CFSA, DCPS and the safety of children not in school buildings

Ever since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the attendant lockdowns and school closures, there has been widespread concern about the safety of children who might be abused or neglected and are now spending school days at home. Losing school meant the loss of both a safe space for six hours a day and a set of caring eyes to report on any concerns. In FY 2019, school personnel made 42.9 percent of calls to the Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) hotline in the District of Columbia. Data on hotline calls show that indeed the number fell greatly in the wake of the pandemic but began to recover in the current school year. The newest data, from January through March of 2021, show that hotline calls were well below 2020 levels in January and February 2021, then jumped above these levels when schools opened in March. These data suggest that there is still reason for concern about the safety of children who are not attending school buildings, and a need for CFSA and DCPS to make a plan to check on the safety of all children who have not recently been seen.

Current DC law requires that students five through 13 years old who have 10 or more full school-day
unexcused absences within a school year be referred to CFSA for “educational neglect.” Younger children are not required to attend school nor are their absences required to be reported. Schools are not required to report absences of youths aged 14-17, which are presumed to be the result of truancy rather than educational neglect, except under special circumstances.

Table One below shows the monthly number of calls to the CFSA hotline, known as “referrals,” from March 2020, when the pandemic emergency began, through March 2021, compared to the same dates of the previous year. (Note that March 2020 is included in both 13-month periods as the pandemic closures began in the first half of that month). DC’s sudden closure of schools for an extended spring break in March 2020 was followed by a chaotic virtual reopening, as schools and nonprofits strove to get children connected with computers and internet service. Not surprisingly the first three months of the pandemic produced a drastic drop in hotline calls, investigations, and substantiated cases of maltreatment. Reports stayed at basically the same level from April to August, unlike a normal year, when reports drop after schools close.

Chart One

Source: Data from CFSA Dashboard and data provided by CFSA for January-March 2020.
Note: March 2020 data are shown twice in this table

On August 28, CFSA issued new operating procedures for schools in response to attendance concerns under COVID-19. The guidance stressed that child welfare involvement can be an “invasive and traumatic” experience for children and should be a last resort, with schools taking the lead on dealing with chronic absenteeism. CFSA also noted the unique challenges that remote learning provides for parents and stressed that these problems are generally not best addressed by CFSA. Accordingly, CFSA provided a list of steps to try to reach families and recommended that schools should take “as many of these as possible” before calling the hotline. In the guidance, CFSA warned that a report would be screened out “when the reporting school has not demonstrated exhaustive efforts to make contact with a student and family to resolve attendance matters, and/or the report is missing critical information.”

We do not know what impact these guidelines had on referrals from schools once school started on August 31, 2020. There was a modest uptick in in reports in September with the opening of virtual schooling, though it was much less than what occurred in the previous year. In mid-September, CFSA completed a webinar and related documents to be used to train teachers about how to spot abuse and neglect in a virtual environment. These materials were submitted to the Deputy Mayor for Education for distribution to LEAs in mid-September with the direction that all teachers assigned to virtual classrooms complete the trainings. 

Perhaps in part due to the new guidance, hotline calls rose In October, and began to approach the previous year’s level in November and December. Unfortunately, the newest data shows that the improving trend did not continue in January 2021, when only 1,224 referrals were made compared to 1,862 in January of 2020. Reports did increase in February and especially in March, after about 20 percent of the school system’s population returned to school early in February. In fact, there were many more calls (2,253) in March 2021 than in March 2019 (1858), when all schools were open.

The big uptick in March referrals is concerning in view of the fact that only about 20 percent of students returned to school buildings that month. One wonders how many calls would have come in if all students had been back in school buildings. It is also interesting in light of a change in practice that CFSA announced early that month. As quoted in a letter from CFSA Brenda Donald to DC Council Member Christina Henderson, CFSA a sent a message to DC Public Schools (DCPS) and the Public Charter School Board early in March 2021 describing a new practice in screening referrals for educational neglect “due to the influx of reports for potential educational neglect and furthermore the city-wide attendance issues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.” Under the new procedure, CFSA would reject any educational neglect referral for a family with whom the school or CFSA had been in contact within the previous 10 days of school. Exceptions would be allowed for families with a recent substantiation for educational neglect, a recent concern for other types of abuse or neglect, or a “clear demonstration of parental disregard for student’s education preceded by exhaustive school/community based efforts.”

In response to a letter from Council Member Henderson expressing concern about the new screening practice, Donald replied in her letter that in the second half of the school year CFSA often receives “a high volume of reports of children who have accumulated more than 10 absences.” She also stated that “on average, approximately 87 percent of the educational neglect referrals that CFSA receives are screened out and 64 percent of screened in referrals are unsubstantiated.” And she explained that the change was made in order to “meet report triage timeliness and ensure that the agency resources are used most effectively by ….responding to only those reports that contain allegations of parental neglect and/or document the impact of the absences on the student’s academic performance or general well-being; while screening out those reports that are submitted by schools for compliance purposes only.”

We do not have data on the proportion of educational neglect referrals that have been screened out during the pandemic. But it is interesting to look at the proportion of all referrals that were screened out during the pandemic, as shown in Chart Two. The screened-out percentage dropped sharply in May and June 2019, perhaps because of the drop in reports by teachers, who according to CFSA make many reports “for compliance purposes only.” After those months, the percentage of referrals that was screened out during the pandemic was pretty similar to pre-pandemic levels, except for March 2021. In that month, CFSA screened out 78.6 percent of calls, compared to 67.0% in March 2020 and 71.8 percent in March 2019. Perhaps this change reflects CFSA’s new screening procedures.

Chart Two

Source: Data from CFSA Dashboard and data provided by CFSA for January-March 2020

CFSA’s intent to keep a lid on educational neglect referrals is understandable. Administrators are afraid of being overwhelmed by referrals of educational neglect. Moreover, there has been considerable pushback by activists in jurisdictions like New York City about reports of parents being investigated for educational neglect when they were not able to obtain computers or internet service. However, it is important to note that while categorized as “educational neglect,” referrals from schools about absences often serve a much broader purpose than ensuring that children are going to school. Chronic absence is often the first indicator that the child is not safe. It may even be an indicator that the child is missing. In the case of Relisha Rudd, who disappeared in 2014 and was never found, 18 days of absences did not trigger a report to CFSA because the absences were excused with the help of a bogus “doctor” who was probably Relisha’s abductor.

So what can be done? In this extraordinary time of virtual education, CFSA ought to change its emphasis to protecting children (its actual mission) rather than avoiding referrals that it considers to be a nuisance. Rather than threatening schools with rejecting inappropriate referrals, CFSA should work with DCPS to make sure all students are safe. CFSA should first modify its recent screening changes. If a family has been in touch with a school within the past ten days, that does not mean the school has been in touch with the child, who may still be in danger. More important, CFSA and DCPS need to make a plan for checking up on all schoolchildren who have not been seen recently in the classroom. If the issue relates to technology, CFSA can facilitate solving the problem without substantiating the parents for educational neglect.

DCPS welcomed more students to school buildings on April 19, with the beginning of the fourth quarter, but most of these students were in wealthier parts of the city, where abuse and neglect are less prevalent. Without much hope for more in-person student contact before the fall, it is crucial that CFSA and DCPS collaborate to assure the safety of our most vulnerable children.