A knock at the door by an investigator for New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) can be life-altering. Families across the City know all too well the powerless feeling of seeing these investigators rifle through their personal belongings, inspect their cabinets and refrigerators, strip search their children, and – in some cases – take those children away. But the odds of having your life put under scrutiny from ACS largely depends on the color of your skin.
New data analysis from the NYCLU illustrates how, at every stage of a family regulation case, the racial disparities grow:
- Although Black people comprise only 23 percent of the New York City population, Black children are the subject of 38 percent of reports made to the family regulation system and 52 percent of children removed from their home without a court order.
- When ACS decides to formally file a case against a parent in family court, 41 percent of the time it is against a Black parent. Only six percent of the cases ACS files are against white parents.
ACS is the New York City agency responsible for family regulation – a term advocates use to describe what is traditionally referred to as the “child welfare” system. But instead of improving children’s lives, the family regulation system largely functions to police, traumatize, and rip apart primarily Black and Brown families – most often because of signs of poverty, which often get prosecuted as neglect.
How a Family Gets Caught in ACS’s Grasp
Those who experience and work within the family regulation system have long known that Black families are ensnared by ACS at much higher rates than white families and that Black families are more likely to be permanently separated. But a new NYCLU analysis of ACS data exposes the alarming extent to which racism is baked into every stage of a family regulation case.
A Long History of Racism
Racism has long-underpinned the regulation of families. Beginning under the American slavery system, the law denied enslaved mothers custody of their children, who were considered property of the slaveholder – part of an economic system that commodified and exploited enslaved Black women’s reproductive capacity at the expense of family integrity. To justify this cruelty, society developed narratives undermining and devaluing Black motherhood, which continue to echo through the family regulation system today.
More modern institutions of “child welfare," arose out of similarly racist stereotypes and schemes to exploit immigrant labor. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, poor immigrant children were forcibly removed from east coast cities and sent to live on farms across the country.
Although these “orphan trains” purported to help the children they abducted by removing them from parents deemed “genetically inferior” and sending them to be socialized by middle-class American Protestants, many of the families who took in these children viewed them as a convenient source of cheap labor, leading even pro-slavery advocates to criticize the orphan train project as “making slaves obsolete.”
When state and federal governments ultimately assumed responsibility for family regulation, they continued to weaponize child removal as a means to assert racial control. Throughout most of the twentieth century, the state targeted indigenous families for separation as a tool to force assimilation, and by the 1970s, up to two-thirds of indigenous children no longer lived within their families or communities.1
The focus began to shift back to Black families in the 1960s as part of a backlash to their increased eligibility for public benefits.2 Society began to vilify Black welfare recipients—unmarried mothers, in particular—casting aspersions on their maternal fitness and blaming them for their socioeconomic conditions.3 These narratives propelled lawmakers to gut social safety nets, while simultaneously imposing punitive family regulation policies.4 Today’s family regulation system largely operates in response to the racist narratives of that era and continues to function as a tool to punish Black poverty.5
Currently in New York, Black families are seven times as likely as white families to be reported to the family regulation system and 13 times more likely to have their children removed. Roughly ninety percent of the families ACS investigates are Black or Brown.
What We Found
ACS claims it’s working to combat racial disparities and it downplays its role in perpetuating them. The agency asserts that disparities are mostly a result of the higher numbers of Black families who are reported to the agency. But this analysis shows that biased reporting remains only one part of the equation.6
ACS is ubiquitous in neighborhoods composed primarily of non-white residents. For example, in the Highbridge/Concourse section of the Bronx – which has around 145,000 residents and is only two percent white – ACS conducted a staggering 1,280 investigations in 2022. These investigations eventually led to 64 children being entered into foster care. Meanwhile, in mostly white neighborhoods like the Upper East Side – which has a population of around 197,000 and where only 27 percent of residents identify as people of color – ACS has a much less visible presence. The agency conducted only 255 investigations that same year, leading to zero foster care entries. Wealthy neighborhoods also experience significantly less ACS involvement than lower-income communities. With a median income of over $151,000, the Greenwich Village/Soho neighborhood only had 30 ACS investigations and zero foster care entries in 2022, while the neighboring Lower East Side/Chinatown neighborhood, which has a median income of less than $52,000, saw 637 investigations and 25 foster care entries. This extreme concentration of ACS activity in non-white, low-income neighborhoods illustrates the extent to which the family regulation system disproportionately surveils and punishes families according to their race and socioeconomic status.
Impacted families and advocates have long-known through experience and anecdotal evidence that Black families are treated with more suspicion and less compassion by the family regulation system. And ACS staff themselves admitted the truth of these perceptions in a 2020 internal racial equity audit. The NYCLU’s analysis of ACS data further reveals how systemic bias manifests at each stage of a family regulation case to further entrench Black families in the system and subject them to harsher treatment.
Not only are Black parents more likely to be reported to the State Central Register of Child Abuse and Maltreatment (SCR) – the central database where all reports are received and directed to the appropriate local family regulation agency – than their white counterparts, but once reported, they are also more likely to be the subject of an indicated investigation. This means that, when investigating Black families, ACS workers are more likely to conclude that there is evidence of abuse or neglect, at least partly because ACS staff perceive race to be an indicator of risk. ACS’ internal racial equity audit found that “white parents are presumed to be innocent and are repeatedly given opportunities to fail and try again, while Black and Brown parents are treated at every juncture as if they are not competent parents capable of providing acceptable care to their children.” Moreover, white parents are more likely to have private attorneys supporting them from the outset of an investigation, which helps get their cases closed quickly before going to court. Black and Brown families are less likely to benefit from this resource and are rarely provided with information about their rights and options by ACS.
Black children are also at higher risk of being subjected to a traumatic emergency removal by ACS case workers than any other demographic group. Although Black people comprise only 23 percent of the New York City population, Black children are the subject of 38 percent of SCR intakes and make up 52 percent of emergency removals.
SCR Intakes and Emergency Removals Compared to NYC Population by Race/Ethnicity
These disparities persist as families enter the family court system. ACS files formal charges of neglect or abuse in family court against Black families more than against any other demographic group. Forty-one percent of Article 10 filings – the legal mechanism by which ACS prosecutes abuse and neglect after concluding an investigation – are brought against Black families. Latinx families are also overrepresented; while Latinx people comprise 29 percent of the population, Latinx parents make up 39 percent of Article 10 filings. Only six percent of Article 10 filings are brought against white parents. Once a family court case is filed, Black children are again more likely to be removed from their home and family. In nearly half of all cases where a judge orders a child to be placed in foster care, the parents involved in the case are Black. This means that not only are Black families most likely to interact with the family regulation system, but they are also more likely to become deeply ensnared in it and suffer the cruelty of having their children ripped away.
Parent Population at Different Stages by Race/Ethnicity
How to Curtail and Transform a Harmful System
This data should be a wakeup call for ACS and the lawmakers who regulate it to take decisive action. Policymakers must curb the harms being done to Black families, communities of color, and tens of thousands of New Yorkers across the state. While a transformative approach is needed to truly change the family regulation system, there are more immediate actions that policymakers can take right now to reduce racial disparities and keep families together.
The New York City Council and New York State Legislature should each pass bills that would ensure that parents are informed of their rights when confronted by ACS workers—both orally and in writing—enabling them to make informed decisions about whether to seek legal counsel, answer certain questions, or allow case workers into their home. The state should also pass legislation to reduce the number of malicious and harassing reports to the SCR that trigger baseless investigations by prohibiting callers from making reports anonymously and to prohibit health care providers from drug testing pregnant patients and newborns without their informed consent. These secret drug tests are often improperly used to justify reporting families to the SCR.
Additionally, New York City and state should ensure that all parents have legal counsel during a child protective investigation—not just those who can afford it. Currently, parents are only entitled to appointed counsel once a case has been filed against them in family court, after ACS has completed its invasive and traumatizing investigation. But timely representation during the investigation phase is a proven way to reduce family separation and could go a long way towards reducing the disproportionate rate at which Black children are removed.
Ultimately, racial bias is baked into the family regulation system’s DNA, and half-measures aimed at marginal reform will not be enough to stop it from continuing to target and tear apart Black, Brown, and Indigenous families, as it has for generations. Policymakers must radically reimagine what it means to support families by giving them equitable access to opportunity, resources, and compassion.
About the Data
ACS data come from documents that ACS posts annually on its website in compliance with Local Law 132 passed by the New York City Council in 2021. Specifically, we used the Demographics of Children and Parents at Steps in the Child Welfare System from Fiscal Year 2022.
The New York City demographics data come from the 2017 – 2021 American Community Survey. We use these data because they are the most up-to-date and reliable data available regarding New York City demographics, despite not incorporating survey results from 2022. The community district level demographics data come from the NYU Furman Center's New York Neighborhood Data Profiles.
In each dataset, individuals who identify as Latinx are counted separately from all other racial groups, regardless of race. Our report does the same, e.g., when we reference Black parents, we are only referencing Black parents who do not identify as Latinx.