NY State Underreported Abuse & Neglect Allegations Made by NYC School Staff: ‘Teachers Were Accidentally Not Included’
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A mistaken tally undercounted the number of New York City families that school personnel reported to child protective services for abuse and neglect through the fall.
The updated total represents a 16 percent jump over the original figure, which a state agency provided to The 74 via a public records request in late December.
Based on those records, The 74 reported in January that school staff had made over 2,400 calls to the state’s child abuse hotline in the first three months of the 2021-22 school year and over 9,600 since the start of the pandemic — many of which, advocates say, were harmful to families and possibly the result of racial bias.
But according to the corrected counts, city school personnel made even more reports than previously known: 2,822 between September and November 2021, and 11,560 between August 2020 and November 2021.
In late February, the New York State Office of Children and Family Services sent The 74 its amended tabulation, noting that reports made by teachers were “inadvertently excluded” from the initial record it had provided in response to a November 2020 freedom of information request.
“When the report was initially run for ‘school personnel,’ teachers were accidentally not included as a source,” OCFS Records Access Officer Tracy Swanson wrote in an email. “Once our data people realized the error, they reran the report and included the accurate data.”
Having left out teachers was a “huge oversight,” said parent advocate Paullette Healy, who herself was subject to an investigation that ultimately found no evidence of neglect.
Gabriel Freiman, head of education practices at the legal nonprofit Brooklyn Defenders said the sheer number of reports of abuse and neglect made by school staff — over 11,500 from August 2020 to November 2021 — “demonstrates to me that our school system is really intertwined with the family regulation system.”
Roughly 16 percent of all reports made by school personnel during that time period were from teachers, a comparison of the original and updated records reveals. The vast majority of calls came from other staff in the nation’s largest school district. School personnel are mandated by New York state law to report suspected cases of child abuse and neglect to a central hotline.
“The way that this gets recorded, it’s the person who actually is … making the call to the [New York Statewide Central Register for Child Abuse and Maltreatment],” said Freiman, who works with families navigating child welfare investigations. “If a child discloses something to a teacher about what’s happening in the home and the teacher immediately goes and talks to the principal, it could be the principal that calls in the report or the counselor that calls in the report.”
Healy doesn’t believe it was her child’s teacher who reported her and thinks it may have been a school psychologist with whom she had previous conflicts. Her child’s Brooklyn school did not respond to The 74’s request for comment.
Reporting done by The Hechinger Report and HuffPost in 2018 showed that school officials in select cases weaponize reports of abuse and neglect as a retaliation tactic against parents they find to be bothersome.
The new numbers matter because child welfare investigations disproportionately impact poor families of color and can cause devastating impacts for children and parents. Charges can stay on parents’ records for years, erasing job prospects in fields like child care. Most dire, children can be separated from their parents — a trauma that studies show is later associated with elevated risks of mental health challenges, incarceration and even early death.
In New York City, some 90 percent of children named in investigations are Black or Hispanic, while, together, those racial groups make up 60 percent of the city’s youth. Even among neighborhoods with similar poverty rates, those with greater shares of Black and Hispanic residents face higher rates of child welfare investigations, research shows.
Such disparities are “deeply concerning,” a spokesperson for the Administration for Children’s Services, the New York City agency tasked with looking into suspected cases of child abuse and neglect, said in mid-January.
The 74 previously reported that many families investigated this school year by ACS say they were not neglecting their children, but rather keeping them home from school as a COVID precaution. Under the city’s own guidance instructing schools to have leniency in such cases, they say, they should never have been reported to the agency.
Mayor Eric Adams’s Sunday announcement that he plans to lift the city’s school mask mandate March 7 may add yet another reason for COVID-wary parents to fear returning their children to in-person learning — signaling the issue may be far from over.
“Ending the mask mandate in @NYCSchools is a [middle finger] to Black, Latino, underrepresented Asian, disabled & immunocompromised kids & staff,” parent organizer Tajh Sutton wrote on Twitter.
But while the total reports from school staff was higher in the fall of 2021 [when NYC schools were in-person] than the fall of 2020 [when classes were online], the share of calls that included an allegation of educational neglect dropped significantly over that span, the state’s data show. Some 63 percent of the 1,996 reports made by school staff between September and November 2020 included an educational neglect charge, while just 31 percent of the 2,800 reports filed over the same span a year later raised the same claim.
ACS data provided to The 74 also showed a decline in reports of educational neglect from NYC school staff. From Sept. 1, 2020 to Jan. 31, 2021, school personnel made 2,708 reports alleging educational neglect compared to 1,926 over that same time window in 2021-22, according to the agency’s numbers.
“A large reason for the difference would be the guidance ACS and DOE worked on together with regard to when to call in a report, and the significant training and messaging that was done with teachers,” an ACS spokesperson told The 74.
The City reported in 2020 that during remote learning, some children who missed Zoom classes because their family lacked devices or home internet were reported to ACS for educational neglect, which could have also driven those numbers in the first year of the pandemic.
Healy’s ACS report came in early November 2021, after schools reopened without a remote option. The Brooklyn mother remained unconvinced it was safe to send her two children back into classrooms, having lost several relatives to COVID. So she filed home instruction applications for both kids and stayed in communication with school staff, she said. The whole time, her children accessed and submitted classwork via Google Classroom.
“I was in constant contact [with the schools],” Healy told The 74. “All of the things that needed to happen were still happening.”
Yet in early November, an ACS caseworker knocked on the door of her apartment. The agency had received a report of suspected educational neglect from a staff member at her younger child’s school.
Healy is an organizer with the advocacy group PRESS, Parents for Responsive Equitable Safe Schools, and was familiar with her rights as a parent. But still, the visit was jarring to the whole family. After the caseworker left, her 14 year-old son, who has autism, paced back and forth for an hour, worried that the unfamiliar woman would return with law enforcement, Healy said. Her 13 year-old child, who identifies as non-binary, had continued nightmares, fearing they would be taken away from the only home they knew. Even Healy couldn’t avoid creeping thoughts of the worst-case scenario.
“You automatically think someone’s here to take my kids away,” she said.
Since November, the most recent month for which data are available, Freiman said that several clients have continued to navigate new child welfare reports — especially during the Omicron surge when the sheer volume of COVID cases often complicated school attendance.
“We were working with people where the parents had COVID so [were] required to quarantine, but their children didn’t and so the school was expecting them to come to school. But the parents didn’t have a way to get them there,” explained the attorney. “We have had situations where those kinds of problems have resulted in a call to the state central register.”
ACS has said it is trying to avoid such scenarios. “We are … working together (with the Department of Education) to make sure that families are not reported to the state’s child abuse hotline solely because of [a] child’s absences from school,” a spokesperson wrote in a Jan. 13 message to The 74. The agency is providing training to professionals working with children on ways to support families without calling the hotline, they said.
But Healy says there’s still a long way to go. Her own case was closed in December after uncovering no evidence of neglect, but she’s still going through a time-intensive and costly legal process to clear her record of the investigation. She hopes that the Adams administration, including schools Chancellor David Banks, works to ensure that other families don’t have to endure the same hardship.
“The whole punitive measures that ACS has been delivering up until now still needs to be addressed,” she said. “We definitely want to make sure that this gets nipped in the bud under this particular chancellor before more parents are unfortunately held to this repercussion.”
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