poke and pry into every aspect of a family’s life.  Since any family subjected to this is likely to be poor, and poverty often is confused with neglect, the trauma of that first trip to the CFSA office could be only the beginning.

In my previous post, I said this keeps happening because we allow it to happen:

Half a century of horror stories that bear no resemblance to what CPS agencies typically see, combined with politicians trying to score points by “cracking down on child abuse” have led us to this: a child welfare surveillance state where everyone is under constant suspicion and CPS is the weapon of choice for all sorts of bureaucratic bullies.

In DC the problem is worsened by the local Child Advocacy Center, which, undoubtedly means well, but winds up stoking paranoia. Take a look at the repercussions.

There are two legislative bodies that could put a stop to this practice in Washington, D.C.: The schoolboard could bar schools from calling CFSA just because parents are late picking up their kids, or the D.C. Council could bar CFSA from acting on such calls.  Presumably D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser could do the same.

But the bigger issue is this: As long as we are driven by fear, and as long as child welfare agencies are the enablers, school districts, among others, will be able to exploit that fear for their own convenience.