School district threatens families with foster care for unpaid lunch debt, backs off threats

Officials in the Wyoming Valley West School District in northeastern Pennsylvania came up with a threat to help get a thousand students to pay their lunch debt: Pay up or face foster care, WNEP reported earlier this week.

District administrators sent letters to the families who still had an outstanding debt that threatened court action with one possible punishment being foster care.

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The district is owed $22,000 by about 1,000 students, with four accounts in more than $450 debt each, district director of federal programs, Joseph Muth, told WNEP.

The average though for the majority of students was $22, The Citizens Voice reported.

The letter, according to WNEP, stated "You can be sent to dependence court for neglecting your child's right to food. The result may be your child being taken from your home and placed in foster care."

Muth called the letter the last resort and came after families were contacted multiple times by phone, email and letters, WNEP reported.

School district officials had considered an alternate lunch for those who are in the red on their lunch accounts, but the district's solicitor advised against it saying the district could be taken to court for discrimination and could be considered food shaming, WNEP reported.

But administrators are now going in a different direction after news of the foster care threats caused an uproar, The Citizens Voice reported.

Only 40 foster-care warning letters were sent out.

Collection letters will not mention foster care, and apologies will be sent to those families that received the first communications, the Voice reported.

Officials at the Luzerne County Children and Youth foster care system should not have been used "to scare families into paying school lunch bills." It is only used "when a child has been abused" or "a family has been struck by tragedy," County Manager David Pedri and Children and Youth Director Joanne Van Saunt told the district's superintendent, according to the Voice.

The letters to collect on the debt were issued because all students in the Wyoming Valley West district will receive free lunch for the next five years since at least 60 percent of all students qualify for free meals, the Voice reported.

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