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‘Never Designed To Help’: How New York’s ‘Child Welfare’ System Preys On Families

This story was produced in partnership with the New York Civil Liberties Union. It was written by Daniel Moritz-Rabson.

In the spring of 2021, Shalonda Curtis-Hackett received a frightening call. A staffer from New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) told her that the agency had received a report claiming she was mistreating her children. Under state law, the child welfare body had a duty to investigate this allegation.

A caseworker showed up at Curtis-Hackett’s door, demanding to be let inside and threatening to come back with the police if she refused, so she consented. The agency ultimately determined that the complaint was unfounded, but not before the caseworker had looked through Curtis-Hackett’s fridge, inspected where her kids slept, examined the contents of her bathroom cabinet, and ordered that her children receive a physical.

Parents under ACS investigation are not legally obligated to allow caseworkers to enter their homes, unless the agency has a court order similar to a search warrant. Nor do they have to answer ACS’s questions or sign medical releases, as the agency commonly requests. But, like many people subjected to these investigations each year, Curtis-Hackett didn’t know any of this, in large part because ACS is not required to inform parents of their rights.

Advocates say the lack of a requirement for a Miranda-like warning allows ACS caseworkers to take advantage of parents’ fear and unfamiliarity with the process. ACS has recently resisted efforts to compel its workers to inform parents of their rights. And critics say this intransigence is just one way ACS is fighting to preserve a predatory system that punishes poor New Yorkers while misleadingly presenting itself as a solution to their problems.

By law, ACS has up to 60 days to investigate allegations of child abuse or neglect before deciding whether to pursue formal charges in family court. Once a child welfare complaint has been initiated, agency staff can show up at a parent’s home without warning to conduct an investigation. Parents who spoke to The Appeal and NYCLU said they felt pressured to submit to sweeping demands and intrusive and degrading treatment during these interactions.

“You got to keep a level head, or try to, even though you’re boiling inside,” Curtis-Hackett said, noting that ACS can use parents’ conduct during investigations to build a case against them. In the agency’s eyes, “you’re not innocent, you’re guilty, and you’re proving your innocence in those 60 days,” Curtis-Hackett said.

Other parents described ACS strip-searching their children and scrutinizing minute details of their family lives. One recounted an ACS worker questioning her choice of cereal.

“As that investigation is going, it’s traumatizing you and your children,” another parent said.

Each interaction with ACS carries potentially grave consequences for a family. Though it’s described as a child welfare agency, ACS effectively serves as a policing system for parents. The department has vast authority over those who come under suspicion, and it’s able to conduct “emergency removals” of children from their families. ACS can carry out these removals outside of family court hours, without prior notice, and without submitting to oversight beforehand to ensure the action is justified. The timing can leave parents reeling and unable to contact government offices with questions or objections: If ACS conducts a removal on a Friday night, for example, a judge will not review it until Monday.

Parents under ACS investigation also face other structural hurdles that impede their attempts to mount a defense. Those represented by a court-appointed attorney typically do not meet with their lawyer until their first appearance in court—which only happens after an investigation has concluded and they have been charged. During investigations, parents may interact with ACS staff for weeks or months without knowing their rights or legal obligations.

ACS investigations cause families extreme stress, but the vast majority are closed without further action. Two-thirds of abuse and neglect reports submitted to ACS are ultimately deemed unfounded. Even fewer wind their way into a courtroom; of the nearly 44,216 ACS investigations initiated in 2022, just 7.6 percent ended up in family court, according to the agency.

Research has shown that ACS investigations primarily involve low-income New Yorkers, and disproportionately target those who are Black or Latino. A 2019 analysis of ACS data found that in the 10 New York City community districts with the highest rates of child poverty, investigations rates were four times higher, on average, than in the 10 districts where child poverty was the lowest. And while Black and Latino parents were more likely to be subjected to a child welfare investigation—and all of the associated stress and trauma—they were not more likely to be found guilty of abuse or neglect.

“If you’re Black, you’re ACS adjacent,” Curtis-Hackett said.

ACS Commissioner Jess Dannhauser acknowledged these disparities in a December editorial for the New York Daily News, in which he cited a study that found that nearly half of New York City’s Black children had been the subject of a welfare investigation.

In response to questions submitted for this story, an agency spokesperson wrote that “ACS does not ‘criminalize’ poverty.” “In a large majority of cases, ACS and other government agencies seek to assist parents and children [and their families] to build or gain access to networks of support so that they are able to remain together and thrive,” the spokesperson wrote.

Monitoring and Punishing

In 1995, 6-year-old Elisa Izquierdo was beaten to death by her mother in Manhattan. The little girl’s killing prompted outrage and demands for political action, amid reports that relatives, neighbors, and teachers had tried to warn officials that Elisa’s life was in danger.

Just two months later, in January 1996, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani announced an overhaul of New York’s child welfare system which included the creation of ACS. The new agency marked a shift in the city’s handling of concerns about child safety, which had previously prioritized keeping families together. With ACS, the city would take a more punitive approach, focusing on “criminal justice and the protection of the children,” the New York Times reported at the time.

The size and scope of the agency’s mission has swelled over the past quarter-century, and its annual budget now exceeds $2.7 billion. ACS has also expanded to provide a range of preventive services—such as mental health care, after-school programs, and assistance for special medical needs—which it says help strengthen families. But under its current mandate, the agency serves dual, often contradictory roles: offering services intended to help parents avoid further entanglement in the system, while at the same time monitoring and punishing them.

Some ACS prevention programs ostensibly seek to address the economic insecurity that underpins many child neglect calls. Two-thirds of mistreatment allegations received by ACS allege neglect, rather than abuse, which has led social workers to argue that the agency is penalizing some parents for their socioeconomic status.

In a statement to The Appeal and NYCLU, the agency highlighted services that help with access to clothing, food, furniture, cleaning supplies, education, and day care; government programs like Social Security and SNAP; and programs that provide direct cash assistance.

But parents say ACS’s reputation for using heavy-handed tactics such as home searches and emergency child removals has stoked fear and resentment, making some hesitant to engage with these assistance programs.

A few years ago, Mariya Kolesnichenko was living in a homeless shelter when ACS informed her that it would be investigating a complaint that she wasn’t adequately feeding her children. The experience made her wary of later turning to ACS assistance programs. “They make you feel so uncomfortable, to the point where even if you need food, you don’t want to ask them, because they’re gonna use that against you,” Kolesnichenko said.

‘It Damages the Bond That You’ve Built’

ACS investigations are emotionally taxing, but parents say the process of having their children removed from their care can be even more deeply destabilizing.

In March 2021, a woman called Heidi (she asked to use a pseudonym owing to the possibility of retaliation) had her child removed from her home by ACS after someone reported her for drinking alcohol, she told The Appeal and NYCLU.

She then entered a residential treatment facility in the Bronx, and her daughter was taken to foster care in Brooklyn. On days when visits were scheduled, Heidi would have to travel more than an hour each way to see her daughter, she said. Sometimes when she arrived, she would be told that the visit had been canceled.

During visits with her daughter, Heidi recalled, a case planner from the foster agency would be there to observe, often quipping about the food she was allowing her child to eat. The scrutiny felt unfair, Heidi said.

“Why is the stranger watching me feed my daughter yogurt?” she recalled thinking. “It’s a level of surveillance that makes you feel so uncomfortable. And it damages the bond that you’ve built, of trust between a parent and child, that the parent has to listen to the stranger berate them.”

Heidi was later transferred to Greenhope Services for Women, a program in East Harlem that began as a treatment program for formerly incarcerated women and now provides housing and recovery services for women referred there by criminal and family courts.

In the fall of 2022, more than a year and a half after being removed from her home by ACS, Heidi’s daughter returned to live with her mother full-time under trial discharge, a probationary step during which a child legally remains in foster care and a case planner continues to visit the parent and child.

Like her other interactions with ACS and the family court system, the experience at the recovery facility was patronizing and disrespectful, Heidi said.

Staff at Greenhope would routinely enter her room unannounced, often coming in while she was naked, she said. Greenhope declined to comment on the record when asked about its policies and Heidi’s claims.

Many parents whose cases reach family court are required to complete certain courses before they can be reunited with their children. Heidi was told that in order to leave Greenhope she had to enroll in classes spanning subjects such as parenting, anger management, and substance use and recovery. After nearly a year at Greenhope, she said it was still unclear to her how to complete these programs.

“I’ve been going in these groups for like, what, 46 weeks or something now. … Like, how long do you need me to do this?” Heidi said.

Others have expressed similar frustrations about these extensive course requirements. Family court judges commonly tell parents they must complete a full slate of classes, some of which cover topics that have nothing to do with the reason their child was taken out of their care, according to Jeanette Vega, executive director of Rise, an organization that opposes the current family regulation system.

“They always think we’re angry, but we should be angry. They just took our life away from us,” Vega said in an interview. “They should be giving you services [based] on what the allegation was.”

Resistance to Change

In 2020, amid racial justice protests sparked by the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, ACS hired National Innovation Service (NIS)—a now defunct organization that worked with government entities to create more equitable and accountable systems—to advise the agency on addressing potential structural racism in its operations. By the end of the year, researchers with NIS had interviewed 115 people, including advocates, parents affected by the agency, and 46 ACS staff members. Among them were high-ranking ACS officials.

The resulting report, first obtained by the Bronx Defenders and covered by the New York Times, found that even some ACS staffers felt the agency’s approach to child welfare was racist. Many of their critiques mirrored complaints that have been levied against ACS for years, as the agency has consistently failed to undertake structural overhauls to address the disproportionate number of Black and Latino families that come under investigation.

ACS’s resistance to change is not unique. Family regulation agencies throughout New York State and the entire country have been slow to respond to evidence of structural racism in their practices, and many have refused to implement changes intended to ensure their services are actually benefiting children and families. Meanwhile, the rate at which parental rights were terminated across the United States doubled between 2000 and 2016, with Black and Native American children facing the largest increases. West Virginia currently leads the way in the speed with which it terminates parental rights, completing the legal process within an average of 11 months after first removing a child from a family’s home.

Efforts to reform family regulation systems regularly run into government resistance. Across New York State, advocates and attorneys have unsuccessfully sought to limit the weight of child neglect allegations, which they say perpetuate the targeting of low-income parents predominantly from Black and brown communities.

Against this backdrop, civil rights advocates and organizations, including the NYCLU, are supporting several measures to reform New York’s family regulation system at both the state and city level.

One proposal would require caseworkers to issue the equivalent of a Miranda warning, informing parents of their right to refuse entry to child welfare agents who come to their homes, unless the agents have a court order.

Another critical measure to shield parents from improper conduct by ACS and other agencies is to ensure they have access to a lawyer earlier in the investigative process.

ACS has taken some steps in recent years to address concerns about its policies and procedures.

In May 2022, the agency launched a pilot program designed to inform parents about the investigative process and provide them with contact information for attorneys. “We are committed to providing parents with written materials at their door that will help them to better understand their rights when they are the subject of an allegation of child abuse or neglect,” the agency said in a statement to The Appeal and NYCLU.

The agency emphasized its prevention programs, such as free family counseling and domestic violence services, and pointed to its use of the Collaborative Assessment, Response, Engagement, and Support (CARES) approach in a growing number of cases. This system is reserved for reports in which there “is no immediate or impending danger to children and where there are no allegations of serious child abuse.” Unlike a standard ACS intervention, the CARES process doesn’t carry the threat of family court, and it doesn’t necessarily result in a formal investigation or an official determination of whether abuse or neglect may have taken place.

Still, ACS openly acknowledges that it has more work to do to improve the system, particularly around the disparate impact of child neglect and abuse investigations on Black and Latino families.

“ACS is committed to keeping children safe, and, at the same time, addressing the systemic racial disparities that exist in child welfare. New York City children and families deserve both,” ACS Commissioner Jess Dannhauser said in a written statement provided for this story. “We will continue our work in narrowing the front door to the child welfare system by investing in communities and working with external stakeholders to help us reduce unwarranted reports to the State’s child abuse hotline, so that we can better focus our child protection resources on those who really need it.”

But ACS’s ongoing resistance to more concrete reforms, such as the “Miranda” warning requirement, has led some critics to contend that the agency is not genuinely interested in altering its policies or conduct. For many parents who have been affected by the agency’s actions, this refusal to change has only reinforced the belief that ACS does not actually exist to provide help to families.

In testimony at a meeting of the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in January, Joyce McMillan, the executive director of JMACforFamilies, a nonprofit organization seeking to abolish and replace the current family regulation system, said that the current approach to “child welfare” is designed to “look like the prison industrial complex.”

McMillan’s own children were removed from her care more than two decades ago. In her eyes, family regulation agencies like ACS do “the exact same thing to children and families that they do to prisoners,” she said. “Strip-searching them, separating them from everyone and everything they know and love, feeding them what they want to feed them, having them change homes using garbage bags and pillow cases.”

These tactics have led McMillan to conclude that ACS caseworkers don’t go into communities with the intention of helping. “Case managers go into the field to investigate. That’s what they do. That’s the premise of this agency,” she said. “It was never designed to help. The only thing that [child protective services] protects children from is success.”

Originally published in The Appeal

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