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The Great Divide

Your child’s a no-show at virtual school? You may get a call from the state’s foster care agency

When Em Quiles' second-grade son didn't participate in zoom classes during remote learning due to the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, the school reported her to the Department of Children and Families.
When Em Quiles' second-grade son didn't participate in zoom classes during remote learning due to the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, the school reported her to the Department of Children and Families.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

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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, according to interviews with parents, advocates, and reviews of documents.

In most cases, lawyers and family advocates said, the referrals were made solely because students failed to log into class repeatedly. Most of the parents reported were mothers, and several did not have any previous involvement with social services.

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The trend was most common in high-poverty, predominantly Black and Latino school districts in Worcester, Springfield, Haverhill, and Lynn; advocates and lawyers reported few, if any, cases from wealthier communities.

Among those parents is 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.

“I couldn’t believe it,” she said.

Quiles lived one of the worst nightmares for a parent: A neglect charge, if substantiated, can lead to removing a child from their home. It came during a period of unprecedented educational disruption, in which parents, students, and schools all struggled with ad-hoc routines that challenged even the most engaged, but would result in some being singled out for how their children responded.

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“It’s the exact wrong thing that the moment calls for,” said Michael Gregory, managing attorney with the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative of Massachusetts Advocates for Children and the Harvard Law School.

Officials in several school districts said they did not report parents solely because their children failed to participate in virtual school. In every case, they said, there was a pattern of problematic behavior that extended well beyond a few missed classes.

School staff are required to notify DCF when they have “reasonable cause to believe” a child has been abused or neglected. Indeed, during the pandemic, the state explicitly reaffirmed to school districts that teachers should report parents if students were “repeatedly truant/missing from their school programming and attempts to provide resources have been ignored or refused.”

DCF officials said they haven’t tracked the number of referrals this past spring for problems with remote learning and would not comment on specific cases.

Gregory said he and a network of attorneys serving low-income families around the state have fielded calls from at least half a dozen parents who had been reported to DCF during school shutdown for some kind of transgression related to remote learning.

Meri Viano, the associate director of the Parent/Professional Advocacy League, a statewide organization that advocates for mental health services for families, said she has been in touch with 12 parents in Worcester and 10 in Springfield who have been contacted by DCF for the same reason.

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And Nelly Medina, a parent organizer with the Worcester Education Justice Alliance, said she spoke to five mothers in the district who were referred to DCF. Most were told it was because their children weren’t attending Zoom calls or doing homework, she said. “Worcester School Department was attempting to blame the parents for their inadequate communication.”

Most of the districts that referred families to DCF for remote learning problems have long — and sometimes controversial — policies of reporting parents for their children’s truancy prior to COVID as well.

Yet lawyers including Gregory said the aggressive approach was particularly inappropriate during a pandemic when families of all backgrounds frequently struggled to help their children engage in remote learning. During the spring, only 36 percent of parents who were surveyed statewide said their children participated in daily online classes.

Rather than “building bridges and building relationships” with the most vulnerable families, some schools defaulted to “punitive measures,” Gregory said. “There were so many kids with disabilities, language barriers ... who were having trouble engaging in remote learning. You shouldn’t infer anything about a parent, simply because a child’s not showing up on Zoom.”

In Lynn, for example, two parents who were reported to DCF for their children’s absence from online learning did not receive information about getting laptops and Internet access because they don’t use Facebook and e-mail, according to Dalene Basden, a family support specialist with the Parent/Professional Advocacy League. (Lynn’s superintendent did not respond to requests for comment.)

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And in Worcester, school officials took months to distribute Chromebook computers after schools closed down, according to several families and school board members.

Indeed, several cities took the state guidance very seriously. In a note outlining their responsibilities during the spring remote learning period, Worcester school officials reminded teachers of their roles as “mandatory reporters” to DCF. That list of expectations included little about their role ensuring students continued their learning during the pandemic.

“One of our primary responsibilities was to ensure that every child in our district was safe, had access to food, and received appropriate care,” said Worcester superintendent Maureen Binienda, in an e-mail explaining the rationale.

Although Binienda declined to comment on specific cases, she called Quiles’s story “wholly and completely inaccurate.” She added in a statement that the district did not file a report to DCF “simply because a student did not participate in remote learning.” It was only in the “rare circumstance after teachers, educational service providers, and the principal tried many... times to contact a family and student and there was absolutely zero response.”

Quiles disputes this assertion, noting that she had communicated with the school several times in the spring. “They weren’t interested in working with parents,” she said.

According to Quiles, it didn’t take long for the state social worker during the initial call to decide the complaint had no merit. (DCF would not comment on her case.) Quiles, who runs an empowerment organization for Latinos, said she knew she hadn’t “done anything wrong.”

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But she worries about other families who don’t speak English or know anything about DCF. “Why is the district so quick to work against us, rather than work with us?” she asked.

Most of the families caught up in remote learning allegations are Latino or Black, groups that are likely to be overrepresented in state foster care at all times.

In Massachusetts, Latino children are more likely to be separated from their families than children from any other racial or ethnic group. A full 32 percent of the children who are in DCF care are Latino, yet they make up 19 percent of the population, according to data from Citizens for Juvenile Justice, a statewide advocacy organization. Black children are also overrepresented.

Schools often read into situations involving children of color, imagining “something bad happening where there is nothing,” said Elizabeth McIntyre, attorney with the School to Prison Pipeline Intervention Project at Greater Boston Legal Services. One client she represented, a Black mother who worked as a hairdresser, was reported to DCF when she didn’t answer phone calls from the school when her child was having an emotional crisis. They called her three times within a 30-minute period, McIntyre said. “If she were a white parent who worked at a big law firm downtown ... the district would not file a [report].”

Now, the COVID-19 crisis and school closings have given schools new ways to surveil and punish parents, said Leon Smith, executive director of Citizens for Juvenile Justice. That’s happening both through the close attention to online absenteeism and video conferencing that allows teachers to see inside a family’s home.

Schools aren’t calling DCF “in the suburbs, where kids are blowing off their online schooling,” he said. “It’s happening in communities of color.”

Indeed, superintendents in four suburban districts contacted by the Globe said they did not believe their staff reported parents to DCF for being absent from virtual school.

One advocate told the Globe that three Lexington families with prior DCF involvement were reported when their children didn’t show up for online classes. Lexington school officials did not return e-mails seeking comment.

One mother, a Spanish-speaking immigrant, told the Globe that school staff contacted DCF about her family after she reached out to the school for help. (The woman, who lives in a small town in Eastern Massachusetts, asked not to use her name, location, or other identifying details because she feared retaliation from the district.)

Her young son’s behavior became difficult after schools closed in March, the woman said, adding that the boy clearly missed the structure and routines. She reached out to school staff for advice. “I was desperate,” she said. “I just wanted some techniques.” The mother met with a school therapist on Zoom, and asked about how to handle her son’s outbursts.

Although there was a language barrier — the meeting was held in English even though the mother struggles with the nuances of the language — she thought the conversation went well. “She seemed concerned and was very polite,” the mother said of the school therapist. “I felt trust.”

So she was shocked a few days later to receive a call from DCF. Someone from the school had alleged “general neglect” based on “behaviors observed or disclosed during remote learning.”

The timing of the call — just days after her call with the therapist — made her think it was the reason the school called DCF. She suspected that something she said during her meeting with the therapist was misunderstood.

“Maybe it was my English,” she said.

The Department of Children & Families launched a three-week investigation, according to the mother and DCF documents reviewed by the Globe. The social worker interviewed the child’s medical providers. She also quizzed the mother on everything from the contents of her refrigerator to her son’s sleeping location. And she interviewed the boy over Zoom.

The mother was terrified her son might be taken away from her. “What would he do?” she wondered. “I’m the only one he trusts.”

In May, DCF dismissed the allegation of neglect, according to the documents.

The mother said she has lost all trust in the school but has no other options as to where to send him. “They should understand what mothers go through and show us some support,” she said.

In some of the cases, school staff witnessed something on video conferences that made them suspicious, behavior that families and advocates maintain was in fact harmless.

Haverhill mother Christi Brouder, who is white, had been struggling to get her four children, all of whom have special needs, to participate in remote learning for weeks. Two of her children’s teachers threatened to call the district’s truancy officer, but never did.

Christi Brouder with her daughter, Adriana Burke, 10.
Christi Brouder with her daughter, Adriana Burke, 10. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Finally, one day in May, Brouder coaxed her 10-year-old to join a class on Google Meet focused on teaching social skills. The girl was watching with the laptop on the floor when her 6-year-old brother leapt over the computer screen “in his birthday suit,” according to Brouder.

The boy has autism and epilepsy and often feels more comfortable naked, Brouder said. But she also knew his antics could be considered inappropriate and yelled to her son, “You can’t be naked. Get back in the house.” Yet the child jumped over the screen again.

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.

Christi Brouder helped her 6-year-old son, Wyatt Burke, to ride his bike as he and his siblings played in the backyard.
Christi Brouder helped her 6-year-old son, Wyatt Burke, to ride his bike as he and his siblings played in the backyard. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

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. (A Haverhill police spokesman declined to comment.)

Haverhill Superintendent Margaret Marotta would not comment on the specifics of Brouder’s case, but said in an e-mailed statement: “Our staff would not call DCF for suspicion of a naked 6 year old.”

She added that DCF is only contacted “if we had immediate concerns for the well-being of a student.”

But Brouder said there were lasting effects from Haverhill’s decision to report the family; her daughter, for one, refused to join another live video class session out of fear for her family.

“She didn’t want to get anyone in trouble,” said Brouder.


Bianca Vázquez Toness can be reached at bianca.toness@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @biancavtoness.