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City Council member, parents group defend mom accused of neglect

A Buffalo mother has enlisted the aid of a Common Council member and a parent organization to publicize her claim that she was charged with educational neglect and had her two children taken away because she was home schooling them.

But Buffalo Public Schools officials responded that Kiarre Harris' problems with Child Protective Services have nothing to do with home schooling.

Several sources familiar with this and other educational neglect cases also told The Buffalo News that CPS would only remove children from their parents' care in cases of persistent neglect or when the children were in imminent danger.

The situation bubbled over last week when Masten Council Member Ulysees O. Wingo raised the issue at a city meeting, saying that Harris was arrested because she wanted to home-school her children. Wingo said Harris hand-delivered a letter to the school district Dec. 7 stating she intended to home-school her children, then followed up by submitting a required individual education plan.

The district, he charges, reported her to Child Protective Services saying that her children had an extended absence from school. Harris was charged with educational neglect and her children, who are in third and sixth grades, were put in foster care.

"This is utterly unacceptable," Wingo said. "We need to ensure this never happens again."

Sources familiar with child protective cases, however, say it would be highly unusual for such a drastic intervention just because of a school attendance issue.

State law requires that children attend school until they reach 16, but there is little the district can do if students don’t show up every day. A call to Child Protective Services is one of the few consequences that anyone can threaten for a chronic truant. CPS, however, has limited utility. Unless a child is found to be in physical danger, it is unlikely the county will take action. In extreme cases, CPS could remove a child and place him or her in foster care, but that outcome is rare for chronic truants.

At the end of December, about 28 percent of Buffalo students were flagged as having chronic or severe absenteeism, defined as having missed at least 10 percent of the time they should be in school.

In a statement last week, the district reported that Harris' problems with Child Protective Services started prior to when she began home schooling the children in early December. School officials would not provide details of Harris' situation because of privacy laws, but they said that the mother’s claims are inaccurate.

There are 339 children in Buffalo who are being home-schooled, and the school system is committed to providing supports for these parents and children, the district said.

"After investigation, it is clear that Child Protective Services was contacted prior to the district receiving a letter of intent from the parent to home-school her children,” the district said in a prepared statement.

Still, parent and community advocates continue to rally to Harris' defense. The District Parent Coordinating Council held a press conference reinforcing its intentions to support the mother.

“She did nothing wrong,” said Franklin Redd Jr., a member of the parent council that is raising questions. “This should have never risen to this level.”

Redd said that on Thursday a Family Court judge denied a request to return the children to Harris. Her 8- and 11-year-old children are staying with their great-grandmother. Harris is due back in court next month.

Wingo also took to Facebook Live to discuss Harris' court appearance with her attorney, Vanessa Guite, who called the county's charges "unsubstantiated allegations."

"Their allegations did not rise to the level that it constituted imminent danger," Guite said during the recording.

Meanwhile, Harris – who was not available for comment Sunday – is collecting donations via her Facebook page to help pay for her legal counsel.

The situation is expected to be made public again this week when it’s taken up by the Council's Education Committee.

Staff reporters  Deidre Williams and Susan Schulman contributed to this report.

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