Packing lunch for school can be a tedious part of a parent’s routine, so many opt for the convenience of having their child buy lunch from the school cafeteria instead. And occasionally, some parents find that they’ve forgotten to refill their child’s lunch account when it’s been emptied.
I’ve been in that situation once or twice myself. My childrens’ school utilizes an online payment system that allows you to replenish your child’s lunch account funds directly from a website, with a small surcharge.
Every once in awhile, I’ve neglected to realize that the funds have been depleted for a day or two until I read a website reminder email (and until I started putting the account on “auto-refill” to avoid this scenario).
But I didn’t realize how lucky I was that my lapse didn’t have more severe consequences, apparently.
A Pennsylvania school district recently distributed letters to parents of children with lunch debt warning them that failure to pay could result in their child being placed in foster care.
The Wyoming Valley West School District has caused some considerable controversy by sending a letter home to families that have accrued lunch debt, explaining to the families that:
Your child has been sent to school every day without money and without a breakfast and/or lunch.
And doing so, according to the school district, is a failure to provide your child with food. As a result, the district’s letter explained that failure to pay could result in court action:
If you are taken to Dependency court, the result may be your child being removed from your home and placed in foster care.
Pretty scary scenario, no??
Nearly 1,000 of these letters were mailed home to district families.
According to school officials, lunch debt is an ongoing issue within its schools. Joseph Muth is the district’s director of federal programs for the Wyoming Valley West school district, & is the one that penned the controversial letter.
Muth claims that the letter was a “last resort” to motivate parents to action, explaining to news station WNEP that the district is owed over $22,000 by the 1,000 families who received the letter.
Obviously, lack of payment is a problem. And running up a lunch debt of over $450, as Muth claims four families in the district have done, is a major issue. The school claims that the families that received this letter have been contacted at least three times previously, either by phone or reminder.
But should incurring a debt of that nature lead to being threatened with your children being taken away? Critics of the letter firmly disagree.
Workers at the Luzerne County foster-care program have steadfastly denounced the letter, aghast that the school district felt it acceptable to use their services as a threat against families. County Manager David Pedri stated:
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 reminded the public that the foster care system is in place to assist children that are being abused or are in danger, not to collect a parental debt.
Joanne Van Saun, a co-worker of Pedri’s, echoed the same sentiments:
We exist to protect and preserve families. The only time a child is taken out is when they cannot be maintained safely in their home.
Van Saun addressed the agency’s issue with the letter head-on, firing off a letter to the district’s superintendent that urged an immediate end to the distribution of such a threatening letter:
The Luzerne County Children and Youth Foster Care System is NOT utilized to scare families into paying school lunch bills.
The district has not issued a specific statement in response to the public uproar as of yet, but indicated that they accepted that the letter perhaps went too far and that they would be sending out a “softer”, revised letter next week.
Granted, parents should make every effort to maintain their child’s lunch account in good standing, & ideally contact the school district if there are issues with paying a debt.
But sending such a threatening letter doesn’t just strike fear into the heart of every parent. It also puts the foster-care system in an unfair light, implying it can be utilized for punitive advantage rather than it’s intended purpose.
While the issue of lunch debt should be remedied, threatening to take someone’s kids away certainly isn’t the way to go about it.