A proposed New Jersey law would bar school districts from reporting parents to the state for abuse or neglect when their child has a lunch account that's in arrears.

The state Department of Children and Families, which would handle such investigations, has heard from concerned parents but claims districts don't typically have a leg to stand on when making these reports.

Every district in the state is required to have a policy in place for families who fall behind on lunch payments. In some districts, those overdue lunch-money bills amount to several thousand dollars, and the impacted kids may only be served tuna fish, cheese or PB&J sandwiches until their account is in good standing. Districts also have the right to refuse students any lunch if their account is overdue.

"Threatening (parents) to take them to the state is not the next course of action. We want to take that off the table," said Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt, D-Camden, who's crafting legislation to scrap this step from a school's arsenal. "That's not what they should be doing. They should be sitting down individually with these families."

DCF doesn't have statistics on how many reports it's received from schools regarding delinquent lunch bills. But it has heard from parents who've received letters from their school districts and wanted to bring the matter to the state's attention.

"Using referrals to a child protection agency as a threat to parents who have not or cannot pay a student's lunch bill is a misuse and misrepresentation of the state agency charged with investigating," DCF Commissioner Christine Norbut Beyer said in an emailed statement.

The state has a statute that clearly defines child abuse and neglect, she added, and living in poverty or owing money to the school are not actions that in and of themselves qualify as abuse or neglect.

"However, if a child is chronically hungry, reports not having food in the home, and/or is homeless, this could be indicative of neglect and should be reported, so that we can connect the family to services and supports," the commissioner said.

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