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Expert explains child protective services process after Chesterfield preschool assaults were not reported

Posted at 6:21 PM, Apr 05, 2023

CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. -- When Chesterfield preschool teacher Lisa Harbilas allegedly physically assaulted five students at Chester Early Childhood Learning Academy, police said child protective services (CPS) never referred any of those cases to law enforcement.

Parents involved in the case have asked why not. CBS 6 requested an interview with Chesterfield's Director of Social Services Kiva Rogers to discuss the process of how CPS reports are investigated, but a county spokesperson said Rogers was unavailable.

Jamia Crockett, CEO of Families Forward Virginia, the state chapter of a national child abuse prevention organization, agreed to speak with CBS 6 about how the system is set up, what the process is supposed to look like, and information parents should know.

"Our hearts go out to the families and the children that were part of that incident. We never want to hear of cases like that, of abuse in institutions, but abuse anywhere," Crockett said.

She explained that every case is handled differently, depending on the circumstances, but there are rules and regulations for how every complaint is supposed to be worked.

“I will say, it’s kind of case by case. There are layered nuances to the context of what happened. Certain policies and procedures might be, I don't want to say shifted, but there are just different places where the system interfaces and where it does not," she said.

Crockett said a reporter of a complaint will act as the entry point to CPS. Across Virginia, data from Families Forward showed educators made up the majority of the reporting sources (24%) of the 52,900 child abuse and neglect reports in 2022.

Crockett said teachers are required and trained to alert CPS of any suspected child abuse. In the Chesterfield preschool case, court documents showed it was Harbilas' teacher's assistant who reported the alleged assaults to CPS.

“They are mandated reporters, so if they see something, they are required to report what they see," she said. "Sometimes that doesn't happen, or if it happens and other things happen in that process, that's where it is up to the parent to say, 'Hey, I have a question. This doesn't feel right to me.'”

According to court documents, a witness reported that Harbilas became frustrated with four children and then spanked them, grabbed their necks, pulled them to the ground, and smacked their faces. Those alleged assaults reportedly occurred in November.

Months prior in August, an affidavit showed Harbilas was reprimanded by the school for allegedly pulling a child's hair and restraining them with her legs. A CPS report was filed.

None of these incidents were forwarded to law enforcement, despite the Virginia code stating that CPS is required to report injuries and threatened injuries to law enforcement, police said.

“Is it your understanding that whenever there is a threatened injury or a harm to children, law enforcement should be involved in that case?” reporter Tyler Layne asked Crockett.

“I would say yes, they should," Crockett responded.

“What should a parent do if that doesn’t happen?” Layne asked.

“That’s when they can raise their voice and they can start talking and asking questions and go to law enforcement themselves," she said. "We want to be aware. We want to be intentional and be part of the circle and be part of these conversations so that we don't get caught in the system. But we're part of the system to make things better for children and families."

A parent involved in this case did in fact go to law enforcement after learning the school allowed Harbilas to return to the school in March. The parent told CBS 6 they would've gone to the police sooner but trusted that the school district and CPS were handling the situation.

The parent said CPS never reached out to them in the course of the investigation to ask any questions, schedule an interview, or check on their child who had been allegedly assaulted.

"I would assume and expect there would be some follow-up to say, 'Here's kind of where we are with this situation.' But once again, if the parent is not getting the communication that they feel they need, say something," Crockett said.

CPS said there are extra considerations and verification requirements for allegations against public school employees which are documented in the Virginia Department of Social Services Policy.

The policy admits that it is "difficult" to obtain a preponderance of evidence for school complaints because there are "many players involved in the process" including administrators, inspectors, law enforcement, parents, and the community.

The policy states, "While this may not "feel" right for the parent, alleged victim, or others who may be impacted by the incident, this standard is set in statute."

Among those additional considerations for public school employees: Did the employee use minor or reasonable physical contact to maintain order, to quell a disturbance that could've led to an injury, to prevent self-harm, to act in self-defense, or to obtain a weapon?

If yes, CPS screens the case out.

If no, a preponderance of the evidence must show the employee's actions constitute willful misconduct or gross negligence.

Despite the extra considerations, Crockett said every complaint to CPS should be treated the same way.

“No one should get preferential treatment. Once a claim has been made, that process should follow no matter if it's the principal, a teacher, a student, a parent, or whomever. That process is supposed to be clean and go all the way through to protect the child at all costs," Crockett said. "And if you feel that you've gotten language that suggests otherwise, that's your point to question that."

As far as how schools report assaults to law enforcement, school boards have varying policies. In Richmond and Hanover schools, district spokespeople said any inappropriate conduct involving an employee and a student is immediately reported to law enforcement.

Other school boards, including Chesterfield, have policies with higher standards for mandatory reporting to law enforcement which reflect the state code. The state code says schools must report offenses to law enforcement when they rise to the level of a felony.

"So that's the interesting thing about the code and that lowest common denominator. Like if all else fails, this is the last letter of the law, and there's so much gray in between, and I think this is where we get these really horrible stories of the grays in between. Because each locale is its own locale, you do have variation and interpretation of the law and the code and what gets reported and what doesn't," Crockett said. "As a collective state, maybe that's something we should be talking about."

Emphasizing how varying policies across the state can impact families in different ways, Crockett added, "At the end of the day, are children being harmed? If it's yes, then we should change that. There is this idea of a collective movement to look at some of these instances, and as we see more cases, we have more information to say this isn't really working. So how do we stop that and have a proactive approach to stay ahead of the problem, instead of reacting to the problem?"

Ultimately, Crockett said she believes the system is designed to keep kids safe and that the case in Chesterfield is unusual.

Her advice to parents is: if something seems off, keep pressing.

"Sometimes, unfortunately, trust does get fractured, and so when that happens, as the parent and as an institution, there has to be an agreement that there was a mess up here, the ball got dropped. Here's what we're going to do to rectify the current situation but then also make sure it doesn't happen again. I think that's where we can rebuild the trust in the systems. Keep those conversations going and then empower the parents to feel confident that your voice is being heard. What you say matters. Things do happen when you raise your voice and ask more questions and create a system of dialogue," she said.

Parents can find more information and preventative resources on the Families Forward website.

The school district and Chesterfield School Board members have not answered any of CBS 6's questions. CCPS spokesperson Shawn Smith sent CBS 6 an email Wednesday:

"The school division shared a statement with Channel 6 last week. That is and will be the only statement/answer from the school division and the School Board. It is our sincere hope that you will respect this going forward."

The statement Smith sent last week read:

“The employee will not return to the school division pending adjudication of the charges."

This is a developing story, so anyone with more information can email newstips@wtvr.com to send a tip.

Depend on CBS 6 News and WTVR.com for in-depth coverage of this important local story. Anyone with more information can email newstips@wtvr.com to send a tip.