School district warns parents: Pay lunch bill or kids may go into foster care

A Pennsylvania school district received backlash after warning parents their children could be removed from their homes and placed into foster care if overdue lunch bills are not paid.

The Wyoming Valley West School District in Luzerne County, Pa., said about 1,000 student accounts owe a total amount of more than $20,000 in school lunch debt. Four parents owe at least $450 each. 

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“Your child has been sent to school every day without money and without a breakfast and/or lunch,” the initial letter said. “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 continues, according to The Hill. "Please remit payment as soon as possible to avoid being reported to the proper authorities.”

 "Please remit payment as soon as possible to avoid being reported to the proper authorities.”

— Letter from Wyoming Valley West School District in Pennsylvania

The letter with the foster care warning was sent out to about 40 households on July 9, the district’s director of federal programs, Joseph Muth, told Citizens' Voice. Muth said he did not review the letter with the district's superintendent before it was sent.

On Thursday, the Luzerne County's manager and child welfare agency director wrote the superintendent, demanding the district retract the letter. The county maintains that children have never and will never be removed from a home for unpaid bills and that the letter was a "gross misrepresentation" of the good work of the county's child welfare services, Wilkes-Barre's WYOU-TV reported.

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School district officials said they will send a new letter to parents with a softer warning and plan to pursue other legal avenues to get the lunch money, such as filing a district court complaint or placing liens on properties.

Joseph Muth told Scranton's WNEP-TV the district had considered serving peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to students with delinquent accounts, but received legal advice warning against it. For the coming year, the district will qualify for funding to provide free lunches to all students.

The district underwrote free lunches for four elementary and middle schools during the 2018-19 year, and WNEP-TV said school officials suspect some parents did not pay their lunch bills as a form of protest.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.