With all New York kids set to soon return for in-person classes for the first time in 1 ½ years, Mayor Bill de Blasio tried to reassure nervous parents Wednesday that pandemic-related absences won’t immediately lead to child-neglect investigations.
“If in the beginning of the school year, a parent is not ready, we’re going to keep talking to them or we’re going to keep trying to convince them,” de Blasio said during a morning news conference held with Schools Chancellor Meisha Ross Porter. “If that goes on for a while, then that’s a different scenario.”
Porter said child welfare workers will only intervene if there is a “clear intent to keep a child from being educated, period.”
But concerned parents and advocates are bracing for a repeat of last year, when, as THE CITY revealed, multiple families were investigated by the city Administration for Children’s Services for neglect — in some cases, because they didn’t have internet access or hadn’t yet received a city-issued iPad.
Last year, amid an ongoing nation-wide reckoning on racial equity, local social justice advocates called for a more equitable system, accusing child welfare authorities of punishing poverty.
City and state authorities recently instituted new screening questions for hotline workers and now require new training for teachers and other professionals empowered to report neglect or abuse.
‘New Decisions’ for Parents
The mayor and his Department of Education have been resistant to calls for a remote-learning option as the school year begins, even as the spread of the highly contagious Delta COVID-19 variant raises new fears and challenges.
Students could still face some form of remote instruction during any required quarantines.
Advocates for children and families worry some parents are in for another school year of nightmares.
“Parents will have to make new decisions in the context of the Delta variant,” Zainab Akbar, managing attorney for family defense practice at Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, wrote in a statement to THE CITY.
“Unlike last year, the decisions made by parents of color in the face of a deadly pandemic must get the same respect and deference from the DOE and ACS as the decisions made by white and wealthy parents,” Akbar added.
School employees are required by law to report suspected child neglect or abuse to the Statewide Central Register of Child Abuse and Maltreatment (SCR). Staffers at SCR are the first line of evaluation, and forward any cases they see fit for investigation to ACS.
In 2019, Black and Latino families were involved in over 40% and 45% of city child welfare investigations, respectively, according to testimony to the City Council’s General Welfare committee by ACS Commissioner David Hansell.
Black students only made up 25.5% of the school population for the 2018-19 year, while Latino students comprised 40.6%, according to the DOE.
Christopher Rucas, an ACS spokesperson, said the agency must respond to all cases referred its way.
But, he added, “We are working closely with mandated reporters to clarify that reports to the hotline should be made only when the reporter has reasonable suspicion that a child has been abused or mistreated.”
Rucas noted that ACS has also set up “implicit bias training” for its own staff.
Avoiding ‘Unnecessary’ Interventions
After THE CITY’s initial report last year, state authorities required hotline workers to ask more initial questions regarding access to technology and any efforts made to help the family being reported.
Still, educational neglect reports kept rising, officials noted. Under pressure from activists, parents and politicians, authorities attempted to correct the course.
In February, New York State education and child welfare agencies issued a long-promised joint guidance on educational neglect. The guidance stressed addressing family barriers to schooling before a call is made.
More recently, legislation tucked into the state budget requires implicit bias training for mandated reporters as well as additional screening measures at the state level.
“The New York State Office of Children and Family Services and the State Education Department prioritize collaboration between school personnel and child welfare workers to support families and keep children safe,” said Jeannine Smith, a OCFS spokesperson.
Smith added that various agencies are now sharing data from educational neglect reports to “effectively respond to student absenteeism and avoid unnecessary child protective services involvement.”
But with even short stints of quarantine possible, family advocates told THE CITY that students who struggled to pivot to remote learning last year could again be vulnerable to increased scrutiny.
“I think what we’re worried about is, for example, children go back to school, they’re there in person, and then there are these sudden switches to remote learning,” said Gabriel Freiman, head of the education practice at Brooklyn Defender Services.
Freiman told THE CITY that some of his clients had problems getting both DOE-issued tablets and internet access.
“For those families, I think we are worried that there could be significant school closures, even under the DOE’s new policies,” he added. “Some families will have more scrutiny than others, and that scrutiny won’t happen in an equitable way.”
Porter has not yet budged on requiring the vast majority of kids to attend classes in person.
But during a City Council hearing last week, officials said that they had purchased thousands of additional iPads, and were ready for a return to remote learning if need be.
“Our priority is the safety of our students,” Nathaniel Styer, a DOE spokesperson, wrote in reply to THE CITY’s questions about whether the department has changed any practices around reporting educational neglect.
“School and district staff exhaust all options to contact and support families before making a call to the [SCR] and any indication that this guidance is not being followed will be taken seriously,” he added.
Pushing for Remote
Advocates like Freiman are also fielding confused questions from concerned parents who have a healthy but unvaccinated child and a vulnerable family member in the household. Children under 12 still are not eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations.
Last month, Porter told reporters that the DOE would be extending remote learning to children who cannot safely school during the pandemic due to an autoimmune issue or other health reasons. But she did not speak to the question of a vulnerable relative, such as a grandparent or sibling.
“We have heard just questions from people about, you know, ‘What am I supposed to do in that situation? That seems like that’s really creating risks for my other child,” said Freiman.
He worried that the strict no-remote policy, plus rising COVID rates may lead some parents to resort to keeping kids at home without official clearance.
“Are they going to try and homeschool then and not follow exactly the right channels and get in trouble with ACS?” Freiman asked.
Public Advocate Jumaane Williams echoed those concerns at a Wednesday morning news conference, along with Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, demanding a remote option without fear of ACS reprisal.
Last year, the percentage of households officially homeschooling their children in the New York City metropolitan region grew from 3% in late April to over 11% by late September, according to Census.gov.
When asked about options for medically vulnerable families, DOE spokesperson Styer directed questions to the guidance issued last month, as well as to the transcript of that day’s news conference, neither of which addressed the specific concern.
“In-person learning is the best learning for all of our students,” de Blasio told reporters on Wednesday. “And so we are looking forward to having our principals and our school communities and the social workers that we’ve added to our communities to work very closely with families to get our children back in school.”