The Rise series Surveillance Isn’t Safety began with a focus on schools because NYC schools call in 26% of NYC reports to the state child abuse and neglect hotline. Parents have described how schools reported them to child protective services when they needed support, and the harm this caused their families.
Here, Rise highlights steps that the Department of Education (DOE) and individual schools, as well as our city and state child welfare agencies, ACS and OCFS, and others can take to better support families and reduce unnecessary reports.
1. The education and child welfare systems should define steps that school personnel should take when they have concerns about a child but do not suspect abuse or neglect. School personnel may make unnecessary reports because they are afraid to be held liable for not following the law and are protecting themselves and their jobs. Additionally, legally, mandated reporters aren’t required to understand underlying issues or to consider how parents could be supported in resolving those issues without CPS involvement. However, school personnel already make
judgments in determining what necessitates a report. School personnel should be trained to recognize the difference between poverty and neglect, and to know that parents can be referred to voluntarily access the very same preventive services that families are mandated to attend after an ACS investigation. Schools should be prepared to inform parents about available services in their community. This can help schools support parents in addressing even serious needs without unnecessarily subjecting them to a frightening investigation.
2. The education and child welfare systems should work together to address racial bias in SCR reports. As a 2019 data brief put it, “There is long-established acknowledgement of implicit bias in child welfare reporting; mandated reporters such as teachers and medical professionals, as well as the general public, may hold racial biases that make them more likely to report a family of color than a white family under similar circumstances.” Strategies to address racial bias include: increased hiring from the community in which schools are located; implementing plans to build relationships with families and the community; increasing parent leadership within schools; engaging students, parents, parent advisory councils, and community leaders to identify community-wide challenges and solutions; developing a better understanding of community strengths, resources, and services; establishing a racial justice mission/vision; and expanding training for all mandated reporters to include training that addresses systemic racism, including how bias can impact SCR reports.
3. OCFS should work with ACS and the DOE to ensure that mandated reporters working in schools understand that a report is not a referral to services and should not be misused for that purpose. Mandated reporters may not understand the impact of investigations or know that, in New York, most reports are “screened in,” leading to a broad investigation not focused solely on the specific issue reported. They may even view reports as a way to connect families to resources. There is a huge divide between how parents experience child protective services and the view of some professionals – that there will be an investigation, and if nothing is wrong, the family will just be connected to resources. As researcher Kelley Fong stated, “It is easy for mandated reporters to say, better safe than sorry, no harm no foul.” But Rise parents describe the devastating impact that investigations can have on their families.
4. The city and state DOE should ensure that ALL parents in ALL communities have access to quality evaluations and appropriate services before they are in crisis. Parents have described how schools reported them when they needed help with their child’s behaviors, sometimes while they were asking for IEP evaluations that their children did not receive. Unfortunately, their experiences are not unique. Recent reporting has documented the difficulties families face accessing special education services in NYC and disparities in access to quality special education evaluations. Families that can afford private evaluations (often not covered by insurance) are able to get higher-quality evaluations that provide recommendations about services needed. In contrast, the evaluation process offered by public schools can be complicated to navigate and is often delayed. Chalkbeat reports, “The city’s evaluations don’t offer specific diagnoses, like dyslexia or attention deficit disorder. Nor do they include specific recommendations for support, leaving that to a team that includes educators and families in crafting a student’s learning plan.” The DOE and ACS should also support and advocate for families by referring them to attorneys or seeking school compliance with meeting children’s needs.
5. The city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene should increase access to Early Intervention Services. City Council should require the Department of Health to develop a plan to address the disparities in access to early intervention services that make it more likely that low-income children of color enter pre-K already behind. As reported in The City, children “referred to special education evaluations are least likely to get screenings in low-income neighborhoods where most residents are people of color. Those neighborhoods are also overrepresented among those where the highest number of children do not receive Early Intervention services following an evaluation.” The lack of providers is an obstacle to children receiving services after evaluations that must be addressed.
6. The Governor and state lawmakers must properly fund NYC schools so that the city DOE can increase access to school counselors, social workers, and psychologists and continue to implement restorative practices. A recent Daily News piece documented the low ratio of guidance counselors and social workers to students in NYC public schools: “Predominantly black and Latino schools…receive fewer financial resources, fewer opportunities, and more policing than do schools with majority-white student bodies.” Additionally, a study by The Data Collaborative for Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice reveals that black students and students with disabilities are disproportionately impacted by suspensions. They experience higher suspension rates, higher likelihood of multiple suspensions, and longer suspensions. The DOE has started to implement restorative justice practices and Positive Learning Collaborative programming. DOE should build on and expand this effort. The DOE also should ensure schools have the staff and resources needed for these approaches to succeed. This requires hiring enough psychologists, including bilingual psychologists, to be able to conduct timely special education evaluations. By investing in the well-being of students of color through opportunities and services, and by continuing to focus on implementing more equitable, restorative approaches rather than expanding policing in schools, DOE can better support families.
7. The DOE should seek to understand and address underlying issues in schools that have high rates of reports to SCR. Individual schools should also use data and feedback from parents to dig deeper into understanding situations and looking at creative solutions.
Parents recommend the following:
- Provide on-site resources within schools to support children and families. Ideally, schools should have resources available on-site, such as a health and mental health providers and emergency services such as food pantry, clothing closet, and gift cards. If they don’t have the needed resources on site, schools should have staff who are knowledgeable about trusted resources in the community and are prepared to connect parents to material resources and services that they want. Parent coordinators, guidance counselors, school social workers, parent advisory boards, and PTAs can develop guides with information about resources available in the community.
- Show parents that you know struggling parents DO care. Even if schools have resources available, parents and youth will access them only if there is a relationship of trust. Yet parents frequently feel judged by school personnel. Parents are afraid to say their families need help when they fear the response will be a report to CPS. Events that are open to the entire community and partnerships with community organizations help show over time that the school is a trustworthy place, and that the school is interested in what parents and children want and need.
- Share resources and offer information sessions for parents addressing common challenges that often drive SCR reports. Topics can include: what you can do if your child isn’t going to school, how you can get evaluations and legal support, what your rights are in the IEP process, and resources available to families (including how to request needed support). Schools can create opportunities for parents and trusted community-based organizations to lead workshops and also for parents to connect with other parents for peer support.
- Proactively inform parents about how to best communicate about absences and what documentation to provide about housing or health issues. A recent change in education neglect law requires ACS to show that the school or the agency tried to take steps to solve the problem before getting a finding of educational neglect against the parents in Family Court. School personnel should inform parents and respond to absences by exploring reasons the child has missed school and ways to help the family. With the U.S. homeless student population at the highest in a decade, it is especially important that schools are prepared to support families who are unhoused or experiencing housing instability.
- Partner with parents to establish fair, transparent, solution-oriented protocols for responding to concerns when there is no suspicion of abuse or neglect. Schools can start by listening to the parent’s perspective, including any barriers, and supporting them in accessing resources needed. Key school personnel could be identified that should be consulted around particular challenges. If possible, the school should offer to engage their parent advisory council in supporting the parent with identifying solutions to challenges. School personnel should clearly explain the behaviors or circumstances that will be reported as abuse or neglect if they continue. If an issue is not resolved or is serious, school personnel should alert the parent that they will call CPS. Whenever possible, the school should inform parents about what exactly will be reported, ideally asking the parent to be present if a report is made. (This is common practice among some mental health and family support providers.) The school also should connect the parent to legal support if a report is made. Schools can provide parents with the Good Call NYC number (833-346-6322) for 24/7 legal support so that the family’s rights are protected during the investigative process.
Rise’s work on this series has been informed by conversations with parents, ACS representatives, a community school director, lawyers, a researcher, an education advocate, and others. NYC DOE did not respond to our inquiries.
Resources for Parents
It is important for parents to have access to information, advocacy, and legal representation so that they can support their children and prevent unnecessary SCR reports. Two recent Rise articles provide information and highlight organizations that can help:
What Parents Need to Know: School Reports to CPS, Communicating with the School, and Advocating for Your Child
This interview with The Bronx Defenders suggests ways parents can navigate challenges and improve their relationship with their child’s school to avoid unnecessary reports. It also provides information about legal and education advocacy organizations that can help.
How to Get School-Based Supports for Your Child
This article highlights Advocates for Children, an organization that provides low-income families with educational legal assistance, and The Promise Project, an organization that provides full neuropsych evaluations to low-income students who may have an undiagnosed or underdiagnosed learning issues.