Originally published in The Intercept on October 25, 2021.
KAVITHA KASARGOD-STAUB was looking forward to sending her two kids back to elementary school this fall. After a year of remote learning in Washington, D.C., her kids spent the summer attending day camp. “I’m certainly not in the group of people who avoid all Covid risk,” she said, adding that camp activities were outdoors and there was testing for children if someone was exposed to the virus.
But by August, Kasargod-Staub and her husband were watching Delta variant cases rise across the region. When her husband went to the school to review its safety protocols, he left alarmed, having learned that the HVAC system was broken and there was no plan for outdoor eating. Kasaragod-Staub, who had served as PTA president the year before, called up the principal to discuss.
“The policies were vague, everyone was scrambling, so we decided to keep [our kids] home for the first week of school in the hopes that [D.C. Public Schools] would realize they made a mistake and catch up with things like testing and outdoor eating,” she told The Intercept. “It feels a little dumb now, but I genuinely thought things would change and they’d figure safety stuff out.”
Things didn’t change, and the children stayed home. Pretty soon, Kasargod-Staub was notified that her family was being referred to D.C.’s Child and Family Services Agency due to her kids’ unexcused absences. “I have a lot of privilege, I know the system, and it was still terrifying,” she said. “My mind immediately goes to, ‘Where will this lead? Are they going to take away my kids?’”
Kasargod-Staub was soon contacted by a government social worker for an intake call. “The person I spoke to said, ‘We don’t know what’s going to happen, we don’t have any sense of where this will go,’” she recalled. About a week and a half later, things escalated, and child protective services called to schedule a home visit. (A Child and Family Services Agency spokesperson did not return The Intercept’s request for comment.)
Kasargod-Staub and her husband discussed whether they should formally pull their kids out, but they felt extremely committed to their school. “I was the freaking PTA president, my Ph.D. work is around public education, and I didn’t want my Title I elementary to lose my kids’ per-pupil funding,” she explained. While her unvaccinated kids were not eligible for a remote learning option through D.C. Public Schools, which requires a doctor to certify that virtual school is necessary, she and her husband provided them with learning supplements and later enrolled them in a national online school for more structure.
The questions Kasargod-Staub soon fielded from child protective services felt invasive and inappropriate. “The social worker asked about our monthly income, about the paternity of my own children, are there any mental health diagnoses for the parents,” she said. “I was very clear with them exactly why we were not sending our kids to school and what safety policies would put us at ease.”
A few weeks later, Kasargod-Staub was asked to show a social worker where her children sleep and documented proof that there was food in her kitchen. “We don’t have undocumented status, we don’t have incarceration, we’re not unsheltered,” she said. “If we’re enduring this, I cannot even imagine how terrifying it is for many of our less fortunate neighbors who also have Covid concerns right now.” Her case is still not closed out.
KASARGOD-STAUB IS not alone. In Washington, D.C., at least 90 families with Covid-19 safety concerns have been referred to child protective services for “educational neglect,” which the Department of Health and Human Services defines as a parent or guardian’s failure to provide a child with appropriate schooling. As of October 8, about 30 of those referrals had been upgraded to more serious investigations, Paul Kihn, the deputy mayor for education, said at the time. (His office declined to provide more recent figures.) In one warning letter sent to another D.C. parent and reviewed by The Intercept, the school district threatened referral not only to the Child and Family Services Agency but also to the city’s juvenile probation agency.
Like D.C, New York City has taken a hard line against remote schooling. In both cities, the mayors have resisted petitions and calls from parents for virtual options this fall, in contrast to the majority of large school districts across the United States, which are making such options available.
Though government officials claim that they have strict legal obligations to investigate suspected instances of child abuse and neglect, experts say there exists far more discretion in the strapped systems than officials often admit. Gabriel Freiman, a public defender in Brooklyn who has been helping New York City families facing similar issues, says he thinks that there’s “sufficient room” for the city to ease up on these sorts of probes. And indeed, school districts neighboring D.C. in Maryland and Northern Virginia told NBC4 Washington they are not currently reporting families to child protection agencies for unexcused absences.
“The New York State Education Department does require every school district to have a policy about child neglect and absences — it’s not like this [is] out of nowhere — but it’s being handled here in an extreme way,” Freiman told The Intercept. “Parents who are actively engaged with the school asking for a remote option, asking for home curriculum, wanting to be involved, I think there’s sufficient room for [the New York City Department of Education] to decide that fails to meet the legal standard for educational neglect.” (A spokesperson for the city’s Education Department did not return a request for comment.)
Researchers have long documented racial disparities in child protective service investigations. The Intercept spoke with one white D.C. parent who has kept their children from school but has not received any warnings yet for unexcused absences. And while child protective services nationally declines to confirm maltreatment allegations in roughly 83 percent of cases it responds to — and for cases referred by educators, that figure stands at 90 percent — experts say the terror of the probes can leave lasting trauma. Closed-out cases can also “stay on families’ case records to potentially affect the trajectory of any future reports that come in,” said Kelley Fong, a sociologist at the Georgia Institute of Technology who studies the U.S. child protection system.
Reports, even if unsubstantiated and closed out, can fuel lasting mistrust between the accused and the government. “After being reported, families disengage from the systems [and] people who filed the report,” said Fong. “For instance, they might not share so much with the doctor next time. In the case of schools, reports can undermine school engagement, and parents might even look into changing schools.”
Jennifer Jennings, a sociologist at Princeton University who focuses on education policy, said that “child protective services is very much to Black women what mass imprisonment is to Black men.” There’s a very real fear of being caught in a dragnet, she added, “irrespective of what the facts are.”
DEPLOYING CHILD PROTECTIVE services on families for Covid-19 schooling is not entirely new. Last year, teachers and school staff reported parents whose children were not consistently logging in to virtual school to protective agencies. Reports were most common among Black and Latino families in high-poverty areas.
Things are different this fall for concerned families that no longer have the option of remote school. Many households are also still grappling with grief and death from the coronavirus pandemic; a new study published this month estimated that more than 140,000 children in the U.S. have lost a parent or grandparent caregiver to Covid-19.
With states easing up on their quarantine, testing, and social distancing policies, some parents say they are just not comfortable having their child return to school, at least not before vaccines are available for the 28 million students under 12. (The Biden administration told governors to prepare to administer vaccines to young children early next month.)
And kids are getting infected. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association, there were more than 1.8 million new pediatric Covid-19 cases between August and early October — nearly one-third of the total pediatric cases in the U.S. since March 2020. (Cases have been decreasing since their peak on September 2, though the American Academy of Pediatrics says new cases remain “extremely high.”) As of September, 41 percent of the public thought that elementary schools should provide a remote option to families, and 51 percent thought that high schools should.
Paullette Healy, a New York City parent who is keeping her children home from school this fall, has been pressuring the city for months for a remote option. While her family has not been contacted by New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services — the city’s version of child protective services — she’s been part of a coalition supporting families that have.
“We developed a toolkit on how to respond because the social workers are still knocking on doors, leaving notices, and threatening to take kids away,” she told The Intercept. Healy says her group has worked with about 10 families that have had Administration for Children’s Services visits from caseworkers but added that most reports the group has received have been of threats made by principals to refer families to child protective services if they do not send their kids back to school.
“During any interaction, ACS works to ensure that families have the services and support they need, including educational services,” a spokesperson for the Administration for Children’s Services told The Intercept. “We have also been working closely with the Department of Education to clarify that reports to the hotline should be made only when the reporter has reasonable suspicion that a child has been abused or maltreated.” Agency figures indicate that referrals have been decreasing compared with the same time period last year. Between September 1 and October 14, New York City educational personnel made 69 reports of educational neglect and an additional 61 reports of educational neglect combined with other maltreatment concerns. During the same period in 2020, there were 99 and 87 of such reports made, respectively.
Kihn, the D.C. deputy mayor for education, declined to comment on what the possible consequences are for parents who keep their kids home out of Covid-19 safety concerns, but in an emailed statement, he said his department is continuing to explore “additional solutions and policy adjustments that meet the needs of families” during the pandemic. “While we know our schools remain safe for vital in-person instruction, we understand the uncertainty and anxiety that some of our families are feeling about returning to school,” said his statement. “In their initial referrals, our partners at [child protective services] are focused on offering support and identifying solutions, including providing medical waiver forms and exploring alternative educational options with families.”
Fong, of Georgia Tech, noted that this Covid-19 schooling situation exemplifies how “child maltreatment” is not always a straightforward, objective descriptor and can reflect societal debates around values, culture, and language. “Is it endangering your child to keep them out of school or to expose them to a deadly virus?” she asked. “States [and] authorities view things one way, but it’s easy to flip and frame the other choice as ‘neglect.’”