Many of us who grew up in foster care feel like the child welfare system is just waiting for us to mess up, and according to the American Bar Association’s Center for Children and the Law, 77% of lawyers who responded to a recent survey said they believe that mothers in foster care are separated from their children for less serious allegations than other mothers.
Here, Jessica Weidmann, a lawyer at the Center for Family Representation in New York City, and Benita Miller, Deputy Commissioner for Family Permanency Services at New York City’s Children’s Services, explain what mothers—and the child welfare system—can do to keep children safe at home.
Q: What are the most common reasons that mothers in foster care have their children removed?
Weidmann: A lot of mothers who grew up in care say they don’t understand why they’re being charged, especially for neglect. They say they always make sure their child is fed, has clothes, has a place to sleep. But under the law, there are a lot of other behaviors that can be considered neglect and it’s really important to understand that. If you grew up in foster care, child protective services also has information about you that it doesn’t have about other mothers, and that can affect your case.
Miller: Many young mothers in foster care are subject to investigations and removals because of allegations of “inadequate guardianship,” or lack of supervision. Sometimes it’s the result of leaving foster care without permission, with or without the baby, without making proper child care arrangements. It’s very natural to want to connect your baby to extended family, to their fathers and to your community, but as a system, we need to make sure that children know their roots and are safe.
Weidmann: Under the law, moms in care have full legal rights to make decisions for their children—including whom they visit. But the agency you’re in and your foster parent can also be held responsible if something happens to your child. That can lead them to call in a case if you go AWOL and they don’t know where you are, or they think you may be somewhere unsafe. Once you become a parent, it’s much more important to think about how you interact with foster care staff and foster parents. If you can’t agree on where it’s OK to take your child, you should talk with your lawyer.
Miller: Other issues that can lead to allegations are untreated mental illness, substance abuse and domestic violence.
Weidmann: A report may be called in for something that doesn’t seem that significant, like fighting with your boyfriend. But if child protective services sees a diagnosis in your case file like oppositional defiance disorder or bipolar disorder, and you’re not complying with mental health services, that allegation can snowball into a case that’s much harder to fight.
Q: What can mothers do to reduce the chance of an investigation or removal?
Weidmann: Before they ever have a case, mothers in foster care should talk to their lawyer—the lawyer that has represented them as a child—to better understand their risks and rights and get help. It’s incredibly important to address any issues you feel you have, or that have been raised with you. If you’ve experienced physical violence with the father of your child, have you received counseling to address that? If you have a problem with drug use, have you considered treatment?
Mothers especially need to understand the mental health history in their case file. Many times people just stop taking medication or going to therapy because it wasn’t helping. But if you’ve told a psychiatrist that medication is not working for you and made an alternative plan, or found a therapist you do like talking to, you’ll be in better shape if you do get a case. If you don’t agree with the diagnosis or treatment plan, you can get a second opinion.
In New York City, foster care agencies are required to offer preventive services to mothers in foster care—things like parenting classes, or parent-child therapy. Getting help can be very hard, because of the fear that information will be used against you. But there are ways to get help that are safer. If you don’t trust your agency, find help outside your agency. Ask other parents what has helped them. You can also ask service providers directly what might lead a program to make a report. It’s important to remember that not getting help is also a risk.
If a case is called in, try to get support from past lawyers, counselors, mentors, foster parents, staff or teachers. If you had a good relationship with a foster parent, it may be possible for your child to be placed with that foster parent if your child is removed.
Q: What steps can foster care agencies take to reduce investigations and removals?
Miller: At ACS, the teen specialist unit provides support and resources to young parents in foster care before a crisis hits. I encourage young parents to reach out to us. We want to connect young parents to education and employment resources and to early learning activities for babies. Everyone wants a smart baby. The city’s early learning system can open up opportunities for your baby to learn and open up networks of other parents for you to connect to.
If mothers in foster care are investigated for neglect or abuse, we also have someone from the teen specialists unit attend “initial child safety conference” in order to connect mothers to support and to bring a trauma focus and developmental lens to the conference.
ACS also has hired three young parents to go out into the community to connect with other young parents in care and let them know about resources. We have about 250 young mothers in foster care—and that number has dropped in the last 10 years—and our aim is to impact all of our young parents. We’re identifying fathers of children in foster care and providing them with support so our young mothers can safely co-parent.
As a result of all these efforts, last year we saw a slight downward tick in the number of investigations of mothers in foster care. We see that as very promising.