Schools and Family Separations in Massachusetts

I am pleased to host a guest blog today from Meg Ziegler, a 2L at Boston College Law School.

The outrage over the separation of migrant children from their families at our border is necessary and should be unrelenting. But family separations are happening in Massachusetts, too, and one root cause is that schools unnecessarily (or inappropriately) involve the Department of Children and Families (DCF) and the courts in the lives of children and their families for school-based issues.

This occurs in a number of ways. If a student is deemed a “Habitual School Offender” or a “Habitual Truant,” schools can file a Child Requiring Assistance (CRA) with the juvenile court. Once a CRA is filed, the school and family attend a preliminary hearing and may potentially have to attend a bench trial, a conference, and/or a disposition hearing. At a disposition hearing, the court may ultimately remove the child from his/her/their family and place the child in DCF custody.

Schools are also mandated by law to file what is called a 51A report with DCF if there is reasonable cause to believe that a child is suffering from abuse or neglect. Preventing abuse or neglect is unequivocally an important and necessary goal, and there are times when filing a report and removing a child is necessary to get a child out of a dangerous household. However, youth advocates in Massachusetts have seen a troubling pattern of reactive filings of 51As against parents. For instance, a school might file a 51A report for neglect when a parent, after having been called to pick up a child for disciplinary concerns, fails to do so due to work or transportation.

Not only is this a violation of school exclusion procedures, but also a misuse of an important law that can be devastating for both the child and family. The law, G.L. c. 119 § 24, allows for children to be removed, temporarily, from their parents, with no notice or permission. A hearing is required to be held within 72 hours, with the result that children could potentially spend up to three full days, and sometimes more depending on court availability, away from their family without warning. The hearing might ultimately result in the child being permanently removed from the family and placed in foster care.

Even a short-term removal or brief court involvement can have a lasting and detrimental impact on a child. According to a report by the Society for Research in Child Development, parental separation is considered a toxic stressor that can cause children to experience difficulty with emotional attachment to their parents, self-esteem, and be damaging to physical and psychological health. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology study found that children sent to foster care had higher delinquency rates, higher teen birth rates, and lower earnings than similarly situated children who remained at home.

School personnel must receive better training on the procedures they set in motion when involving courts in school-based issues, and the potential consequences for the student and family involved. Schools filing CRA reports are often desperate for assistance in dealing with a difficult child, but the reality is that most of the resources they might be looking for are already available, including special education services, behavior intervention, or mental health services. In particular, Massachusetts has implemented the Children’s Behavioral Health Initiative (CBHI) to address unmet behavioral health needs. Schools further need to be reminded that a 51A is to be filed only when the child’s welfare is at issue, never as a means to retaliate against a child or family.

Furthermore, training around reporting to courts should be conducted concurrently with implicit bias training. Massachusetts’ students of color, low-income students, and students with disabilities are disciplined more often than their peers, and individuals who work in youth advocacy are seeing similar trends when it comes to school-based court involvement.

At a more systemic level, we need to give schools more supports for dealing with behavior and truancy, so that involving DCF and the courts is an absolute last resort. Often at the heart of truancy issues is a refusal to attend school due to unidentified emotional distress, while chronic behavior problems may also stem from a lack of proper services or a history of trauma.

Most families belong together, whether they are at our borders or right here in Massachusetts. School staff need to be better supported in order to limit unnecessary DCF or court involvement for their students. Indeed, as one educational advocate shared: the vast majority of the Massachusetts youth whom she visits shortly after they’ve been removed from their families, no matter the reason, have just one wish – to go back home.

Meg Zeigler, a second-year student at BC Law, was a Rappaport Fellow this summer with the EdLaw Project.

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