They Stood Up to NYC Schools For Their Disabled Child. Then Child Protective Services Arrived

Parents advocating for their special education children say K-12 staff level allegations of abuse and neglect against them as an “intimidation tactic”

By Asher Lehrer-Small | June 1, 2023
(Marianna McMurdock)

When their 7-year-old son, Tristan, who is autistic and nonverbal, arrived home from school with bruises and a lump on his head, Bronx parents Luis and Michelle Diaz began to worry.

They asked the school to look into the 2021 incident and requested a new paraeducator for their child. The classroom aide hadn’t mentioned the injury, despite messaging them throughout the day, the parents said, erasing their trust in her.

But the family’s search for answers and solutions brought them head-on into a problem they hadn’t anticipated: The school pointed the finger back at the Diaz parents, alleging neglect and inadequate supervision of their child. Soon, a caseworker with the Administration for Children’s Sevices, known as ACS, the New York City agency responsible for investigating suspected child abuse, showed up at their door.

“We were just trying to advocate for our son and find out what happened like any parent would,” Michelle Diaz said. “This is where the retaliation started.”

The school’s response reveals a startling pattern: Across the nation’s largest district, parents of students with disabilities who speak up on behalf of their children say they are being charged with allegations of child abuse or neglect — a tactic advocates say schools use to intimidate parents and coerce them into dropping their concerns.

Though it’s not clear how many reports may be retaliatory, New York City educators have made more than 3,500 calls alleging suspected abuse or neglect of children with disabilities over the past two school years, according to data obtained by The 74 through public records requests. Each one triggers an intrusive process that, at its most dire, can lead to the removal of a child from parents’ custody. Yet caseworkers found evidence of parental wrongdoing in only 16% of cases, and fewer still go on to withstand judges’ scrutiny.

Educators reported Michelle and Luis Diaz to child protective services for alleged neglect after the parents pressed their school for answers when their nonverbal son Tristan began coming home with injuries. (Marianna McMurdock)

In more than a dozen interviews, parents, advocates and researchers recounted what they described as a common practice of threats leveraged against families of some of the most vulnerable students in the city’s school system.

“Those are intimidation tactics that they do to parents,” said Rima Izquierdo, a Bronx parent leader who supports families of special needs children across the borough.

“This is a trend. … All the stories sound the same.”

Neither the Department of Education nor ACS responded to parents’ claims of retaliation when asked in an email. DOE spokesperson Nicole Brownstein expressed her agency’s commitment to “the safety and wellbeing of our students.” 

“We are actively working closely with our partners at ACS to retrain staff and ensure that every possible step is taken to provide support for our families in instances that do not meet the level of making a report to the [state hotline],” she said in an email.

A pattern of coercion

Tension between special education parents and their children’s schools is common in New York City, a school system infamous for failing to meet the needs of students with disabilities. In 2021, the city had a backlog of roughly 9,400 unresolved special education complaints as parents escalated worries that their children with disabilities weren’t receiving mandated services such as physical therapy or counseling. In 2020-21, nearly 21% of New York City’s roughly 1 million schoolchildren received special education services, compared to a national average of 15%. 

Advocating for individuals with disabilities is a federally protected right. Still, special education parents nationwide recount instances of being punished for speaking up on behalf of their children.

In 2022, the federal Office of Civil Rights received 1,708 retaliation complaints from families of students with disabilities. Numerous parent blogs describe anecdotal cases where schools have used child protective services reports or truancy charges to punish families advocating for their special education children. And the American Bar Association published a 2019 brief on the legal rights of parents of special education students who find themselves facing these allegations.

Previous reporting has revealed cases where schools weaponize the threat of calling child protective services against parents who aggravate educators or administrators. But families of special education students say they are at particular risk for the unlawful treatment.

It’s “a very common occurrence,” said Anna Arons, a New York University law professor, that when families have “substantial back-and-forth with the school about the appropriate services for their child” it can result in educators calling the state child abuse hotline.

School staff are one of several professions legally obligated to report suspected child abuse and neglect. But in New York City and nationwide, educators make a higher share of unsubstantiated calls than any other mandatory reporter category — meaning families often become needlessly ensnared in a process they describe as invasive and traumatic

From September 2022 through February 2023, NYC school staff made over 6,500 calls to ACS encompassing all students, including youth in special education, according to data the agency provided. Some 15% of those investigations revealed evidence of abuse or neglect.

New York City’s child protective services system disproportionately involves parents of color. Citywide, some 90% of children named in ACS investigations are Black or Hispanic, while, together, those racial groups make up just 60% of NYC young people. Even among neighborhoods with similar poverty rates, those with greater shares of Black and Hispanic residents face higher rates of investigations, research shows.

State data, on paper, show that students with disabilities get reported to child protective services by educators at roughly the same rate as their peers. They make up 21% of the total enrollment and 22% of educators’ calls to the child abuse hotline. But the latter figure is likely missing some students with disabilities. Allegations against special education parents are only flagged as such if the educator making the call mentions at intake that the student has a disability, an ACS spokesperson explained. 

In other words, some reports regarding special education students might never get recorded that way due to human error.

“It’s probably a pretty serious undercount,” Arons said. Educators calling in reports could easily neglect to mention a student’s disability, she said.

Paullette Healy has two children with disabilities and often assists other parents in meetings with their school to design Individualized Education Plans, known as IEPs, for their special needs children. The IEPs are legally mandated and Healy has joined well over 100 such conferences across all five boroughs over the past decade, she estimates. They can get contentious when schools hesitate to provide services students are entitled to, she said.

“There’ll be pushback. It’s like, ‘We’re understaffed. The particular therapist we have now, their caseload is way more than they can handle,’ ” she said.

When parents don’t back down, that’s when schools may begin to send threatening signals, Healy said.

“Not too long after those meetings, behavior letters will come home,” she explained. “[The school will allege] there’s not proper documentation for absences. And then eventually, a knock on the door from ACS. That pattern has already been established. We’ve seen it way too often.”

Healy herself was the subject of an unsubstantiated investigation in the fall of 2020. A school staff member reported the mother for educational neglect for keeping her children home out of fear of COVID. 

An ACS spokesperson said in an email that the agency is working with educators and school leadership to reduce the number of families coming into unnecessary contact with the child welfare system, training educators to instead connect struggling families with resources like food or rent support. The agency runs several community centers across the city that offer free resources to families, such as clothing, food and diapers.

“We will continue to work with stakeholders, like NYC Public Schools, to help reduce unnecessary reports so that we can better focus our child protection resources on those who really need it,” the spokesperson said.

A series of unexplained injuries at school

The Diaz parents recounted a process of escalation similar to what Healy said she’s witnessed.

The family shared numerous documents with The 74 including medical records, photos of their son’s injuries, the results of the school’s investigation into possible corporal punishment and official letters from ACS.

Tristan Diaz, now 8, likes to play with manipulatives like pipe cleaners to keep his hands occupied. (Marianna McMurdock)

In November 2021, Luis and Michelle Diaz had been seeking answers about Tristan’s injuries for months, worried educators might have harmed their son. But the school’s internal investigation found no evidence of mistreatment. Through a Freedom of Information Law request, the parents learned one special education teacher on the second day of school had conducted “joint compressions and massaging strategies” after Tristan had become agitated in class. The school did not conclude the action amounted to corporal punishment. But, to the Diazes, it was evidence an educator had laid hands on their son.

Over the next several months, Tristan kept coming home with new injuries, his parents said: scratches, bruises, a bite mark. School staff maintained the nonverbal child’s markings were self-inflicted, but the Diaz family took Tristan to doctors who disagreed. Eventually in mid-March, the parents reported the injuries to the police, explaining they were concerned their son could be experiencing physical abuse at school.

Documents provided by the Diaz family. Clockwise from left: Tristan’s school’s investigation into possible corporal punishment, ACS’s letter closing the family’s investigation and a note from a doctor’s visit.

Tristan missed the next two days of school after getting bitten by mosquitos, which aggravated a tic he had of scratching himself with his fingernails. The Diaz parents said they called to excuse the absences. But still, the school sent home a March 19 attendance letter warning of possible child protective services involvement if the absences continued. Their son returned to the classroom.

Less than a week later came the ACS caseworker’s knock at the door, the parents said.

The ensuing investigation shook the family to its core.

The Diazes said their son Tristan suffered his first seizure in two years, which they believe was brought on by his stress and anxiety from the case.

Meanwhile, Luis Diaz said he faced stark consequences at work. After spending 18 years in the military, he is now employed by the Administration for Children’s Services as a child welfare specialist. When he and his wife were reported for alleged neglect, he got locked out of certain workspaces and sensed that his colleagues, who were all notified of the investigation, began to look at him differently. 

When the case closed two months later with no evidence of maltreatment, the family’s fear and frustration lingered. How could their school wield so much power to upend their lives, they wondered?

“An allegation can be just like that: 1, 2, 3. And then you ruin 60 days of a family. I could lose my job,” Luis Diaz said. 

The Diaz family in their apartment in the Parkchester section of the Bronx. (Marianna McMurdock)

‘They bully me’

Like the Diaz family, Elouise Cromwell-Evans was also reported to ACS by her school after a dispute surrounding her autistic son’s schooling.

In 2022, Cromwell-Evans said educators sent her and her 13-year-old child in an ambulance to the hospital for a psychological evaluation after the boy said at school that he wanted to kill himself. The doctor concluded the statement wasn’t worrisome, but rather an attention-seeking response after weeks of being called names by a class bully, the mother said.

But she said the school continued to struggle with her son’s behavior, which included spitting on the classmate who was taunting him. In early 2023, educators called another ambulance for a second psych evaluation, she said, telling Cromwell-Evans that if she didn’t show up at school and accompany her son, they would have to report it to ACS as medical neglect.

She complied, but once in the ambulance, said she took the recommendation of a paramedic who thought the hospital visit was unnecessary because he saw her son’s behavior as normal for a boy going through puberty. So she signed release forms and the family left.

Shortly after, the school reported the Bronx mother to ACS, she said.

“They intimidate me. They bully me,” Cromwell-Evans said. “If I don’t do what they say, then I’m neglectful.”

She suspects her race and class have played into educators’ perceptions of her parenting.

“We’re a Black family in a poor neighborhood and we were homeless for five years,” she said. “They’re definitely placing us in a box.”

Luis Diaz works for the Administration for Children’s Services as a child welfare specialist, which means he knows the best and worst of what the agency can be, he said. (Marianna McMurdock)

Child welfare experts say living in poverty does not necessarily mean parents are neglecting their children. Provided there is no intentional mistreatment, struggling families need support — like food or rental assistance — rather than child protective services involvement, University of Chicago professor Darcey Merritt told The 74 in October, then at NYU. Recent advocacy and media attention have prompted possible changes to mandatory reporting laws in New York City and elsewhere. And ACS itself has worked in recent years to provide support to families, where possible, and reduce unnecessary abuse and neglect reports.

Ericka Brewington narrowly avoided a child protective services investigation at the beginning of the 2022-23 school year, she said. She kept her special needs son Amir home from class for several weeks because the school didn’t arrange for a paraprofessional to ride on the bus with him, as his education plan stipulated.

She remembers the school calling and telling her, “we’re supposed to call this in” to child protective services. 

But, in response, the mother, who also serves as a board member on the family advocacy nonprofit JMacForFamilies, provided email documentation, which she also shared with The 74, showing the school had promised a staff member on the bus weeks ago and never followed through.

Brewington believes her savvy staved off a possible ACS report. But for parents less educated about their rights, “this would have scared the living daylights out of them,” she said. The threat of being separated from their children, in those cases, can be enough to make parents drop any demands they’re making for educational services, she said.

“You throw that in any parent’s face,” Brewington said, “they’re going to give in.”

It’s a threat so potent that many families completely avoid asking for the services their IEPs entitle them to, said Shalonda Curtis-Hackett, a parent advocate in Brooklyn.

A former PTA president, Curtis-Hackett said families often confessed to her during the early stages of the pandemic that their special education students weren’t getting the help they needed. But parents asked her not to relay the complaints to the school because they were worried about potential repercussions.

“I don’t want to be retaliated against,” the Brooklyn mother said they told her. 

Shalonda Curtis-Hackett (LinkedIn)

It’s a calculus likely familiar to parents across the city. A class action lawsuit filed in November 2020 claims thousands of students missed out on services early in the pandemic. As of June 2022, city data show 88% of special education students were fully receiving the help stipulated by their education plans, up slightly from a year prior.

Curtis-Hackett endured her own unsubstantiated ACS investigation in 2021 and now works as an outreach coordinator with the Neighborhood Defender Services, which provides community-based legal defense services. 

“When parents are trying to get services for their kids and they’re not just letting the school give them the bare basics of an IEP, … ACS is definitely used as a retaliatory weapon,” she said.

To Michelle Diaz, the irony is rich. She was alleged to be neglectful while taking every step she knew of to advocate for her child, she pointed out.

“In a million years, did we think we were gonna have an ACS case?” she said. “We go above and beyond for our son.”

(Photo credit: Marianna McMurdock)

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