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Parents warned their children could be put in foster care over school lunch debt

NBC News logo NBC News 7/19/2019 Minyvonne Burke
A letter from the Luzerne County school district demanded parents pay delinquent lunch bills for their children or face the risk of having their children placed in foster care. © WBRE A letter from the Luzerne County school district demanded parents pay delinquent lunch bills for their children or face the risk of having their children placed in foster care.

An eastern Pennsylvania school district is coming under fire for sending letters to parents demanding they pay their school lunch debt or risk having their children placed in foster care.

In one letter shared on social media and obtained by NBC affiliate WBRE, the parents are informed that their child has a balance of $75.25 and if they do not pay it, the parents could be reported to Luzerne County dependency court.

"Your child has been sent to school every day without money and without breakfast and/or lunch. 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 July 9 letter reads.

a close up of text on a white background: A letter from the Luzerne County school district demanded parents pay delinquent lunch bills for their children or face the risk of having their children placed in foster care. © WBRE A letter from the Luzerne County school district demanded parents pay delinquent lunch bills for their children or face the risk of having their children placed in foster care.

If the parent is taken to court, they risk their child being removed "and placed in foster care," according to the letter.

"Please remit payment as soon as possible to avoid being reported to the proper authorities," it states.

The letter was signed by Joseph Muth, director of federal programs for the Wyoming Valley West School District.

Muth and the school district did not immediately return NBC News' request for comment. According to WBRE, the district is trying to collect about $20,000 worth of lunch debt.

Luzerne County Manager David Pedri condemned the school district for using the foster care system as a scare tactic.

"Foster care is to be utilized only when absolutely needed — when a child has been abused, is in need or has suffered a tragedy," he said in a statement. "Our foster care system is NOT to be utilized to scare parents into paying school lunch bills."

The county has asked Wyoming Valley West School District to retract the letter.

Luzerne County Children and Youth Services Executive Director Joanne Van Saun told WBRE that she was disturbed by the letter. She said the agency does not remove children from homes because of school lunch debt or any unpaid bill.

"It’s a total misrepresentation, a gross misrepresentation of what our agency does,” she told the outlet. "It’s just not true. We do not remove children from families for unpaid bills."

The school district said it will send another, softer letter to parents about the unpaid lunch bills, WBRE reported.

Its original letter has set off a social media debate over the district's threat and the responsibilities of parents.

One person whose Facebook profile says he is from Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, criticized school district officials.

"Sounds like a great idea let's uproot a child's life because your mommy and daddy didn't pay your lunch, what a bunch of over educated idiots," he posted.

Another Facebook user said Muth should have "known better than utilizing that type of threat."

But another Facebook user said in a post that parents are responsible for caring for their children and the burden should not "fall on others that are paying for the meals."

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., also weighed in, saying in a statement that no child should "have to imagine the horror of being ripped away from their parents" over an unpaid lunch bill.

“These letters were callous and should never have happened," Casey said. "Moving forward, the School District has an obligation to find an appropriate way to collect these funds, instead of using threats.”

School lunch debt has become a growing concern for districts around the county. In May, a Rhode Island district said students who owed lunch money would be given only a sunflower butter and jelly sandwich until their debts are cleared.

The mother of Philando Castile, 32, a cafeteria supervisor in Minnesota who was fatally shot by a police officer in 2016, recently gave $8,000 to a high school in the state to cover outstanding lunch bills.

"The kids shouldn't have a debt hanging over their heads, and the parents shouldn't either. I just believe that the schools should furnish free meals for our children," Valerie Castile told NPR in May.

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