Bevanjae Kelley's heart sank when she arrived at her East Harlem home after work one day in September of last year and saw the envelope from New York City's Administration for Children's Services (ACS). The letter inside informed her that a case had been opened on her, investigating her for the educational neglect of her 14-year-old granddaughter Ayanna. She wasn't surprised by its arrival, but she was frustrated.
Kelley, 60, knew all about educational neglect through her work with the Child Welfare Organizing Project (CWOP), an organization that promotes parental involvement in child welfare reform. She had worked as a community representative for three years and had been a board member for two. While working to raise her two granddaughters--she also has custody of 16-year-old Cyrè, Ayanna's older sister--she'd been involved in other families' tribulations. She'd counseled other parents who'd been through charges of ed neglect, a charge that ACS investigates if a child has missed too much school.
Despite Ayanna's truancy, Kelley was hardly a prime candidate for an educational neglect charge. She had always stressed the importance of education to her granddaughters and was involved in their lives. She'd even gone into Ayanna’s high school to discuss her absenteeism with her guidance counselor at Manhattan’s Legacy High School for Integrated Studies. "I actually initiated it, as far as getting in contact with the school," Kelley said. "And when I did express concern about my granddaughter, the guidance counselor said, 'Oh well you can always get ACS involved.' And I looked at her like, 'I can't believe this is the first thing out of your mouth and you're a counselor.' So I knew that's where their head was at."
Even with Kelley's involvement, Ayanna still cut class and showed up late. When Kelley lectured her, Ayanna told her that everyone cut class and that she hated the gossiping and bullying that took place at her school. The year had just begun and Kelley was dismayed to learn that the school had in fact reported her to ACS for educational neglect.
Kelley’s story is just one of many that illustrates the flaws with how the current system deals with teenagers; they're treated just like little kids even though there are vast differences in the reasons why a 16-year-old and why a six-year-old might miss school. Despite these differences, teenagers make up 61 percent of educational neglect reported to ACS.
ACS investigations are less likely to uncover or remedy the root issues that cause teenagers to miss class, than they are for a smaller child with less independence. In many instances, these investigations do not lead to cases where other forms of abuse are discovered and frequently ACS is not properly equipped to deal with teenage truancy. The Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit organization that focuses on justice research and policy, released a study in December 2009 examining the need to develop alternate resources for schools and communities to confront teenage school truancy before ACS gets involved. The Vera report recommends amending the law so that schools must take a number of steps to contact the parents before reporting the case, as well requiring that the person receiving the report from the school get specific information on the responsibility of the parents for the child's absence.
In New York City, children are required to go to school from the September after they turn six years old until they are 17. Educational neglect is a serious concern for both New York City schools and ACS because it can be a sign of much larger problems, especially in families with younger children. In those cases, it is frequently part of a cadre of charges, including physical abuse and medical neglect, or a result of an illness, depression or drug use on the part of the parent, according to Monica Drinane, the Supervising Judge of Bronx Family Court.
The number of educational neglect filings in New York City has ebbed and flowed over the last century, swayed at times by children who fell through the cracks. In 2006, Nixzmary Brown, then a seven-year-old living in Brooklyn, died at the hands of her mother and stepfather after they repeatedly beat her. ACS had received complaints in 2004 that Brown had bruises on her face, but no petition had been filed against her parents.
The media scrutiny after Brown's murder led schools to take a stronger stance against absenteeism. In an effort to prevent another tragedy, schools and ACS alike began filing significantly more cases, Drinane said.
Once the initial charge is reported, it starts the ball rolling in one long, messy process. If educational neglect is reported, ACS must open an investigation, which starts with an initial visit to assess the family's home life, followed by subsequent visits to the school and home. If the caseworker suspects neglect or abuse that endangers the children, he or she can send the case to court.
Although the case that triggered the increase in reports involved a seven-year-old, the majority of cases that are reported to ACS involve teenage absences. The Vera Institute found that in 2008 alone, 28,401 children had parents who were being investigated for ed neglect. Sixty-one percent of those children were over the age of 13. Many schools, like Ayanna's, have a policy of reporting educational neglect after 20 absences.
But a report of absence doesn't necessarily mean a student missed school. Children are often marked absent when they are late, said Monica Eskin, a lawyer who specializes in family court cases. Kelley also said that a large part of Ayanna's absences were not actually full missed days, but certain classes and repeated tardiness.
Younger kids can't get themselves to school on time so it is not unreasonable for parents to be held responsible. But teenagers have a far greater degree of independence and don't always use it well. Rather than manage their time, they may stroll into class 20 minutes late. Rather than deal with a hated subject, they might skip. Rather than face bullies or teasing, they may avoid campus altogether. Matt Malloy, principal of Aspirations Diploma Plus High School in Brooklyn, said that parents usually don’t know about the absences, not because of neglect, but because of the student's own design. “Very often what happens is the student has found a way to have the home not know what he or she is doing,” he said.
While parents aren't absolved from the responsibility of seeing that their children attend school simply because they are teenagers, schools should be taking some responsibility to fix problems that may be contribute to absenteeism. Yet many schools simply report absences to ACS and shift responsibility onto an already overworked and underequipped system. The State Central Registry, where teachers call to report parents, is used by schools to wash “their hands of these cases,” said Mike Arsham, the executive director of the Child Welfare Organizing Project and one of the advisers of the Vera report.
For many schools, it seems that the priority is not always to protect the child, but to ensure educators cannot be held legally responsible if there is some kind of neglect. While a report made to ACS is valid if there is suspicion of further neglect or abuse, the Vera Institute found that this is rarely the case. According to the report, educational neglect cases involving teenagers rarely lead to investigations of abuse.
In the case of Kelley and Ayanna, once the case was opened it soon became apparent that Kelley was not neglecting her granddaughters. She had worked hard to get Ayanna into counseling, was involved in her day-to-day life, and had already attempted to connect with the school to work out a solution. She had already made many attempts to impress upon Ayanna the importance of going to school. But like many teenagers, Ayanna was stubborn. She'd attend the classes she enjoyed--like English--and avoid the ones in subjects she detested. "I don't like math because I don't like math, period," she said by way of an explanation as to why she would miss a certain class. "And I don't like the [math] teacher," she added.
What was Ayanna doing when she was ditching class? Her answer will likely surprise (or exasperate) those familiar with teenage logic: "I'd just go to the computer lab. Read my emails and stuff."
Moreover, ACS's investigation coupled with the initial response she received didn't inspire Kelley to make any further attempts to reach out to the school. "It's intrusive and I just felt so hurt," she said. "I mean I'm doing everything I can possibly do, everything within my power."
ACS caseworkers interviewed for the study by the Vera Institute said that Kelley's feelings of alienation from both the school and the system are common among families. ACS investigators reported that they felt confined by the singular approach to investigations and thought that they could even lead to further problems in other cases. "They fear that conducting traditional educational neglect harms their perception in the community, making it harder to get cooperation in cases where there is a safety concern,” the report reads.
What's more, in a traumatic and telling example of the role that the school environment itself played in her absences, another student at school assaulted Ayanna last December, while the case was still ongoing, because she didn't like a friend of Ayanna's. Ayanna said she had never met the older student, a junior, but the girl “had an issue” with her friend. The girl cornered Ayanna in a stairwell at school and attacked her, knocking her down and kicking her repeatedly. Ayanna said that the bell had just rung so the stairwell was crowded and several students and teachers jumped in to break up the fight. The attack was long and severe enough to send Ayanna to the hospital with open wounds from the kicking and the other girl was arrested.
That girl is now back at school, and though Ayanna said she no longer cares about the incident, Kelley claimed it was terrifying for her granddaughter. Ultimately, it proved a point to the ACS caseworker; Ayanna's reasons for missing school were not due to neglect on Kelley's part. As it turned out, "she was in danger at school more so that anywhere else," Kelley said.
The ACS case has since been closed for Ayanna, though a preventative services case, which is provided by ACS to help prevent future investigations and issues from arising, is still open so that she can get access to services like mentoring and counseling. And Kelley is looking into transferring Ayanna to another school for her sophomore year.
Kelley and Ayanna were lucky because their case closed without being sent to court--an occurrence that former ACS worker Ruben Rivera said he tried his best to avoid when dealing with families, as long as there was no danger to the children. "I was never for removing the children," he said.
In court, officials assess the parent's responsibility for bringing the child to school. Parents with teenage children may be "stymied" because they simply cannot physically force their child to go school, Drinane said. "In one instance there was a child who was in the sixth grade for the fourth time. I could understand why he didn't want to come to school."
When it comes to defending parents facing charges, lawyers examine a number of different factors that might impede a child's ability to get to school. In cases with teenage children, a pattern of nonattendance may have developed from childhood. But it is not uncommon for other extenuating circumstances to stop teenagers--perfectly capable of getting to school on their own--from not going. Some teenagers are afraid to leave home because of domestic violence and may assume the role of a protector for their parents. They might experience some phobia or depression, or even be homeless, said Cara Chambers, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Society.
Chambers said that when she crafts a defense, she first looks at the age of the child. The next step is to determine if the child received a comparable form of education--parochial school, private school or home school. Ultimately, each case is unique and must be addressed differently.
"Many ed neglect cases would be better handled by other social service agencies than by the family court system," Chambers said. "The family court system is not particularly appropriate or well-designed for addressing a lot of the needs that come up in an ed neglect case." Chambers also said that putting children into foster care is like taking a "bomb to an ant."
Instead of an educational neglect petition, parents can file a PINS (person in need of supervision) petition for teenagers. A parent would do this if they believe there is nothing they can do to get their child to school and are at risk of future cases due to that child's truancy. However, this means the child would go into a residence overseen by ACS or a detention center, Eskin said.
But a lot of these cases (and the money and manpower that goes with them) could be spared if only certain initiatives were taken to address teenage absenteeism, without the involvement of an investigation.
The Vera Institute recommends that laws should be put into place requiring schools to make a systematic effort to contact parents and try to resolve absenteeism before reporting it. While making a report,the school should have had at least two conversations with the parents and documentation of all the steps the school has made to deal with the issue themselves if there is any suspicion of abuse or neglect. Among other things, these steps would help fix issues that would likely need to be addressed sooner or later, but without the involvement of ACS resources.
Kelley still feels that Ayanna's school should have done more to confront her absenteeism head-on. "I think that in some cases the school can really have a dialogue with parents as much as possible," she said. Instead, Kelley felt as if the school failed to make the proper connection to either Ayanna or herself.
While Ayanna still maintains to this day that she “just doesn’t like school”, she said it’s the environment at Legacy that she really doesn’t care for. “I don’t like it; it’s always drama,” she said. “A lot of fights. A lot of girls don’t like each other. I just don’t like going to school.”
Alex Berg is currently a News21 fellow at Columbia University. Born and raised in Philly, she is a recent graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism where, among other things, she reported on early childhood education and educational neglect. Berg graduated from Cornell University in 2009.
Megan Gibson is a freelance journalist from western Canada. A recent graduate from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, she has also studied English literature and politics in Canada and South Africa. While at Columbia she also interned at The New York Times Syndicate. She has covered a range of topics, including education, human rights, health and culture. She lives in New York City.
Additional reporting by ENO ALFRED and PAIGE RENTZ