Parents Reported to Child sets for Keeping Unvaccinated Kids Home

Kavitha Kasargod-Staub was looking forward to sending her two kids back to elementary school this fall. After a year of far away 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 situations rise across the vicinity. 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 sets Agency due to her kids’ unexcused absences. “I have a lot of privilege, I know the system, and it was nevertheless terrifying,” she said. “My mind closest goes to, ‘Where will this rule? 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 sets called to schedule a home visit. (A Child and Family sets Agency spokesperson did not return The Intercept’s request for comment.)

Kavitha Kasargod-Staub opens the front door of her home in Washington, D.C. on October 19, 2021.

Photo: Cheriss May for The Intercept

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 far away learning option by 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 sets 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 proven proof that there was food in her kitchen. “We don’t have undocumented position, we don’t have incarceration, we’re not unsheltered,” she said. “If we’re lasting this, I cannot already imagine how terrifying it is for many of our less fortunate neighbors who also have Covid concerns right now.” Her case is nevertheless not closed out.

Photo: Cheriss May for The Intercept

Kasargod-Staub is not alone. In Washington, D.C., at the minimum 90 families with Covid-19 safety concerns have been referred to child protective sets for “educational neglect,” which the Department of Health and Human sets 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 sets Agency but also to the city’s juvenile probation agency.

Like D.C, New York City has taken a hard line against far away 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 obtainable.

Though government officials claim that they have strict legal obligations to probe suspected instances of child abuse and neglect, experts say there exists far more discretion in the strapped systems than officials often let in. 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 nearby D.C. in Maryland and Northern Virginia told NBC4 Washington they are not currently reporting families to child protection agencies for unexcused absences.

Experts say there exists far more discretion in the strapped systems than officials often let in.

“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 far away 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 proven 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 however for unexcused absences. And while child protective sets nationally declines to confirm maltreatment allegations in approximately 83 percent of situations it responds to — and for situations referred by educators, that figure stands at 90 percent — experts say the terror of the probes can leave lasting trauma. Closed-out situations 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, already 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 example, they might not proportion so much with the doctor next time. In the case of schools, reports can undermine school engagement, and parents might already look into changing schools.”

Jennifer Jennings, a sociologist at Princeton University who focuses on education policy, said that “child protective sets 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 additional, “irrespective of what the facts are.”

Photo: Cheriss May for The Intercept

Deploying child protective sets on families for Covid-19 schooling is not thoroughly 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 shared among Black and Latino families in high-poverty areas.

Things are different this fall for concerned families that no longer have the option of far away school. Many households are also nevertheless 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 the minimum not before vaccines are obtainable 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 situations between August and early October — nearly one-third of the total pediatric situations in the U.S. since March 2020. (situations have been decreasing since their peak on September 2, though the American Academy of Pediatrics says new situations keep “extremely high.”) As of September, 41 percent of the public thought that elementary schools should provide a far away option to families, and 51 percent thought that high schools should.

There were more than 1.8 million new pediatric Covid-19 situations between August and early October — nearly one-third of the total pediatric situations in the U.S. since March 2020.

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 far away option. While her family has not been contacted by New York City’s Administration for Children’s sets — the city’s version of child protective sets — she’s been part of a coalition supporting families that have.

“We developed a toolkit on how to respond because the social workers are nevertheless 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 sets visits from caseworkers but additional that most reports the group has received have been of threats made by principals to refer families to child protective sets if they do not send their kids back to school.

“During any interaction, ACS works to ensure that families have the sets and sustain they need, including educational sets,” a spokesperson for the Administration for Children’s sets 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 analyze “additional solutions and policy adjustments that meet the needs of families” during the pandemic. “While we know our schools keep 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 sustain and identifying solutions, including providing medical waiver forms and exploring different educational options with families.”

Fong, of Georgia Tech, noted that this Covid-19 schooling situation symbolize how “child maltreatment” is not always a straightforward, objective descriptor and can mirror societal debates around values, culture, and language. “Is it endangering your child to keep them out of school or to protect them from 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.’”

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