Pennsylvania school district threatens to place children in foster care over unpaid lunch money

KINGSTON, Penn. -- A Pennsylvania school district is being criticized after sending parents a letter stating that their children would be placed in foster care over their unpaid lunch tabs.

According to WNEP, the Wyoming Valley West School District sent roughly 1,000 letters, which read in part: "You can be sent to dependency 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."

Joseph Muth, director of the district's federal programs, said the district is owed more than $22,000 by roughly 1,000 students. Four of those accounts owe more than $450 each.

District administrators said collecting money at the end of the school year has been frustrating. Adding that the letter's intent was to "put parents on notice that the district intends to collect the lunch money it is owed."

However, not everyone felt the letter was necessary.

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Muth told ABC News that the letter was a mistake and should not have been sent out.

"The letter was over the top and should not have been sent out," he said, though he suggested the district would look at other ways of getting repaid.

He declined to comment on how the letter was approved in the first place.

Other district members said they were embarrassed.

"The foster care issue, that just had me," David Usavage, the board's vice president, told WNEP. "I couldn't believe that that's what it said."

While attorney Bill Vinsko agreed the letter was rather threatening, he said it amounted to little more than scary words, saying it was unlikely a court would separate a child from their parent(s) over unpaid lunch funds.

"They're sending them to school, they want them to get an education, chances are they're well-nourished at home, they're just unable to afford school lunches at this time," Vinsko told WNEP.

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About 14% of families in the school district are below the poverty line, which is about 10% higher than the average rate at other schools in Pennsylvania, according to the Census Reporter.

But some board members said that doesn't excuse parents from paying.

"These parents need to look in the mirror," Charles Coslett told ABC News. "This matter isn't going away merely because delinquent debtors make Valley West the bad guy."

Crystal FitzSimons, director of school and out-of-school time programs at FRAC, told ABC News that while collecting fees, the district also needs to reach out to families in need of assistance or inform them of available lunch programs.

"We think school districts should be reaching out to families, helping them apply for free or reduced-price meals and determining whether the child is actually eligible of receiving free or reduced-price meals," FitzSimons said.
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