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Pay Your Lunch Money or Face Foster Care?

KINGSTON, Pa. — Parents in an area school district call a collection letter a bit heavy-handed. About 1,000 students in the Wyoming Valley West School dis...

KINGSTON, Pa. -- Parents in an area school district call a collection letter a bit heavy-handed. About 1,000 students in the Wyoming Valley West School district owe money on their student lunch accounts.

District administrators say efforts to collect the money have been frustrating. The school system fired off warning letters to parents that the district could take them to court, with one possible outcome of the children being placed in foster care.

One Wyoming Valley West school administrator tells Newswatch 16 the purpose of the letter is to, "put parents on notice that the district intends to collect the lunch money it is owed."

Not everyone is taking it that way.

Administrators of the Wyoming Valley West School District in Luzerne County say it is unfair to the parents who pay their kids' lunch money to ignore the debt.

The district sent about 1,000 letters to parents owing money, writing, "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."

People in the Wyoming Valley West School District seem divided.

"Very extreme, maybe unnecessary, maybe cruel and brutal on the government's part," said Ruth Bates.

"Nobody should go hungry. It might sound like a stiff penalty, but you should take care of your children," Steve Spirko said.

"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 said.

The man who wrote that letter, director of federal programs Joseph Muth, says Wyoming Valley West is owed more than $22,000 by roughly 1,000 students. Four accounts show parents owe more than $450 each.

Muth says this letter was a last resort and that all parents who received it were contracted numerous times, by phone, email, and other letters.

Muth tells Newswatch 16 the school considered serving kids whose accounts were delinquent peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

The district's solicitor warned that could be taken to court discriminating against kids who may be of limited means by food-shaming them.

Instead, the school threatened court and potential foster care to focus the consequences on parents.

Wilkes-Barre attorney Bill Vinsko is familiar with government law. Vinsko says the letter is legal despite its threatening tone, adding that it's very unlikely a court would separate kids from their parents for failing to pay lunch money.

"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," said Vinsko.

Muth says some parents can afford school lunch. Some who cannot afford the school lunch never apply for the help.

Beginning this fall, Wyoming Valley West students will get free meals because the district now qualifies under federal guidelines.

But Muth adds, parents who received warning letters still owe the lunch money and he says they can contact the district to work out payment plans if they cannot pay these bills all at once.

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