In 2019, school staff across Connecticut reported 10,821 cases of abuse or neglect to the Department of Children and Families, compared to just 4,071 reports in 2010.
The more than 150 percent increase comes in the wake of several high-profile cases of abuse and neglect that went unreported by school personnel in the early 2000s, and a 2016 expansion of a law meant to address the problem by penalizing so-called “mandated reporters,” including teachers, for failing to report suspected cases.
Asked about the jump in cases, Lyme-Old Lyme Superintendent Ian Neviaser told CT Examiner that a few high-profile firings had “prompted everyone to take a ‘better safe than sorry’ approach on situations that would never have been considered previously.”
“Now, if there is even an inkling that the situation requires DCF involvement, people call. Most of the time those calls are not accepted, but as previously mentioned, everyone is much more cautious now than they were a number of years ago,” said Neviaser.
That approach has undoubtedly helped to identify cases of abuse and neglect that previously might have gone unaddressed in the state, but it has also led to many more families facing complaints and investigations in cases where the social services conclude that there was no evidence of wrongdoing by parents.
In 2010, 61.4 percent of reports were unsubstantiated by the department, a number that rose to 87 percent in 2019.
In 2020, 9,108 reports of abuse and neglect filed by school personnel were not accepted by DCF.
The task of protecting children, while still minimizing collateral stress on parents is a tricky balance for the state’s network of social services.
But even reports that are not accepted by DCF because they may not meet a statutory definition of abuse or neglect, may still warrant concern by school personnel, and may still indicate the need for additional social or educational services for a child or family.
“There were reports of educational neglect throughout the pandemic, kids just not engaged in school, but that’s not abuse or neglect,” said Michael Williams, deputy commissioner for operations of the Department of Children and Families. “We get lots of calls from teachers who believe parents are not doing all they can to support their child’s education … not getting them therapy or a certain technology. It’s not neglect, it’s just a challenging time.”
More than 9,823 reports have been filed by school personnel, but not accepted, in 2021.
“We accept cases when there is concern of abuse, if there are bruises or marks on the child, or neglect that rises to the statutory definition,” said Lisa Daymonde, the director of Careline Operations for the Department of Children and Families. “Poverty is big, but poverty doesn’t mean neglect.”
Daymonde said that Careline workers spend a significant fraction of their time advising school personnel about other options – including non-profits or community-based services that offer housing assistance, counseling, food, clothes or special education resources.
“Children go to school and talk a lot about what’s happening in their households,” Williams said. “That information would have been handled within the school district with social work staff ten years ago, but the change in mandated reporter laws and the rules that school districts have adopted in regard to failure to report resulted in a significant increase in reports being made by school personnel because the consequence is losing their job.”
In addition to a loss of employment, teachers and administrators who fail to report a case can face criminal charges.
Although the number of reports has increased across the board, when it comes to educational negligence in particular, the numbers have increased substantially since the law change.
In the first 9 months of 2021, 2,760 reports of educational negligence were filed to the Department of Children and Families. In 2016, before the law went into effect, just 1,798 reports of educational negligence were filed during the entire year.
“We are trying to get a handle on appropriate reporting from mandated reporters in school,” Williams said. “Currently we are having lots of conversations with the Department of Education and superintendents to help them understand what an appropriate report is.”
For districts where reporting unaccepted or unsubstantiated cases gets out of hand, Williams said the department will provide a supportive intervention.
“We are really trying to partner with school districts to help them understand the statutory language,” he said. “Underneath it all is a great deal of fear … we understand this … we are not here to do a gotcha on them, we are not here to go after them, we are trying to help.”
Why it matters
Although advocates can point to the greater number of reports as a step in the right direction, parents on the receiving end of an unsubstantiated complaint still must face the unpleasant experience of an investigation.
Investigations can include at-home observations by state social workers, temporary removal of children into foster care or into the care of a relative, extensive interviews with adults close to the family, and the anxiety and strain on parents and children.
“It was a very invasive experience,” said one single dad, who asked to remain anonymous, about his experience of an investigation into a report of negligence that was not substantiated. After years of negotiating with the local school district to receive special education services for his son, the father found himself the subject of a negligence report to the state’s Department of Children and Families.
The investigation was eventually dropped, but not before a visit from a DCF investigator, before he had hired an attorney and an advocate, and received several letters of endorsement from pediatricians and neighbors.
He said that he is considering a move simply to avoid having to deal with the administration at his son’s school.
Beresford Wilson, the executive director of FAVOR, a non-profit that assists families find supports for children with physical, emotional or behavioral health issues, said that it is “first and foremost scary,” when a report is accepted and DCF opens an investigation.
Wilson, a father of ten, has been on the receiving end of an abuse and neglect investigation and said anxiety doesn’t begin to cover how a parent feels throughout the process.
“Parents are always treated like they want to do wrong to their children,” Wilson said. “I’m a college dropout twice, former gang member, womanizer … but it doesn’t mean I don’t have the will to take care of my kids and do better.”
According to Williams, the tension between parents and schools often arises when a child requires special education services — at considerable expense to the district — and parents and districts disagree on what services are needed.
“We get a lot of parents saying that school districts have used DCF in a coercive way,” Williams said. “Do what we say for your child, or we will report you.”
Technically, that is illegal, and parents do have the option of reporting false or coercive reports to the police.
But Ken Mysogland, the bureau chief of external affairs for the Department of Children and Families, said that cases of mandated reporters being prosecuted for false reports are almost non-existent.
“A mandated reporter is protected if they make a report in good faith,” Mysogland said. “Simply because we do an investigation and it’s not substantiated, doesn’t mean it was wrong to make the call.”
But Williams said that there is little recourse, other than filing a police report, when districts or staff repeatedly file unsubstantiated claims.
“We have had districts like that where we go in and have a discussion because it’s out of hand and everyone, especially parents, are suffering,” Williams said. “We work privately with them to fix this.”
Williams said the key is informing districts about other community resources outside of the Department of Children and Families to aid families as well as potentially legislative action to lessen the fear of not-reporting.
“We can’t say don’t make a report,” Williams said. “The stress and animosity that is existing between parents and teachers could be worked out with a kind of community mobilization where advocates work with their legislators to get it right so we don’t have this panic and fear on both sides.”
A focus on prevention
This spring in Waterbury, the Department of Children and Families decided to try another way of addressing cases that might fall short of legal neglect or abuse. The department placed family support liaisons in the district to help guide the reporting process.
“We took our investigators and converted them into prevention workers,” Williams said. “We believe that prevention is the way to go.”
These workers are helping the district do more home visits, make more connections with youth services and community-based special education services so that caring for the children feels like a partnership, rather than adversarial.
If the program is successful in Waterbury, the department hopes to expand it out to the high-need districts.