District Threatens To Throw Kids in Foster Care if Parents Don't Pay School Lunch Debts

Lunch being served in school
WNEP

In school districts across the nation, rising lunch debts continue to be a problem for low-income families, where parents often find themselves unable to keep up with the daily costs. As those outstanding balances grow, schools are ultimately left footing the bill, which has led many to come up with some creative ways to pay them off if parents can't (or won't). Usually, these stories end with a good Samaritan swooping in to pay the balances or PTA members putting their heads together to come up with some last-minute fundraising efforts. But for parents and kids in the Wyoming Valley West School District in Pennsylvania, a new proposed "solution" to the lunch problem is far from warm and fuzzy -- in fact, some are shocked it's even legal.

  • In a letter sent home letters to parents with outstanding debts, the district stated that kids could be put in foster care if parents don't pay up.

    That's right -- foster care

    According to CNN, which reviewed the letter, it stated that "multiple letters [were] sent home with your child" but payments still failed to be made.

    "Your child has been sent to school every day without money and without a breakfast and/or lunch," the letter continued before stating that failing to provide children with food could result in the parents being sent to dependency court.

    "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 concluded.

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  • This wasn't just a few scant parents who received the letter, either -- it was reportedly sent to 1,000 parents within the district.

    It didn't take long for news of the letter to sweep through Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, where many were outraged at the claims it made.

    "Very extreme, maybe unnecessary, maybe cruel and brutal on the government's part," said resident Ruth Bates, who spoke with WNEP.

    "I think the person that wrote that letter should think about having their children away from him and put into a foster home," Jack Coslett, another resident, told WNEP.

  • As news made its way around social media, many others shared their own outrage.

    "We feed prisoners three meals a day," wrote one woman on Facebook. "Time to invest in our children."

    "If they are required to attend school, the school should be required to feed them," said another. "There should not be a school lunch debt for children ... "

    One man, from Ripley, Tennessee, said lunch and breakfast are free for students where he lives -- as he believes they should be for every child. "You want my kids to go to school then its your responsibility to feed them," he stated.

    Many found the letter's threat to be extreme, cruel, and unwarranted -- especially when we're talking about innocent children and families who are struggling.

    "Yes," wrote one woman, "Let's inflict vast trauma on children because their families are poor. Great idea."

    "This is awful," wrote another. "My kids get free breakfast and lunch every day at their school and have never been lunch shamed. I'm glad my state cares about our kids. It would be ridiculous anyway, the cost of putting a child into foster care would dwarf the cost of simply erasing the debt."

  • But not everyone agreed with the concept that lunch should be free for everyone, arguing that somebody would have to foot the bill.

    "This story breaks my heart for the kids who felt like they were going to be placed in foster care because their family couldn't pay their lunch bill," said one woman. "[But] after reading all these comments about how all schools should provide 'free lunch' you are all way off base. Nothing in life is free."

    To every commenter who argued this point, there were plenty of others who argued that the welfare of our nation's children should be something the government helps subsidize. And in fact, if these same children did wind up in foster care, as the letter threatens, that's exactly what would be happening.

    "So the government gives foster parents over $700 a month per child to take care of them," one user noted. "Wouldn't it be much cheaper to just help fund the school lunch for the child?"

  • According to the letter's author, Joseph Muth, it was written as a last-ditch effort to combat the district's more than $22,000 in unpaid lunch fees.

    Muth told WNEP that some parents owe in the hundreds, with a few amassing a bill of $450. In all cases, he adds, they were contacted multiple times: by phone, email, and other letters.

    The frustration administrators have felt is understandable, but it still begs the question: Does it really warrant the letter's offensive message? Surely there are other ways to go about it -- ways that don't involve threatening parents who are already struggling to get by or ways that aren't incredibly cruel and out of touch.

  • Also, if you're wondering how a letter like this is even legal, you're not alone. But according to Wilkes-Barre lawyer Bill Vinsko, it actually is.

    Vinsko, who spoke with WNEP about the letter, said that despite its threatening tone, there's actually nothing illegal about it. (Which feels a bit surprising, TBH.) Still, he did add it's highly unlikely a court would ever separate a child from a parent over something like failing to pay a lunch debt. 

    "They're sending them to school, they want them to get an education," said Vinsko. "[C]hances are they're well-nourished at home; they're just unable to afford school lunches at this time."

    He adds that some of the issue lies in the fact that many of the parents who couldn't afford to pay never applied for aid, which could have nipped the issue in the bud before the debts mounted.

  • There is one spot of good news in this story, though: Come September, lunches will be free in the district for all students.

    WNEP reports that the Wyoming Valley West School District now qualifies under federal guidelines for free meals, which should alleviate the extra financial burden many parents are feeling.

    Still, that outstanding $22,000 still needs to be paid. Muth told the outlet that all parents who received warning letters will still be required to pay off their balances, and he urges them to contact the district to arrange a payment plan.