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Can CPS Take My Child If I Don't Pay School Lunch Debt?

School girl holding food tray in school cafeteria
By Christopher Coble, Esq. on July 24, 2019 8:06 AM

It certainly sounds like a ridiculous question, until you hear that Pennsylvania's Wyoming Valley West School District sent a threatening letter to about 40 families with at least $10 in school lunch debt.

"Your child has been sent to school every day without money and without a breakfast and/or lunch," the letter read. "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. If you are taken to Dependency court, the result may be your child being removed from your home and placed in foster care."

The letter was met with the appropriate outrage, but was the underlying warning correct? Can your kids really be placed in foster care over unpaid school lunch debt?

Dining and Debt

"Luzerne County foster care will never take a kid for not paying school debt," County Manager David Pedri clarified to CNN this week. "Nobody's coming to take your kids in the middle of the night." Pedri said bill collectors sometimes choose the wrong way to collect a debt, and he asked the school district to cease and desist threatening parents.

"The foster care system should never be viewed as a punitive agency or weaponized to terrorize children and families," he said. "Foster care is to be utilized only when absolutely needed ... when a child has been abused, is in need or has suffered a tragedy."

Wyoming Valley West's director of federal programs Joseph Muth, who authored the letter, claims parents owe the school district over $22,000 in overdue school lunch costs, and that debtors were contracted by phone and email as well. Muth also told WNEP that the district considered serving only peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to those children whose lunch accounts were delinquent, but was warned such food-shaming could land them in court.

Poverty and Payment

Why children and families are even charged for school lunch is anyone's guess, seeing as how school attendance at this age is compulsory and even prison inmates get free "three hots a day."

Joseph Mazur, the president of Wyoming Valley West's board of education, defended the letter based on its effectiveness. "Was the letter a little strong? Maybe yes," Mazur said. "But it did work, because they're paid now." Mazur did say that the district would not send similar letters in the future, but not because it shouldn't have been sent in the first place -- Mazur complained the issue had been "blown out of proportion" -- but because the poverty level among the district's students has risen and new federal nutrition assistance will cover meals for all students over the next five years.

"These parents are poor," County Manager Pedri told CNN. "These kids are going to school. They're trying to do the right thing."

If you're facing a school lunch debt or have received threatening letters from a school district, contact an experienced education attorney to discuss your legal options.

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