Foster Care Threatened for School Lunch Debt in Pennsylvania’s ‘Kids for Cash’ County

The Luzerne County Courthouse. Photo: Wikipedia

In a very local story that appropriately went viral, even prompting a comment from a sitting U.S. Senator, a Pennsylvania school district threatened to place children in foster care if their parents did not pay off their school lunch bills.

One of the letters to parents, sent by Joseph Muth of the Wyoming Valley West School District, noted a delinquent payment of $75.25:

“Your child has been sent to school every day without money and without breakfast and/or lunch. This is a failure to provide your child with proper nutrition and you can be sent to Dependency Court for neglecting your child’s right to food.”

The threat is a patently absurd iteration of something we know is a serious issue in child welfare: the conflation of poverty with neglect, particularly in cases where the extension of a helping hand could avoid the need for deeper government involvement. It evoked swift condemnation over Twitter from Sen. Bob Casey (D), who has recently been one of the most active members of Congress on child welfare issues.

“These letters were callous and should never have happened,” Casey tweeted. “Moving forward, the school district has an obligation to find an appropriate way to collect these funds, instead of using threats.”

Youth Services Insider was incredulous to find that the jurisdiction where this occurred was Luzerne County, which lies in Pennsylvania’s northeastern region, at the heart of a once-thriving coal region. It seems like only yesterday, we were up in the county’s hub of Wilkes-Barre looking for answers in one of the most egregious scandals in the history of juvenile justice.

Two judges – Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan – helped to shutter the county’s juvenile detention center and swing a contract to an associate who opened a private center. Ciavarella, who led the juvenile court, then stepped up placements of youth into detention to fill the beds. Both men were convicted for their roles in what came to be known as the “Kids for Cash Scandal.”

You can click here to read YSI‘s story on the matter, which ran in 2009 in Youth Today. Two critical aspects of the case that we felt were not made enough of at the time by the mainstream news outlets.

First, Ciavarella had definitely ratcheted up detention numbers when the kickback scheme presented itself, but he was also detaining youth with gusto long before the scandal. He used to show up for the first school assembly of the year in nearby schools, and put students on blanket notice that if the school called on law enforcement for their behavior, they were headed to detention. Very few kids who came before him were provided a lawyer.

Second, Ciavarella’s earlier behavior was enough to get a challenge of the Juvenile Law Center (JLC) long before the feds came knocking with rackateering charge. The center became aware of his detention-heavy tendencies in 1999, when he detained a 13-year-old with mental health issues who appeared in his court without representation. JLC crossed paths with Ciavarella again in 2007, after he detained a teen named Hillary Transue for making a MySpace page mocking an assistance principal.

But the State Supreme Court was not concerned with the judge’s actions when it was just about over-involving kids in detention – it took a profit motive element for Ciavarella to earn the scorn of the courts, and the public. Our reporting from Wilkes-Barre suggested that most people just accepted that his actions were rational — he was the judge, after all.

To its credit, the county’s leadership was swift to condemn an obvious overstep here.

“Foster care is to be utilized only when absolutely needed — when a child has been abused, is in need or has suffered a tragedy,” said County Manager David Pedri, in a statement. “Our foster care system is NOT to be utilized to scare parents into paying school lunch bills.”

The county’s child welfare agency also slammed the school district’s tactic.

“It’s a total misrepresentation, a gross misrepresentation of what our agency does,” Joann Van Saun told local NBC affiliated WBRE. “It’s just not true. We do not remove children from families for unpaid bills.”

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John Kelly
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.