If there's one thing the public school system shouldn't be doing right now, it's making life even more hellishly difficult for parents. And yet many teachers in the state of Massachusetts are contacting the authorities to report parents for suspected child abuse when kids fail to show up for Zoom classes.
"Massachusetts school officials have reported dozens of families to state social workers for possible neglect charges because of issues related to their children's participation in remote learning classes during the pandemic shutdown in the spring," The Boston Globe reported on Saturday.
The infuriating article is worth reading in full. The Globe spoke with several parents who have received calls and visits from the state Department of Children and Families (DCF). The department has the power to remove children from their homes and place them in foster care if agents suspect that kids are being mistreated, abused, or neglected—and DCF considers distance-learning no-shows to be possible abuse cases. DCF lists numerous circumstances in which teachers should feel obliged to call the cops, among them kids appearing tired or hungry during Zoom sessions.
Working parents who have no choice but to leave their young children in the care of a sibling, or let them fend for themselves, will be particularly vulnerable to unfounded child services investigations. This isn't a theoretical concern. Consider the case of Em Quiles, who
struggled to work her full-time job while overseeing her young son's schooling. During remote class time, her 7-year-old was largely supervised by his teenage brother, who had his own school work to do.
Quiles said she told staff at Heard Street Discovery Academy in Worcester in the spring that her work schedule made it tough to assist with virtual schooling and she struggled to navigate the school's online platforms. "They didn't offer any help," she said.
Then in June, Quiles was stunned to receive a call from the state's Department of Children and Families. The school had accused Quiles of neglect, she was told, because the 7-year-old missed class and homework assignments.
Another mother, a Spanish-speaking immigrant, requested a virtual meting with a school councillor to discuss her son's behavioral difficulties, which had worsened during pandemic-induced isolation. A few days after she spoke with the counselor, DCF called the mom. Someone at the school—possibly the counselor—had accused the mom of "general neglect" based on "behaviors observed or disclosed during remote learning." The agency spent weeks investigating the matter, interrogating the mother and her son on everything from "the contents of her refrigerator to her son's sleeping location." The allegation was eventually dismissed.
A third parent—Christi Brouder, a single mother of four kids—faced frequent threats from teachers that DCF would intervene if the children didn't improve their virtual attendance. Once, when her 10-year-old daughter was tuned in to Zoom class, Brouder's autistic six-year-old son leapt naked in front of the screen. Predictably, the school called the cops:
Later that day, Brouder received a call from the Department of Children and Families. The social worker informed her that school staff had reported a naked adult male exposing himself on the computer.
Brouder explained that she lives alone with her four young children and that the nude male was only 6.
She was relieved when the social worker told her the case wouldn't go anywhere. The school district, however, wasn't ready to drop the issue. The head of Haverhill's special-education department told Brouder that afternoon they had contacted the city police department "due to the severity of the allegations," according to Brouder.
A plainclothes police officer came to her home that evening; that case, too, was eventually dropped.
Massachusetts's DCF is not radically different from the child services departments in the other 49 states, and similar issues are probably cropping up elsewhere. The harm is likely to be worse for poorer families, though economic security is by no means a guarantee of safety from predatory child services investigations.
The decision to rely partly or entirely on virtual learning has created a horrible situation for many working parents who depend on school for day care. Public school officials should be treating such families with empathy and patience, not putting the authorities on speed dial.