An interview with The Bronx Defenders
Interview by Ray Watson, Shakira Paige, Sarah Harris and Keyna Franklin
Throughout Rise’s series on schools and child welfare, parents describe how school reports to child protective services took them by surprise. Sometimes, the calls were made without sufficient cause. Other times, problems at home escalated when schools were not willing or able to adequately address a child’s behavior problems. Even for families who got help, the trauma of child welfare involvement far over-shadowed the benefits.
Here, Asia Piña and Crystal Baker-Burr, a social worker and an education attorney at The Bronx Defenders, warn parents that some schools may call in reports far more quickly than others. They suggest ways parents can navigate challenges and improve their relationship with their child’s school to avoid unnecessary reports.
Q: Who trains school staff to be mandated reporters and how to decide what reports to call in?
Baker-Burr: In order to become a certified teacher in New York State, there is a two-hour online self-guided course. There could be school-by-school training as well.
As far as I know, there’s no real way that the New York City Department of Education is evaluating how people are taking in this information. There is no refresher course that we know of. That means we could have people that are teaching or working in schools that have forgotten the rules about reporting and could be calling in cases that don’t need to be called in.
In my experience, there seems to be a lack of understanding of the huge impact that these calls can have on a family. When that one call is made, it can trigger a lot of serious life consequences for a family and for a child. The impact and the trauma from having family court involvement can be enormous. That can compound any struggles the child was going through to begin with, rather than help the child, who was the subject of the report.
Q: Is spanking a child considered abuse, and is a school required to call in a report if a child says, ‘Mom hit me’?
Baker-Burr: According to New York State law, corporal punishment itself does not constitute neglect, but “excessive corporal punishment” does. What excessive corporal punishment means is not clearly defined in the law. It is litigated in family court because people interpret that differently. There’s a whole body of case law—how judges have ruled in past cases about what could make something excessive or not—but there isn’t a clear answer across the board.
In most of the cases that I have seen, ACS sees corporal punishment as excessive when the child has marks or bruises, or the child reports being hit by objects.
We are all informed by our life experiences, that is why it is important to have diverse educators. A teacher or school staff member who grew up kneeling on rice as a punishment might not call in a case when a child reports that is the way they are disciplined. On the contrary, a school staff member who wasn’t disciplined in that manner may see it as cruel and unusual and call in the case.
I want to highlight the fact that the decision to make these calls depends very much on the life experiences of the people in the school making the decision.
Piña: How schools define excessive corporal punishment is a conversation to have with the school because every principal runs their school differently. For example, if a child says, ‘My mom hit me,’ some school officials may decide that they are required to call ACS.
Q: Parents can be reported for “educational neglect” if children are not attending school. Are schools required to call in a report after a certain number of absences, or do they have a choice?
Baker-Burr: We see many cases that are called in because the child has missed a lot of school days, but there’s no statute that defines how many days a child can or cannot miss.
Piña: Sometimes schools call and other times they don’t. We often see phone calls to ACS if kids have been absent for 10 days or more.
Baker-Burr: What is considered educational neglect by the court really is case specific. I’ve seen cases where a child has a disability classification and the court sees the absences more critically because they’re saying that the student isn’t receiving the services that are mandated.
On the other hand, a child may miss 20 days but is still doing well in school and is getting promoted to the next grade. In that situation, the attorney in the neglect case can fight against an educational neglect finding and say there was no harm or impairment to the child, which is a requirement to prove any neglect against a parent.
The New York state law about educational neglect was recently modified. The new law gives leverage to parents and advocates who are working with a disgruntled school prior to a call to ACS. Now, ACS has to show that the school or the agency tried to take steps to solve whatever the problem was before getting a finding of educational neglect against the parents in Family Court. Without this, the petition can be dismissed. Therefore, we can use that to make suggestions to schools about what steps we think they should take to help the family, before calling ACS.
Q: If a student is missing a lot of school because of a housing problem or a health or mental health issue, how should a parent communicate with the school about it?
Baker-Burr: If your child is missing school for medical reasons, it’s important to get a letter from the doctor and to give a separate letter every single time there’s an absence in order to create a record. I suggest emailing the letters to create a paper trail. If the school has already threatened to call ACS, I think it makes sense to reach out to an advocacy organization like The Bronx Defenders before disclosing sensitive mental health or medical issues. Those disclosures could be used against a parent if a case is called in to ACS.
Piña: If it’s a housing matter, a letter needs to be written by the Department of Homeless Services or anyone at the shelter to explain the child’s absences. Providing proof of the reasons for the absences can minimize the chances of an ACS report. Parents can send documentation through emails, letters or even text messages to the teachers and school staff. If for any reason, the school calls in a case despite the provided written materials, the parents can show the ACS worker the communication with the school.
Also, having personal conversations with the teachers and staff at the school can reduce the chance of a report being called in.
Q: How can parents expect schools to work with them?
Baker-Burr: Parents and schools should be partners. If the school is having an issue with a parent or a child, they should be actively working to find solutions together with the parent, and when appropriate, the child as well.
I received a call today because my client’s young child had an incident at school. The school told the parent that she had to leave work and pick up her child or they would call the police. My client couldn’t leave work without losing her job, so she contacted me about what to do. I told her that she could ask the school what interventions they had tried with her child. For instance, she could tell the school the best way that she knows to calm her child and see if the school social worker, guidance counselor, or psychologist would be able to try that. By giving suggestions to the school about how to respond, she reminded them of their responsibility to try interventions before taking more extreme actions.
Q: What other advice do you have for
how parents can interact with a school to decrease the likelihood that a school
will call a case on them?
Piña: Building rapport with school staff, teachers, and social workers can reduce the chances of a school calling in a case. This is especially important if the child receives any special education services. It’s important to always go to any meetings and be present at school activities and events. If you can volunteer, please do so. That way the school knows who you are as a parent and starts to know who you are as a person.
Baker-Burr: Even before a call is made to ACS, there are groups that can stand by a parent. In the Bronx, there’s The Bronx Defenders. In Brooklyn, there’s Brooklyn Defenders Services. In Queens and sections of Manhattan, it’s the Center for Family Representation. In Harlem, parents can reach out to Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem. You can call and say, “I’m being threatened with ACS. I’d like some assistance.” The advocate can step in and help mediate the relationship with the school.
You can also call these organizations for legal representation during an investigation. With some recent new City Council funding, all of the parent defense organizations will have early defense teams that can assist parents and try to prevent an ACS case.
If the relationship between the parent and the school has soured because of a disagreement regarding special education services, I recommend the parent reach out to an education advocacy group. INCLUDEnyc has a hotline where a parent can call (212-677-4660) or text (646-693-3175) to get advice or a referral for legal representation in an education-related matter. The hotline operates Monday through Thursday, 9:00 am to 3:00 pm. Advocates for Children provides low-income families with educational legal assistance and has an education helpline that parents can call (866-427-6033) Monday through Thursday, 10:00 am to 4:00 pm.
If the relationship between a parent and a school cannot be improved, there’s also the option of getting a transfer. That’s not the answer all the time. But if you’re not being respected by the school, it’s OK to start fresh with a new administration that’s going to treat you properly.
If a school is continuously calling an ACS case against a parent, the parent has the right to file a complaint and go to the school district to discuss the situation. Parents can also reach out to a family defense organization to explore whether they have a claim that can be brought in court.