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Remote schooling forces child welfare agencies to adapt

SANTA FE, N.M. — Child welfare monitoring and enforcement have been challenged by the coronavirus pandemic as teachers — the backbone of the abuse and neglect reporting system — are separated from their students by remote learning.

In New Mexico, schools, state agencies, and law enforcement officials say they are adapting and the lack of in-person schooling hasn’t hobbled their work. It has required more attention, though, as it’s less clear who isn’t being allowed to go to school, and who’s just having trouble logging on.

Earlier this week, sheriff’s deputies in New Mexico’s most populous city launched “Operation Educational Encouragement” to carry out over 50 welfare checks — mostly on students reported by teachers as being chronically absent from online learning.

The effort is aimed at checking in on households, not punishing parents. True to the spirit of “encouragement,” there were no arrests.

Deputies are finding that during the pandemic, the culprits are often not parents, but spotty Wi-Fi or children who lie to get out of doing work. For one mother of three young children, the decision to get them headphones backfired and resulted in a report of educational neglect by the Children Youth and Families Department that was passed on to the Sheriff’s office.

“The kids would tell her. ‘Oh yeah, I’m in PE right now because we were dismissed from class,” said Sgt. Amy Dudewicz of the Safe Child Unit. “She was unaware of the fact that the children were actually at school or doing something different.”

CYFD has also found itself responding to a wave of less severe reports requiring a light-touch. When one mother couldn’t be at home during school hours, they helped her negotiate a shift swap with a co-worker. When a parent was caught off-guard by constant outbursts by a child normally well-behaved in school, they found him free behavioral therapy.

The CYFD has also started calling vulnerable families proactively, folks without recent danger signs but who had problems in the past.

“Reports fell by the wayside a little bit,” during March’s school closures, says CYFD spokesman Charlie Moore-Pabst.

The Sheriff’s Office relies on reports that are individually called into them or CYFD, such as when a teacher hears screaming and then a student disconnects. But child welfare advocates want calls to come from more than just teachers and social workers, especially now that it’s neighbors and family members who have eyes on kids.

“Everyone in New Mexico is a mandatory reporter,” Moore-Pabst says.

School districts in New Mexico have created their own checkup systems for students when concerns fall short of educational neglect but still require follow-up.

When students don’t log in or regularly fail to do homework, they are referred to a triaging service created this year by the Public Education Department called ENGAGE, in all caps.

Some 12,000 students have been referred to the group of contractors based in New Mexico and Arizona who chase down students so that overworked teachers don’t have to. The $1.6 million contract with the for-profit Graduation Alliance allows for more than twice as many students to be helped.

Like the deputies knocking on doors in Albuquerque, the ENGAGE contractors first make contact to figure out what’s going on, says PED Deputy Secretary Gwen Perea Warniment.

“They ask questions like, do you have classes where your grade is below a “C” or do you find the courses are difficult? Do you have access to a computer or the internet? Do you know how to contact your teacher and have access to assignments?” she says.

Around half of the follow-ups involve the type of homework checking and goal-setting that teachers do in person, Perea Warniment says. Others need one-off tutorials on how to log in to their school platform. Still others slipped through the cracks at their school and didn’t get a computer.

In the past, child welfare agencies were siloed. But the pandemic is forcing closer communication as the work begins to overlap with the common challenges of ruling out neglect and identifying ways to help families.

Later this year, the Public Education Department plans to integrate reporting with CYFD, and another agency responsible for a large portion of New Mexico’s students, the Indian Affairs Department. The new system will deal with a growing number of “missing” students who are dropped from school rolls after 10 consecutive absences.

PED Sec. Ryan Stewart said the department is creating a “new, parallel reporting process” to collect data on these students along with partnerships with CYFD and IAD.

“These are the students we’re most concerned about because we don’t have information on their learning or, more importantly, on their well-being during the pandemic.”


Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues.