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With More N.H. Students Absent During Pandemic, Some Schools Turn to Child Protection Services

Courtesy of Demetrios Tsaros

New Hampshire schools are trying to keep track of kids learning remotely. And if students are chronically absent, the school has a few options: Call the parents. Send a school employee to knock on their door.

Or, call the state’s Child Protection Services.

That option is becoming more popular as the pandemic drags on.

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Demetrios Tsaros has a tough job: investigating reports of potential child neglect or abuse in Manchester for the state’s Division of Children Youth and Families, or DCYF.

These days, he’s getting lots of reports from schools worried about educational neglect: Kids aren’t logging onto their remote classes, and their parents are also falling off the map.

“Basically, by the time the ed neglect report comes to my desk, the school district has exhausted all these efforts, whether it’s calls, emails, letters, or visits to the home,” Tsaros said. “There’s just been really a lack of engagement with the family.”

Tsaros’ task is to track these families down, figure out what’s going on, and decide whether the state should open a case. Because of the pandemic, a lot of his work is over the phone and Facetime these days. And what he finds is rarely neglect; rather, it’s the typical pitfalls of remote learning. Bad Wifi connection. Chromebooks in disrepair. Lack of transportation to tutoring programs. Grandparents and older siblings overseeing younger students’ online learning, while parents go to work.

In other cases, parents are home but have reached their limit. Tsaros recently talked to a mother. 

“They had no barriers. They had everything they ‘needed,’ ” Tsaros recalls. “But it’s a single parent household, and that parent was literally like ‘I can’t get them to log on. I can’t get them to stay logged on.’ ”

Credit Graphics by Sara Plourde/NHPR

Tsaros said he only manages to connect with about half of the families. When he does, he often loops in the school guidance counselor or social worker, to get students in a tutoring program or reconnected to teachers. 

Tsaros did not speak to NHPR on behalf of DCYF, but he said, in his ten years as a child protective service worker, he’s never seen this volume of educational neglect complaints. And state data supports that.

DCYF director Joseph Ribsam said there’s an obvious connection between educational neglect, and schools teaching in a hybrid or remote model. This past December, the state received twice as many complaints about education neglect as it had in prior years. Complaints of older students with truancy issues have also skyrocketed.

Ribsam said he understands why schools are turning to the state in desperation, but he said reporting a potentially neglectful parent or truant student to the state isn’t always a good solution.

For some families, a visit from Child Protection Services can feel like school just called the cops on them, and it can erode already tenuous trust.

“I think what really becomes challenging is that people are looking to the child protection system to be able to resolve a problem that probably really needs to be resolved at a different level,” Ribsam said. “We're the group to call when there's a crisis and that's not quite what this is, at least in most of these cases.”

Absenteeism might not be a crisis per se, but several districts with high numbers of reports during the pandemic say that Child Protective Services is an essential tool when all else fails.

The Manchester School District, for example, has a long list of steps it exhausts before turning to the state. These include: contacting families to ensure they have adequate technology for remote learning; sending letters to families of students absent for several days; and involving a school social worker and truancy officer after a cumulative total of ten unexcused absences. 

“Ultimately we all want the same thing: We want kids in school,” said Franklin Superintendent Daniel LeGallo.

Franklin is in a hybrid teaching model and has allowed struggling students to return to school four days a week. But despite efforts to get kids back in the classroom, Franklin has seen the largest increase in truancy reported to the state this year. 

LeGallo said those truancy reports got the state involved and students back in class.

“It’s frustrating, but I’d also say to you that we’ve been actually very successful,” he said. “70 to 80 percent of the kids we were working with have actually turned it around, I’m pleasantly surprised and optimistic.”

In spite of this, DCYF director Joe Ribsam is urging school districts to think twice about reporting families to the state. As an alternative, he recommends contacting family resources centers and social workers with local non-profits that don’t carry the stigma of state intervention.

One of those is Erin Pettengill, director of the Family Resource Center atLakes Region Community Services in Laconia. She and her staff are fielding calls daily from schools concerned about chronically absent students. She said the districts she worked closely with prior to the pandemic are the same that call her now.

Pettengill’s goal is to get families connected to appropriate services before a school gets to the point of calling the DCYF hotline. 

In the past, she said, the family resource center could build relationships with families in person, at neighborhood barbeques and community events. Now, they’re working just as much, but contact is constrained.

“In some cases, it is just going up to a window and working with the family that way, or going outside and going sledding with the child to just give them that socialization piece,” she said. “But it’s just a hard time. It is such a hard time.”

Everyone trying to track down absent students agrees: The best solution is to beat the pandemic and reopen school buildings fully. But until then, communities will have to work harder to get some families the support they need.

Sarah Gibson joined NHPR's newsroom in 2018. She reports on education and demographics.
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