School district threatens parents that children could be put in foster care over lunch debt

National News

A Pennsylvania school district is being criticized after sending threatening letters to parents over their children’s school lunch debt. In the letters, the school district said children could be placed in foster care if their debt is not paid. 

According to a letter obtained by CBS Scranton affiliate WYOU, parents were told to pay the balance owed for their child’s lunches or risk being reported to Luzerne County dependency court.

“Your child has been sent to school every day without money and without breakfast and/or lunch,” the letter said. “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.”

The letter goes on to say that their child could be at risk of being placed in foster care if the parents go to court. It asks parents to pay the debt in order to avoid being reported to authorities. 

The letter is signed by Joseph Muth, director of federal programs for the Wyoming Valley West School District. The district did not immediately respond to CBS News’ request for comment. 

According to WYOU, the district is attempting to collect more than $20,000 in school lunch debt. 

However, Luzerne County officials said they absolutely would not remove children from their homes over unpaid lunch bills, WYOU reports. 

“I found it very disturbing. Luzerne County Children and Youth Services executive director Joanne Van Saun told the station. “Upsetting. It’s a total misrepresentation, a gross misrepresentation of what our agency does.”

County Manager David Pedri said the district was not contacted prior to the letters going out. 

“Foster care is to be utilized only when absolutely needed — when a child has been abused, is in need or has suffered a tragedy,” Pedri told CBS News. “Our foster care system is NOT to be utilized to scare parents into paying school lunch bills. The foster care system should never be viewed as a punitive agency or weaponized to terrorize children and families.” 

Van Saun said the county would be interested in collaborating with the school district to come up with other solutions to the debt problem.

“I have been employed for Luzerne County Children and Youth Services for 33 years,” she said. “Never has this county removed a child from a home for unpaid bills and never will we.”

The county is asking the school district to retract the letter. According to the district, a new letter will be sent to parents that no longer uses scare tactics to request payment. 

School lunch debts are affecting families across the country and have recently gained national attention. In May, after a Rhode Island school district reversed its decision to start serving cold sandwiches instead of hot lunches to students whose families owe lunch money, Chobani CEO Hamdi Ulukaya offered to pay off their debts. And in June, a 9-year-old boy in Napa, California, used his allowance to pay off classmates’ school lunch debts. 

It’s even becoming an issue in the 2020 presidential campaign.

“‘School lunch debt’ should not exist in the wealthiest country in the history of the world,” Bernie Sanders wrote on Twitter. “When we are in the White House, we are going to provide year-round, free universal school meals.”

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