On August 11, the Tennessee Child Wellbeing Task Force (“Task Force”) published “a guidance document” through the Department of Education “to ensure all children are checked-in (sic) on.” The document calls on localities to mobilize their resources to “connect with each child to verify wellbeing and identify need.”
(BREAKING: While building this alert email we have also been working the phones. First we learned the Guidance Document has been removed from the Department of Education website, and we have now learned the Governor’s office is rethinking whether to put it back up. They need to hear from all Tennessee residents, and we all need to remain vigilant against similar efforts in other states who may choose to follow the example they initially set.)
The guidance document lays out the goal that “ALL Tennessee children will receive a wellbeing check” (emphasis in original, page 1), “child” being defined on page 4 as “birth through the completion of grade 12 if enrolled in school or 18 years of age. School-age children includes those who are enrolled in public schools, private schools, homebound, etc.”
The effort sounds altruistic and good. Who could be against making sure the children are okay?
But every year millions of families are caught up in child welfare investigations, an overwhelming 83% of which turn out to be false.
Why We’re Concerned
This policy guidance is not benign. It radically increases the number of innocent families unnecessarily coming to the attention of an already overloaded and ineffective child welfare system, and it will disproportionately affect the poor and minorities, as well.
It will hurt the poor because poverty is often confused with “neglect.” Nationwide in 2018 (the last year for which data is available), more than 60% of all child removals cited “neglect” as the only reason for intervention. Yet actual, willful neglect is extremely rare. The balance of those cases are families who need help, not separation.
And the policy will disproportionately harm families of color, because these already face an increased level of involvement when compared to their share of the population at large. According to federal government data gathered by the Parental Rights Foundation for 2017, African-Americans and Native Americans make up a portion of the child welfare population in Tennessee that is more than one-and-a-half times their portion of the child population in the state (1.59 and 1.51 times, respectively). Spreading a wider net will only catch more innocent families based only on the color of their skin.
The guidance document exposes a presumption by the Task Force that fit parents cannot be trusted, and that we must rely first and foremost on state and local agents to keep children safe.
This flies in the face of the legal presumption set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court in Parham v. J.R., 442 US 584 (1979), that “natural bonds of affection lead parents to act in the best interests of their children.”
So while the guidance sounds good and purports to be in the interest of children, it would use the closure of Tennessee public schools as an excuse to bring a government agent into contact with every home in the state. And every contact will involve someone trained to look for any excuse to call your family in.
Here are a few things every concerned parent needs to know:
1. The “guidance” comes from the state, but its implementation will depend on the localities, each of which will apply its own procedures. Some may be more onerous than others. Some may ignore the “guidance” completely.
2. “Contacts” listed in the guidance include surveys, emails, phone calls, virtual calls, school-based visits, or home visits. Not all localities will choose to employ home visits, but they are certainly on the list.
3. The data which the Task Force hope to gather includes a “complete roster of all children (birth through grade 12) in the city/district/county,” categorized by whether they are “enrolled in school…, homebound, children too young to attend school, [or] children not enrolled in any school.” The intended scope is not limited to local public school students.
4. Parents have a right under the Fourth Amendment “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” This right extends to your privacy and to your children. You do not have to answer questions or let them in.
5. The guidance itself notes that if “the guardian does not provide permission to speak with the child, then the parent, guardian, or care taker (sic) may speak on the child’s behalf.” However, if a parent declines to let the child be interviewed directly, this will be noted and included in the data to be gathered.
6. The guidance makes clear that the preference of the Task Force is for the state or local agent to speak to each child personally and even privately. While the guidance also instructs the agent to accept “No” for an answer (while taking names), the ideal is to speak to the child, as though no parent can be trusted.
This is a breaking story, and one we are watching closely for any new developments. We are concerned, too, that it could be a harbinger of things to come. As society adopts new ways of doing things, many states may look for ways like this to take advantage of the situation.
What can you do to halt this overreach into your fundamental rights as a parent?
1. Tennessee parents should reach out to your governor, elected officials, or local school board and express your concerns about these recommendations. You can find contact information through this convenient summary page made available by HSLDA.
(Note: We have learned the Governor’s office has taken the Guidance down and is planning to revisit it before deciding whether or not to put it back up. So do be friendly with your call, but be sure they hear from you.)
2. Stay alert and alert your friends. Share this and similar news items through your email or social media accounts this week to make others aware of what is going on.
3. Give to support this and continuing efforts of ParentalRights.org to protect your parental rights by preserving the presumption that you know your child’s needs better than a state or local agent does.
ParentalRights.org is completely donor-funded. Your gifts in the past have made it possible for us to be here to sound the alarm. With your support we will continue to stand against any threats to your family and to your parental rights.