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The D.C. agency responsible for the safety and well-being of children mistakenly identified an 8-year-old student and removed him from school, leading to a hour-long search for the missing boy. The agency worker ultimately returned the boy to his parents, but the family is still shaken over what happened.
On Friday Jan. 31, a family support worker with Child and Family Services Agency pulled the eight-year-old from class at Harriet Tubman Elementary School in Columbia Heights, according to the boy’s family. (Their account was later confirmed by government officials.) The family says the worker allegedly showed the front desk administrator his government badge, identified himself as a case worker for the boy’s father, and asked to leave with him. At around 2 p.m., the public school released the minor to the worker.
“I just can’t understand,” says the boy’s grandfather, Jason Myers. “Anyone can come with a badge and take anyone’s kid.”
Myers picks up his grandson and the boy’s siblings nearly everyday after school. When he tried to do so that Friday, at around 3:30 p.m., the eight-year-old was nowhere to be found. That’s when the search for the boy began. “I was hoping he was still living,” Myers recalls. He says, and a school official confirms, that no one immediately or definitively knew who took his grandson. It wasn’t until officials replayed security footage that they were able to identify the adult in question as a CFSA worker. A Metropolitan Police Department report has the search for the minor starting at 3:45 p.m. and ending at 4:35 p.m. When the CFSA worker returned the boy to his family, they say he apologized, telling them he intended to take another student with the same first name.
At no time was the child “unsafe or unsupervised,” a CFSA official tells City Paper. Without going into detail about the specific incident, the official says typically a worker shows government identification and required paperwork when a school releases a child to CFSA. He adds that a worker does not always know what a child looks like when they pick up a child for, say, a supervised visit.
Since the incident, a school official says Tubman Elementary School has reenforced and retrained staff on its security protocols. Requirements include needing to sign in with security outside of arrival and dismissal; and having outside agencies show ID to pick up children and keeping records of these pickups.
Principal Amanda Delabar sent a note to parents about the incident on Monday. She apologized for not having shared this information sooner. “We have made every effort to protect the student’s and family’s privacy.” The school intends to have a meeting in the coming week.
CFSA has been riddled with problems while DCPS has struggled with its own, most recently when news broke over the summer that the background checks of 30 percent of staff had expired. It’s not evidently clear whether the agency, the school, or perhaps both, broke protocol. After this story was published, a CFSA official called City Paper to say that the agency followed proper protocol and suggested that the school handed over the wrong kid to the family support worker.
The 8-year-old, meanwhile, does not want to return to school. His mother, Nyte West, says he’s worried that someone might try to take him again. West, for her part, is still deeply troubled by what happened. At first, she couldn’t believe it. She has been sending her kids to Tubman Elementary School for years. The school knows her family, she thought. They’d never let her boy leave with just anyone.
“I was nervous. I was scared,” says West, recounting how she felt the day of the incident. “I almost had an asthma attack.”
She was visiting her sister-in-law in Maryland, with her infant and toddler, when she first learned that her son was missing. Her father and husband were the only ones to keep her updated that day. She says she is meeting with Delabar on Tuesday.
CFSA, however, has been less responsive, say West and her husband, James. They went to the police station last Monday to learn more about the incident and to obtain any report related to it, but MPD referred them to CFSA. The next day, James paid the office in Southeast D.C. a visit.
“I was coming down there strictly to ask why did this man pick up my son? They gave me no answers,” alleges James. “That is my first born son … I don’t want anyone to lay a finger on him.”
More broadly, the family would like to know exactly what kind of information CFSA needs to pick up a child from school. The agency shouldn’t just need a first name, they say. When pressed about its communication with the West family, the CFSA official says it generally cannot go into detail about a case. But CFSA would be open to participating in any forum to speak generally about its practices.
This post has been updated to include further comment from CFSA.