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School district to parents: Pay your lunch debt or your children might wind up in foster care

A letter sent by the Wyoming Valley West School District telling parents that failure to pay lunch debt could result in their children being sent to foster care. (Wyoming Valley West School District) (Wyoming Valley West School District)

The terse letter arrived in the mailboxes of about 40 families in Northeastern Pennsylvania this month. It came from the local public school district, but it bore a menacing message: Pay your child’s lunch debt or risk losing the child to foster care.

David Usavage thought it was a joke at first. There was no way, he thought, that the Wyoming Valley West School District, where he was the vice president of the school board, would threaten to have parents separated from their children to get them to pay money they owed, which ranged from $12.50 to $450.

“I was enraged,” Usavage told The Washington Post. “I’m sorry, we don’t take kids from their families because their parents owe a very small amount to the school district. It was heavy-handed, it was harsh. It was a scare tactic."

School officials said the letter was at least their third attempt to contact the parents who were the worst offenders.

“Your child has been sent to school every day without money and without a breakfast and/or lunch,” the 200-word letter read. “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. If you are taken to Dependency court, the result may be your child being removed from your home and placed in foster care.”

Leaders in Luzerne County, which runs the local foster-care system, denounced the letter and chastised the school district, saying foster care is to be used only when children are being abused or are otherwise in danger.

“This isn’t what we do, this isn’t who we are,” County Manager David Pedri said in an interview. “This letter was used to weaponize and terrorize, and to strike fear in parents to pay bills. In no way, shape or form are we the boogeyman coming to take your kids away in the middle of the night.”

Pedri and Usavage said they did not know about the letter before it was sent. Usavage said he asked schools superintendent Irvin DeRemer and that he also did not know about the letter. According to an email obtained by The Post, it was written by Charles Coslett, the school solicitor, and Joseph Muth, the director of federal programs, who signed it. District officials did not respond to requests for comment, but in a joint interview with the local TV station WBRE, Coslett and Muth struck different tones.

“Hopefully, that gets their attention — certainly did, didn’t it?” Coslett said. “I mean, if you think about it, you’re here this morning because some parent’s crying foul over he or she doesn’t want to pay a debt. A debt attributable to feeding their kid. How shameful.”

Muth was more apologetic, conceding that “it might be a bit too heavy for some people” but adding that the district up to that point was “not getting a response.”

Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) said on Twitter that, “No child should have to imagine the horror of being ripped away from their parents because their family is struggling economically. These letters were callous and should never have happened.”

The letter is the latest example of a school district contending with students who do not have enough money to pay for cafeteria meals and so accrue a debt to eat. The letter amounts to a more private version of “lunch shaming,” where schools treat students differently if they are in arrears. Children have been marked with ink stamps, and others have been given cheese sandwiches instead of hot meals. Lunch was even taken back from some students and thrown away when their debt was discovered.

School officials in Warwick, R.I., announced in May that students with lunch debt won’t be able to choose food from the usual cafeteria smorgasbord. Instead, they’ll be given only a sandwich containing sunflower seed butter and jelly.

Proponents of such practices argue that such punitive measures are the only way to get parents to pay and that especially when the districts themselves are in debt, every dollar matters. But critics say that children have no control over their parents’ finances and shouldn’t be penalized or humiliated because of nonpayment.

Roughly 1,000 families owe the district a total of about $22,000, Usavage said. Every family that owed more than $10 received the most recent letter. He said other members of the school board are angry, too, and are likely to ask Coslett and Muth to send a letter of apology.

On Thursday, Pedri and Joanne Van Saun, director of the county’s Children and Youth Services agency, sent the district a letter of their own ordering school officials to “immediately cease and desist” advising families that failure to pay lunch bills could land their children in foster care.

“The Luzerne County Children and Youth Foster Care System is utilized when a family has been struck by tragedy,” they wrote. “The Luzerne County Children and Youth Foster Care System is NOT utilized to scare families into paying school lunch bills.”

Antonia Noori Farzan contributed to this report.

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