Surveillance Isn’t Safety – How over-reporting and CPS monitoring stress families and weaken communities

Series Edited by Rachel Blustain, Rise Contributing Editor

This year, Rise will share parents’ perspectives and recommendations for strengthening families without surveillance and through community.

Too often, when families are struggling, school personnel, doctors and police are quick to call a hotline instead of connecting us to resources and support.

Nationwide, child abuse and neglect reports grew more than 12% from 2013 to 2017. Abuse scandals across the country and sensational media coverage of child fatalities in many communities put mandated reporters under pressure to report any suspicion. This heightened surveillance falls disproportionately on poor parents of color, who come into greater contact with mandated reporters.

Whole Communities Under Supervision

In New York City, the number of children in foster care has dropped dramatically in the past 20 years but ACS’ threatening presence in poor communities of color has grown. Investigations have increased from 54,039 in 2013 to 59,166 in 2018 and are concentrated in poor communities of color. In Hunts Point in 2017, 10% of families were investigated. Between 2010-2014, nearly one in three families in Brownsville were subjected to an investigation, according to ACS..

In addition, the city has aggressively increased use of invasive “court-ordered supervision” to monitor families. While 5,000 families per year were typically under court monitoring until recently, that number has doubled. In 2017, more than 10,000 families had to report to a judge about how they were addressing family challenges, under constant threat of removal.  

In our communities, an accident, a conflict with a child’s school, or one overheated moment in our family life can turn into a knock on the door.

Child welfare involvement has climbed even as the number of children living in poverty in NYC has dropped, to 23.8% in 2018 from 30.1% in 2011-2015

Living in Fear

In the past year, parents at Rise have documented the impact on our families and communities.

Lou endured seven investigations, even while enrolled in a family support program. She wrote: “I made it part of my daily routine to take pictures of my kids before taking them to daycare and school so that I would have proof that my children were fine before they left my home,” she wrote. “That’s probably not something many parents would even think of doing, but for a parent like me, it just makes sense.”

Can you imagine living in this daily fear?

Cynthia wrote: “I followed all their instructions. I didn’t go to work once a week for months in order to take my daughter to a psychologist who was an hour away by public transportation. I left my job early every two weeks to receive CPS investigators at my home. My daughter, who was only 3, was so nervous being interrogated by strangers so many times that she started behaving irregularly. And, as the investigation dragged on, I was so nervous at work that I couldn’t concentrate. Plus, my boss was losing patience with my increasing absences. Eventually, I lost my job.”

Target Conditions, Not Families

In our communities, schools, parks, sports and arts programs for children, mental health supports for families, affordable and safe housing, and crisis services are often inaccessible or low quality. Yet rather than target community conditions, the child welfare system targets individual families.

Surveillance hurts families and weakens communities. We are scared to talk to our doctors or our children’s teachers. These people are supposed to be our helpers, but because of over-reporting, we see them as people who can harm us. That makes children more vulnerable. Parents who are struggling hide what they’re going through, and struggles can become crises.

Parents raising children under the double burden of economic hardship and racism should not have to live with unprecedented scrutiny of our parenting. Families under stress need opportunities to decompress. We need safe places for our children. We need opportunities to develop strong relationships with other parents. We need outlets from isolation and stress.

Time to Set a New Goal

As states begin to use federal funding through the Family First Act to expand prevention to reduce foster care placements, they must avoid expanding surveillance. In New York City, we know stop-and-frisk didn’t improve safety, and neither does over-reporting and monitoring of families. It’s time for ACS to set a new goal—to strengthen families without surveillance.

In this series—which will begin with a focus on schools—we’ll expose the harm of punishing parents instead of addressing the root causes of child welfare involvement. We’ll provide information that parents can use to advocate for their families and communities. And we’ll highlight efforts to target community conditions instead of families.

Read the Series:

No Escape, by Sarah Harris: The system failed me as a child but now it won’t leave me alone

The System Allowed My Ex to Use Investigations as a Weapon Against Me

A Punishment Worse than the Crime

When Schools Over-Report

When Schools Use Child Welfare as a Weapon

My Broken Life