Advocates fear NYC child welfare probes could target families lacking tech

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams calls for greater NYPD accountability and transparency during a press conference in Foley Square, June 2, 2020.  (Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY)

This story was originally published on September 21, 2020 by THE CITY.

City educators filed 361 educational neglect reports against parents in the final three pandemic-racked months of school, new data shows, as concerns persist that tech-deprived families could be targeted as classes resume online.

In April, THE CITY found that some parents of public school students who had not yet received iPads or other remote learning devices from the Department of Education had been surprised by knocks on their door by child welfare authorities.

With remote learning on tap for most students and the reopening of public school buildings mired in uncertainty and delays, advocates fear more accusations will be lodged against parents whose kids can’t log on for class.

“I think at this moment in time, this administration has made everyone concerned, confused and in a sense of chaos when it comes to reopening and I feel like people who need help the most don’t do well in those kind of situations,” Public Advocate Jumaane Williams told THE CITY Thursday.

Overall, public and private educators in the city filed more than 900 reports of child abuse or neglect to the State Central Registry between April and June, the data released by the city’s child welfare agency shows.

Callers — including but not limited to those associated with schools — reported 626 allegations of educational neglect to the hotline in all.

A Drop in Substantiated Reports

School employees are required to report suspected neglect or abuse. Under state law, those allegations are then probed by child welfare investigators.

With kids attending school remotely, the volume of reports diminished to just a quarter filed during the same three months in 2019, when classes were held in person.

Those falling numbers spurred worries among child advocates that stay-at-home orders kept kids away from the protective eye of teachers and other so-called mandated reporters, leaving valid cases of child abuse undetected.

Of the 626 reports of educational neglect, ACS said it referred 107 to “Family Assessment Response,” through which it provided services while avoiding an investigation that could end up labeling parents as responsible for child neglect.

Of the rest of those reports, investigators decided 336 were unfounded, while they deemed 65 merited — the term ACS officials use is “indicated” — based on educational neglect alone.

Child maltreatment allegations were substantiated against the remaining 116 families reasons that may or may not have included the educational neglect report.

That means that 65% of 517 educational neglect investigations were not substantiated — up from about 61% of 2,474 during the same period in 2019.

Of the 361 reports that came from teachers and other school personnel, 189 alleged only educational neglect, while the remainder also included one or more additional allegations.

ACS Instead of an iPad

After THE CITY’s April story, Williams sent a letter to Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza demanding he ensure that Department of Education staff “should not default to filing suspected educational neglect [allegations] when students are not reported present through remote learning attendance procedures.”

“Rather, staff should first reach out to parents and guardians through all mechanisms available including but not limited to phone calls, emails, and written letters,” Williams advised.

The DOE responded in May by reiterating guidance from an April memo that said public school educators must have “exhausted timely outreach efforts and intervention services,” among other requirements, before prompting an investigation.

The DOE also pledged to drop any probe sparked by a missing iPad or other device.

But “back when we were discussing it, we just kept hearing a lot of anecdotal evidence that there was still a lot of problems,” Williams told THE CITY.

Meanwhile, the DOE hasn’t offered teachers or parents any updated guidance on remote-learning attendance policies since April.

“Our priority is the safety of our students, and our staff takes that responsibility seriously,” said Nathaniel Styer, a DOE spokesperson. “We will continue to work with educators and families to ensure every student is present every day and has the tools they need to be successful during remote learning.”

‘The Last to Know’

Gabriel Freiman, of Brooklyn Defender Services, said some clients who were either erroneously recorded as having received iPads or who need a replacement device remain empty-handed.

“Although the DOE has worked out some of those wrinkles, what would I continue to be concerned about is that when DOE is making last-minute decisions, we find that it’s often our clients who are sort of the last to know,” said Freiman.

He noted that many parents are under stress as they try to set up child care and return to work. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s 11th-hour decision Thursday to again delay in-person classes that had been set to begin Monday “put a lot of children just in a situation where there’s a real likelihood that they won’t be logging on,” Freiman said.

One case in point: As of Saturday, more than two dozen kindergarten students at P.S. 169 in Brooklyn were still without promised iPads, Gothamist reported.

This year, according to the DOE, attendance policies will stay largely the same for both remote and in-person learning, which will take place on a staggered schedule.

If children show up to their school building on the wrong day, they “will be able to participate in remote learning and access other resources, including grab and go meals. This will ensure they are participating for the day if there is an extenuating circumstance and they cannot return home,” according to online guidance.

Even though the DOE was largely able to meet the Herculean task of its internal May deadline for iPad distribution, Freiman said, new students and non-English speakers may continue to be left behind.

“A lot of people that we are working with were really at the end of that [distribution period]. And so I think that’s another way in which the educational system reproduces other forms of inequality,” said Freiman.

By the end of last week, more 320,000 total iPads had been given out to students, according to the Department of Education.

Parents and guardians of young people who still need a remote-learning device can make a request to DOE.

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