When Schools Use Child Welfare as a Weapon – What a reporter learned investigating malicious reports

Last November, The Huffington Post published an article that documented how some schools misuse reports to child protective services. These reports were done to pressure parents to send a child with behavior problems to a different school or to agree to a school’s recommendations for services.

Most school personnel don’t make reports maliciously, but the reporter, Caroline Preston, a senior editor at The Hechinger Report, said she thinks mandated reporting laws contribute to these kinds of calls because “there are pretty significant consequences to not reporting, and many fewer consequences to over-reporting.”

Here, Preston tells us about the parents she interviewed—and all the parents who reached out after her story was published to say they’d had similar experiences. We urge legislators and child welfare systems to reform reporting laws and practices that contribute to malicious or inappropriate reporting. 

Q: What was your process for reporting your story? 

A: When I started at The Hechinger Report, I was curious whether schools frequently made referrals to the child welfare hotline, whether there were a lot of racial and socioeconomic disparities, and whether this was something that people felt was a problem and that parents were experiencing. As soon as I started talking to people, they were saying, ‘Yes, absolutely.’ They were telling me about personal experiences they had had.

I also wanted to figure out whether there were places that were doing something positive to reduce some of the disparities or to improve the relationship that schools have with parents, to try to include reasons for optimism.

The story ended up taking me to Chicago and New York because there are very strong legal groups there that were able to connect me with parents. I talked to over 20 families. Within New York City, myself and Rebecca Klein, an education reporter at Huffington Post who worked on the story with me, talked to a few individual schools as well. 

Q: Can you tell us about the experiences of parents you talked to for your reporting?

A: A lot of times parents were running up against trouble with their kid’s school because their child had some behavioral issues. According to them, very small things could result in a call to the hotline investigation. Some of those parents felt like they were being pressured into removing their kid from the school. 

The woman I lead the story with, Tiffany Banks, is a teacher herself and had sometimes called the child welfare hotline when she was worried about her own students. She wasn’t somebody who felt like this could happen to her. Her two older kids had a good experience at a magnet school in Chicago. But then her youngest kid had some behavioral issues and was acting out, something she was very open about.

Her relationship with the school really started to sour around the fact that they wanted her youngest son to go into classes exclusively for children with special needs and, as an educator, she didn’t feel like this was the best fit for him. Around that time, she started getting visits from child protective services. The first one came when her son was sent to the hospital by the school.

Then her middle son went to school with a bad haircut that he had given himself, and she said that prompted an investigation because she was told that sending him to school like that could constitute emotional abuse. There were other times when she clashed with the school over some of the medication that her son was receiving. She said she wasn’t a perfect parent, but she was fighting for what was best for her kid, and the school was twisting that into a narrative that she was a bad parent. Everyone around her was saying, “These investigations aren’t going to stop until you remove him from the school,” but she felt like that was kind of letting the school win. That was a really difficult situation for her.

Even when there were valid reasons why a call to the hotline occurred, parents felt like the relationship was unnecessarily hostile. 

I met with another woman, Sandra, in Chicago. Her youngest son had gone into school with a scratch that she said he’d gotten from playing with his brother. Her son was angry with her and at first told the school that his mom had done it. That escalated quickly. A child protection services worker showed up at her door. The son quickly said, “I just made this up cause I was mad at my mom,” but it ended up being a long process of trying to get her name cleared from the State Central Registry.

She felt that instead of questions in good faith, her family was immediately cast under scrutiny and their relationship with the school was really combative.

Sandra talked about being visited by the worker. She had some flowers that her husband had given her for Valentine’s Day on a table. The worker said something like, “Oh, was this a gift from your husband because you two were fighting?” She felt like there was an assumption that she was having marital strife and that her home was a bad place. She spent almost $15,000 on lawyers. It was really devastating for her and her family and permanently altered her experience with her kid’s school.

Q: What is something that surprised you in your reporting for this story?

A: It really drove home to me again how, in theory, CPS is supposed to be a helping agency to aid vulnerable families, but often there’s a really antagonistic relationship between the agency and families.

I was surprised by the situation that puts school employees in, even school employees who may be aware of the harms that can come from a CPS investigation. They feel conflicted because they may be worried about an individual kid, but they recognize that calling the child welfare hotline could bring a lot of damage to the family.

I was also surprised by the lack of data about which schools are making calls and whether certain schools are responsible for more calls than others.

In our reporting in New York, one charter network was the focus of a couple of lawsuits and complaints. I was surprised to see the number of families who felt like the schools had used the child welfare hotline as sort of a weapon against them.

Q: What impact do you think your article had?

A: Something that I was really pleased to have happen from this story is that I received emails and feedback from parents who said, “This is exactly what was happening to me. I found myself in this situation. I wasn’t sure what to do about it. I googled some words and your article came up.” In a couple of cases, the parents wanted to reach out to Tiffany Banks to hear about how she dealt with what she’d gone through and I was able to connect them.  

I think it served a purpose for individual families to know they weren’t alone. Huffington Post got a lot of feedback on their Facebook page and other social media from parents saying, “Thank you for publishing this. I went through something similar.”

In terms of impact on the system, it’s hard to know. New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services had already been trying to do some things to minimize needless calls from schools. When I talked to someone at ACS, he did say this was indeed a problem. He talked about how the agency was creating a two-tiered system and working more closely with the Department of Education to have a different response to lower-risk calls than just the straight investigation. I hope that this article was able to bring more awareness to the need for different approaches.

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