Parents and activists across the country have rallied around Kiarre Harris, the Buffalo mother who says her children were taken from her because she started home schooling them.
But court records and interviews with experts familiar with Child Protective Services cases suggest there could be more to the situation.
Although Harris and her supporters remain focused on the home schooling, the original court petition filed against the mother of two alleges that she failed to provide stable housing for her children and has a history of domestic violence, including using a knife.
It also notes she previously had been reported to Child Protective Services for inadequate supervision of her children.
When asked about the other charges against her at a news conference last week, Harris declined to discuss the accusations in any detail, dismissing them as old cases that never resulted in arrest or legal action against her.
“They were from years ago, unrelated to this circumstance at all,” Harris said. “My children were never in any imminent danger.”
Those rallying around Harris – including Common Council Member Ulysees O. Wingo, the local Black Lives Matter chapter and the District Parent Coordinating Council – blame the school district, saying she was arrested because the district did not properly process her home schooling paperwork.
There is also a growing chorus of supporters, both locally and nationwide, who believe this is a case of discrimination against a poor, black mother who is critic of oppression by government institutions.
“This is utterly unacceptable,” Wingo said. “We need to ensure this never happens again.”
Harris last week filed two complaints with the federal government, alleging the school district and CPS discriminated against her because she is black.
In response, the district has said Harris’ problems are with CPS, and those problems started before she filed her intent to home-school her two children.
What’s more, there are 339 children who are home-schooled in Buffalo, and this is the first time that anyone has accused the district of reporting a parent to CPS for home schooling.
Even Sam Radford, who heads the parent council and has experience home schooling a child, said he never has encountered the problems that Harris attributes to home schooling.
A district official recently reached out to Harris to discuss her situation, but that meeting never happened. Harris declined to comment why.
From Child Protective Services' side, sources familiar with Harris’ and other cases say the agency would not have taken her children because of a problem with school attendance or for home schooling. Those sources say the agency only removes children from their parent’s care if they are in imminent danger.
And Family Court Judge Margaret Szczur reaffirmed the agency’s actions earlier this month by denying Harris’ request to regain custody of her children.
Few people know exactly what transpired that led to Harris’ arrest and her children’s removal because strict state and federal confidentiality laws bar them from sharing any information about the children, who are 8 and 11.
Amid the questions, only one thing goes undisputed: Two children are caught in the middle and face an uncertain future.
Sequence of events
In a recent interview with The News, Harris said she did not begin exploring the option of home schooling until November 2016.
She filed with the district the required paperwork that she was home schooling her children in December 2016.
The week after she filed that notice, Harris said she received a phone call from Child Protective Services because her children had been chronically absent.
It’s not clear when exactly the district contacted CPS because the children weren’t in class, although the district issued a written statement saying CPS was involved before Harris filed her home schooling paperwork.
It’s also not clear whether CPS was investigating Harris prior to being contacted by the district. But Harris has said she was not aware of any open cases at the time the agency contacted her about the poor attendance.
CPS workers told her they were investigating her for educational neglect because of her children’s truancy, she said.
The court petition filed by CPS states that Harris’ children had not been in school since Nov. 16, and that they both had a history of poor attendance. The agency also alleges that Harris failed to cooperate with the school district to address the poor attendance.
“They said ‘We’re calling because your son’s school has contacted us saying your son has not been in school,’ ” she said.
Harris told them she was home schooling her children and could produce the paperwork to prove it. The agency asked Harris to attend a meeting, but Harris said she missed it because she was busy.
“I was home schooling, in the midst of moving, working from home,” Harris said.
Then on Jan. 13, Harris drove past her home and saw police cars. She did not stop. Officers followed her until she was pulled over, Harris said, and they asked where her children were. Officers told her they had a family court order to remove them.
Harris said she never was notified of a hearing when one would be issued.
A police report of the stop indicates that when the officers inquired about the children’s whereabouts, Harris provided a false address in Tonawanda. When Tonawanda police went to the address to find the children, a neighbor told them the family no longer lived there.
Harris was arrested and charged with criminal contempt and obstructing governmental administration, both misdemeanors.
“She just simply said to the police ‘No I’m not just going to turn my children over to you,’ ” said Radford, of the parent council. “That’s a healthy statement for a mother to make.”
When Harris showed up in city court on Jan. 18 to answer the charges, she said CPS attorneys requested that she be arrested again until she produced the children. The judge gave her two days to turn the children over.
Harris said she then went to her mother’s home in Buffalo to get the children and take them to the Millenium Hotel in Cheektowaga to explain to them she needed to turn them over to CPS.
“I wanted to go spend some time with them and do something fun,” she said. “We went to the hotel to go swimming and order pizza.”
While she was in the room with her children, there was a knock at the door. When her daughter answered it, about eight Cheektowaga police officers pushed open the door, Harris said, and searched her for weapons.
Harris was arrested on an outstanding warrant for a traffic stop in the Town of Tonawanda and she had not appeared in court.
She posted bail for the traffic violation, but was not allowed to see her children. They spent more than two weeks in foster care at Baker Victory before a family court judge released them to her mother.
Harris and her former attorney, whom she fired, have complained that when they showed up at family court to answer the charges, they were presented with another CPS petition with new allegations. That petition is not public and Harris has declined to produce it.
The mother has responded to some of the charges in the original court petition, including the allegation that she moved around too much and did not provide the children with stable housing.
“That’s subjective information …” she says in a video she has posted on Facebook. “Not to mention if I do move from house to house, again, that is not indicating that I’m neglecting my children. That means I keep a roof over their head by any means necessary.”
When asked by a reporter about the charge of “suspected maltreatment,” which related to the inadequate supervision, Harris denied that was part of the original petition.
“There was never any maltreatment,” she said.
But police records show that Harris has had several brushes with the law.
In 2011, one of the children’s fathers contacted CPS to report that she had left the two children – then 3 and 5 – alone.
In 2012, a woman complained that Harris kicked, scratched and gauged her vehicle with a knife. That complaint was classified as criminal mischief. It’s not clear if that was the domestic dispute referenced in the CPS petition.
Payments for home schooling
The District Parent Coordinating Council is backing Harris in her civil rights complaint, and some members have gone a step further, pushing for financial compensation for Buffalo families that home-school their children.
Franklin Redd previously submitted a proposal to the Common Council asking it to require the school district to reimburse families that home-school their children at the same rate as charter schools. That would amount to about $13,000 per child, or about $4.5 million for all of the home-schooled children in the Buffalo district.
Redd has said that Harris’ case underscores the difficulty parents face when they attempt to home-school their children, and the district should provide additional supports, including financial compensation.
“The resources provided to parents should start with giving them a dollar amount,” Redd said during a recent meeting of the council’s education committee, which is chaired by Wingo.
But one one local parent activist disagrees that Harris’ problems have anything to do with race or her political views.
“I home-schooled two different kids, it has nothing to do with being an activist,” said Carolette Meadows, a parent activist. “There are other black women who are activists...and we all have our kids. So to say you lost your kids because you’re an activist is disingenuous.”
Meadows said she decided to speak out about the case because she wants to make sure Harris gets the best advice on how to reunite with her children. She cautions Harris to be wary of people who may be using her to promote an agenda and urges her to do what she needs to do to come into compliance with CPS.
“The bottom line is this: If you have an open CPS case and your open CPS case has to do with the attendance of your children, home schooling does not take you out of the system,” Meadows said. “If anything, it puts CPS more in your business because now they want to come to your house, they want to see your materials, they want to follow your children and ask them questions based on the material you’re supposed to be teaching them.
“What’s more important – for you to be a martyr in other people’s propaganda and media campaigns?” Meadows continued. “Or is it more important for you to get your kids back?”