When Schools Use Child Protective Services as a Weapon Against Parents

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.

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. A2016 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.”

A Legal Obligation

Mandated reporter laws date to the 1960s, and in most states, school employees are among the professionals (along with doctors, social workers and others) obligated to report any suspicion of abuse or neglect. Mandated reporter trainings remind school employees that it’s not their responsibility to decide whether abuse is taking place but simply to pick up the phone if they have a concern, and the child welfare agency will take over from there. Mandated reporters typically have immunity from prosecution for making needless calls, so long as those calls are made in good faith.

“All of the pressure on mandated reporters is to report, report, report,” said Richard Wexler, executive director of the nonprofit National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.

If they fail to report their suspicions, and something terrible happens to the child, they can face fines or even jail time and wind up on the front page of a newspaper. Child welfare is often described as being caught in a scandal-reform cycle, with reports of neglect and entrances to foster care rising after high-profile child deaths. Both Chicago and New York are dealing with the repercussions of recent scandals — Chicago Tribune reporting on sex abuse in schools is spurring fresh resources and protocols, while in New York, calls to the child abuse hotline spiked after the deaths of two young boysunder ACS monitoring in 2016.

“Our focus is always on the student, the child,” said Powell, the Success Academy VP. “Not to say that the parent doesn’t matter and those kinds of investigations can’t be awkward and disruptive, but it’s better to be safe than sorry, and there are just too many examples that you read of something that was overlooked.”

School officials also note that they have a unique responsibility in policing child neglect in many states. Child welfare laws in New York and 23 other states (not Illinois) list the denial of education as a form of abuse or neglect. In some parts of New York, school employees are required to initiate educational neglect allegations if a child has a prolonged absence and parents don’t respond to the school. Last year, school personnel in New York City made 16,301 reports to ACS, more than any other type of mandated reporter, according to agency data provided to Hechinger/HuffPost. Of those, about 43 percent involved an allegation of educational neglect.

But critics say these too are misused or fall into gray areas of the law. Phillip and Tina Hankins, a couple in the South Bronx, have been tussling with the New York City Department of Education for more than a decade over where and how to educate their son David, who has a disability. They’ve been investigated at least seven times by ACS, including on occasions when they kept David out of class while fighting to get him into what they considered to be a more suitable institution, documentation shows.

“The schools have the right to call in whatever they think is not appropriate,” said Baffour Acheampong, an ACS worker who investigated several of the Hankins’ cases. “But in dealing with Mrs. and Mr. Hankins, what I saw was they have the best interests of their son.”

On the one occasion that ACS substantiated an educational neglect allegation against the Hankinses, a family court judge later overturned that finding. The judge noted that David’s intelligence test scores actually improved when the boy was kept out of school awaiting placement, and that the Hankinses had been doing all they could to fight for educational services. “In light of the Appellants’ year-long battle to get the child into an appropriate school, it is not clear what else they could have done to have enrolled David,” the judge wrote, adding that the agency did not provide a “single credible instance where they failed to exercise the required minimum degree of care.”

In response to questions about this case, spokesperson for the New York City schools Miranda Barbot said that the Department of Education works “closely with families to support them,” and “when there is reasonable cause to suspect abuse or neglect, we have clear policies in place that ensure it is reported.”

Michael Arsham, executive director of ACS’s Office of Advocacy, which responds to complaints from those involved in the child welfare system, said the agency acknowledges that hotline calls from schools do not always contain serious safety concerns, and it is working more closely with the education department to minimize needless reporting. Two years ago, ACS developed a “tiered response” system with the DOE to prioritize urgent matters and reduce the impact on families of investigations over smaller concerns. “We do want people to call potential dangers to children to our attention,” Arsham said. “But I think it’s fair for us to expect other human services professionals — whether they be in education, health care, anybody who is a mandated reporter — to use their independent judgment and discretion and understand there are consequences to making that call.”

Part of the challenge facing school officials, according to Leila Ortiz, a social worker in New York City public schools, is that ACS is primarily oriented to investigate families, not provide support. Chronic absenteeism could indeed be the canary in the coal mine, she said, signaling deeper troubles within a family. “If you don’t call that in, something could potentially be happening to the student,” she said. “You don’t know, they’re not in the building.”

“But at the same time,” Ortiz added, “you could be adding more stress and damage to a family that already has a lot on their plate. It’s very hard because the whole system isn’t adequate in addressing families’ needs. It would be much easier to call ACS if you could count on them as a holistic agency to families that are marginalized.”

Antagonistic Approach

Despite ACS’s efforts to be more sensitive to families facing investigations, parents don’t tend to experience child welfare investigations as even remotely helpful. A New York City parent named Gabriela — who is going by her middle name for this article because her case is still ongoing and she fears retaliation — knows the type of havoc that a call to ACS can wreak on a family. Over the course of her decades-long career as an advocate for immigrants in East Harlem, she has developed an acute understanding of ways in which families can get unfairly wrapped up in an opaque process. Some of these cases have made sense to her. Many more have seemed unfounded, with cultural differences in child-rearing clearly playing a role.

But she never expected to have to use this ACS expertise with her own family.

Last January, when Gabriela received a knock on the door of her Bronx home from an ACS caseworker, she was shocked to learn that she was the subject of a child abuse investigation. Even more surprising was the source of the complaint: her 10-year-old child’s school.

Days prior, Gabriela’s daughter had gone to her teacher with a secret: That her daddy — amid grief from the death of his mother — had started regularly drinking. Gabriela said that she had tried to keep this behavior from her daughter, and thought she hadn’t noticed the new wrinkles in family life.

What happened next was a whirlwind. The child, hysterically crying and scared, was pulled into a room with several adults and questioned about her home life. Under pressure — and wanting to provide the right answer — she said that her mom, Gabriela, had hit her, a charge that Gabriela denies.

Gabriela recognizes that the school was trying to help — and in some ways was carrying out a professional duty — but says they brought a “nightmare to my house.”

A Mexican immigrant who came to America as a teenager, Gabriela has been deeply involved in the education of her daughter at every step. Over the years, Gabriela has taken the time to get to know her daughter’s teachers and school principal, while advocating for the school’s immigrant families who need extra services. How could the school’s leaders, whom Gabriela knew so well, see her as anything less than a devoted parent?

“Why didn’t they use the social worker outside? Why didn’t they call me with concerns? Why did they go straight for the kill and call ACS?” questioned Gabriela.

She wonders if, in the delicate balancing act of being an involved parent but trying not to overstep her role, she landed on the wrong side of the equation. Or if, in her role as an advocate for immigrant families, she pushed too hard.

She also wonders if this process would have played out differently if she had a different ACS caseworker. (Charges against her were sustained and she is currently amid the appeals process.) This caseworker has asked her on three separate occasions about her immigration status, apparently unable to believe that Gabriela is an American citizen, Gabriela recounts.

“When you go through this, it’s not just a nightmare for you, it’s a nightmare for your child, because the stress level it creates for our family is horrible,” said Gabriela, through tears, one Tuesday afternoon in August.

A representative for the school said that all employees receive training on child abuse and follow state law regarding reporting.

Even for parents who have their records cleared, the pernicious consequences of investigations can be permanent. In 2015, Sandra, a mother of three in Chicago, was investigated by DCFS after her youngest son went to school with what she describes as a minor scratch he sustained from roughhousing with his brothers.

After a DCFS worker arrived on her doorstep, her entire life was thrown under suspicion. The flowers that were a Valentine’s Day gift from her husband, for example? The investigator asked if they were evidence of her husband trying to repair damage from a marital fight.

Ultimately the abuse allegation against Sandra was overturned. But three years and $15,000 in legal fees later, she said she’s still reluctant to meet with or talk to school employees. Recently, the assistant principal at her youngest son’s school called Sandra and her husband in for a meeting to discuss the boy’s behavior, as he’d been getting frustrated in class and acting out. When the administrator suggested she take a stronger disciplinary approach, Sandra pushed back hard: “I am not going to yell at him or touch him because you guys already put me through this one time.”

Growing Awareness

According to NYU’s Gottlieb, there needs to be a greater understanding of the damage caused by needless investigations and the higher rates at which parents of color are caught up in them. “You want to help parents make better choices for their kids,” she said, “and starting out by saying, ‘You’re abusive,’ is not the way to do it.”

One step forward, say critics of child welfare, could be to modify mandated reporter training — by using it in part to educate people about implicit racial bias, for example. The training that has long been offered to Illinois’ school employees is a one-time online course that takes 60 to 90 minutes to complete and includes no mention of race. Chicago Public Schools says that starting this year, it has begun offering an in-person, annual training.

Meanwhile, experiments to reduce racial and socioeconomic inequities in the child welfare system have shown some success. New York’s Nassau County was able to significantly reduce the numbers of black kids put in foster care after placing an emphasis on workforce diversity among human services employees and withholding children’s demographic information from staff meetings. A second New York county, Onandaga, began removing fewer black kids from their parents after investing in afterschool and other school-based programs.

In New York City, ACS is rolling out a new approach to responding to low-risk calls that focuses on assessing which services fragile families need, said ACS’s Arsham.

Neil Skene, a spokesperson for the Illinois DCFS, wrote in an email that while a child welfare investigation is a “painful experience for anyone,” the agency feels it has a “particular obligation to be responsive to the concerns and professional knowledge of mandated reporters.” Skene added: “We are starting to work with local communities to identify cultural and racial disparities and how we can respond better.”

Out of Options

Change can’t happen soon enough for families embroiled in school-driven investigations. For them, transferring schools can feel like the only way out.

In 2015, after the harassment Givens says she endured at Success Academy, she sent her son to a different elementary school nearby. “From first to fourth grade, no problems, no incidents, no suspensions, no fighting, no nothing,” she said.

Gabriela’s daughter has also switched schools, after feeling uncomfortable and mistrustful of the adults who called ACS on her parents. “She went from asking me, ‘Please don’t take me to school, can I stay with you?’ ” Gabriela said of her daughter, “to getting up in the morning, getting ready, excited to participate.”

Banks considered removing her two boys from their magnet school after the child-protection investigations began. Relatives, colleagues, even her kids’ pediatrician — they all warned that the hotline calls wouldn’t stop until her children left the school. Because she worked with kids, the investigations were particularly worrisome for her, she said, even though ultimately none of the cases against her had been substantiated.

But at the same time, she was reluctant. The magnet school offered four foreign languages, math teams and movie nights, things she worried her kids wouldn’t get at their neighborhood school. “I feel like they are winning,” she said. “I understand his behavior is poor,” she said of her youngest son, “but he does deserve to be at a school where he can get a good education.”

Plus, by the time she came to grips with the unrelenting nature of the investigations, the December deadline for applying to specialized schools had already passed. She looked into private schools before deciding they were too expensive.

This fall, feeling out of options, she sent her boys back to the magnet school. On the second day of the semester, she texted: “I am praying it is better this year.”

This story about schools and child protective services was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.