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The United States’ family regulation system often begins with well-intentioned professionals making child protection hotline calls, jeopardizing their own ability to work with families and subjecting the families to surveillance. By the system’s own standards, most of this surveillance leads to no meaningful action. Nowhere is this reality more present than in schools. Educational personnel serve as the leading driver of child maltreatment allegations, yet decades worth of data reveal educator reports of maltreatment are the least likely to be screenedin and the least likely to be substantiated or confirmed. In other words, education personnel— whether motivated by genuine concern, which may nevertheless be informed by implicit biases towards low-income families and families of color; fear of liability; or the desire to access services they believe families cannot acquire elsewhere— overwhelm our child welfare system with unnecessary allegations of maltreatment.
This reality has fundamentally transformed the relationship between families and schools. Carrying the heavy burden of mandated reporting laws, public schools disproportionately refer Black and low-income families to the family regulation system, abdicating schools’ opportunity to serve these same families in the communities in which they reside. Rather than serving as the great equalizer, public schools increasingly contribute to the carceral state’s regulation of families.
This Article argues that schools must shift their role away from the reporting and surveillance of these families, and instead directly provide and arrange for services for families. This change begins with sharply limiting or repealing mandatory reporting obligations (permitting voluntary reports in severe cases)—but that is only the start. Schools are well-positioned to create new pathways to the supports and services from which most families reported to the family regulation system might actually benefit. Schools are already a primary source of food for impoverished children, and can help ensure low-income families access all the public benefits to which they are entitled. Schools can largely refer children and families to the same services that the family regulation system can—such as mental health services and substance abuse treatment—but without that system’s coercive authority and its associated problems. Where some services are tied to the family regulation system’s involvement, then law should permit schools to refer families directly. Schools know which families need legal services to defend their housing, access benefits, obtain orders of protection—or any of the myriad of other supports that poverty lawyers can provide. This shift would tie schools to the families and communities that they serve and benefit those families and communities far more than the surveillance and policing they experience under the current family regulation system.
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