This spring, Rise parent leaders presented to all 250 Administration for Children’s Services attorneys who represent the child welfare system in family court. (The division is called Family Court Legal Services, or FCLS.) Rise parent leaders routinely present to newly-hired FCLS attorneys. Here is their presentation:
Rise trains parents to write and speak about their experiences with the child welfare system. The insights you’ll hear today are based on the personal essays Rise has developed with parents over the past 12 years working with over 300 parents from all over the country.
Thank you for the opportunity to present about parents’ perspectives on family court. As lawyers for ACS, you have an enormous impact on the lives of families involved in the child welfare system, but we know you rarely have the opportunity to get to know families’ whole stories, and you never speak directly with parents, or fully learn about their lives and experiences.
The main thing we want you to hear today is that parents come into court feeling powerless. Their life experiences have often made them feel powerless. Their experiences with courts and other authorities – schools, police – have also made them feel powerless. Just being people of color in this society makes them feel powerless. When their children are removed, they feel the ultimate in powerlessness.
To regain their children, parents need to find the power within themselves. The child welfare process can make them feel more powerless and at the mercy of more powerful people, or it can support parents in becoming powerful enough to overcome their obstacles.
We hope to guide you to understand how you can use your power to support families, by ensuring our experience with the child welfare system is fair.
WHAT ARE YOUR BIASES?
When we present to child protective workers we always ask: “What’s your job?” They respond, “To protect children.” We have to remind them that in order to protect children, you must assist parents. Everyone in this system holds the responsibility for supporting parents so that they can protect and provide for their children.
As lawyers, your role is to counsel and advise ACS and agency workers. You can hold workers accountable to truly engage and assist parents. You can also act directly to make the court process fair and compassionate. The more that everyone in the court shows that they care about justice being served, and that parents’ rights matter, the more parents trust the court. That counteracts powerlessness.
As you’re listening, we ask that you think about:
* What are your biases?
* How do these judgments affect how you advise ACS and agencies?
* How might the way you act and speak in Court and in conferences affect how empowered parents feel to make a change?
First, we’ll talk about humanity. We want you to see parents as people, not cases.
Second, we’ll talk about racism. We want you to understand that seeing only families of color in Family Court makes parents question the fairness of this system.
Third, we’ll talk about trauma. Parents with child welfare cases often have long histories of being victimized. Everyone in the courtroom needs to be careful not to make parents feel victimized again. That’s actually really easy to do – but also can be avoided.
Fourth and fifth we’ll talk about family visiting time and services. The majority of children who spend time in foster care go home to their families, but usually not enough is done to protect the family bond when children are in foster care. Visits and services play important roles in maintaining family bonds.
No one does well in their job or their life if they feel powerless. Too often, courts are places where parents feel small and unheard. We hope our stories and recommendations today show you how you can be part of changing that.
To begin, Nancy will share her story. Please think about powerlessness as you’re listening.
ALONE AND POWERLESS: NANCY’S STORY
I never want another parent or child to feel like I did facing the child welfare system—alone and powerless.
The first time ACS came into my life was when I was 5 years old. I was removed from my mother. After that, I was placed with my grandmother, but my grandmother was not a loving person—no hugs or kisses. I never really understood that.
When she gave us up, my sister and I went into foster care. If we stayed in one place more than six months, it was a lot. I constantly thought, “What is going to happen to us now? Where are we going this time? Will my mother ever get better to take us back?”
Then ACS came back into my life when I was a parent.
I was 19 when I met my husband. At first, he was a gentleman. I thought he would help me create the kind of life I wanted. But he changed. Trying to build my own family ended up with ACS involvement because of the many times the cops had to come into the home regarding me and my husband’s arguments. The next-door neighbors heard the yelling and fighting. I was ashamed and embarrassed.
Eventually, ACS told me if I didn’t keep my children safe from him, they would remove my children from me. I asked them, “Can I stay in my apartment with my kids? Can you remove him?” But they said no, it was best to go to a domestic violence shelter. I thought, “Oh my god. I’m back in my past but this time I’m a mother with three children, having to pack up all of our belongings and go to an unfamiliar place.” That was one of the hardest things to do as a mother and a wife.
I went into a Domestic Violence Shelter. I received Preventive Services, therapy for me and my children and an Order of Protection by the court.
But even after I had moved my family to shelter and did all of these services to keep my family safe, child welfare stayed involved in my life for a year. They would come any time, unannounced. I hated it. It didn’t feel like an auntie was coming around to see how we were doing, it felt like a parole officer knocking on our door. It also felt unjust, like I was paying for a crime that I didn’t commit.
START WITH HUMANITY
We hope you heard from Nancy’s story how it feels to be a parent facing the system. So our first recommendations are about humanity.
We want you to treat parents as people, not cases. Here are some small ways you can do that:
* It’s painful to hear yourself talked about in court like you’re not even there.
* Please don’t call parents “Mom” or “Dad,” or especially not “Birth Mom.”
* Addressing a parent by their name in court shows that you see the parents as individuals and not just as case numbers.
* That goes for children too. Often times, parents hear professionals in court arguing about what they believe is best for their children, and the professionals don’t even seem to know their children’s names.
Part of treating parents with humanity is understanding how frustrating and disorienting it is to come to court and be taken by surprise. When you communicate with everyone on your cases in advance—the caseworkers, parents’ lawyers and children’s lawyers—you help parents know what to expect so we can be prepared.
We also want people in court to be more encouraging. All the time parents say: “This system wants me to fail.”
* Celebrate parents’ accomplishments. Encourage caseworkers to include these in their reports to the court, and don’t skip over them when you summarize the report to the judge. If a parent is doing part of her service plan, say “Ms. Jones enrolled in a program for substance abuse treatment and her counselor says she’s making progress,” before saying “she hasn’t yet completed a parenting course.” When parents hear their accomplishments spoken about in court from all sides, they are more likely to feel motivated to succeed.
* Be part of helping parents feel good about their lives and families.
One way to set parents up for success is to make sure parents are provided clear information and get peer guidance from the very beginning. Ask caseworkers what they have done to orient parents to the process. Ask caseworkers:
* Did you give this parent the ACS handbook about having a child in foster care?
* Did you meet with the parent to talk about the visiting plan, and your expectations? Rise has resources for those meetings, called Rise TIPS, that you can encourage caseworkers to use.
* Also ask: Have you introduced the parent to the parent advocate at the foster care agency? Parent Advocates with life experience in the system can be supportive to parents and help them understand what they need to do to reunify with their children.
RACE: IMPOSSIBLE TO IGNORE
Two things are behind our recommendations for treating parents with humanity: our experiences with racism and with trauma.
Racism is hard to talk about, but it is present in child welfare.
* One third of all children are investigated, but 53% of Black children will experience a child abuse investigation at some point.
* Black families are overrepresented in every stage of a child welfare case: investigation, removal and length of stay in foster care.
* A national study found that children of color, especially Black and Native American children, are more likely to be put in foster care than receive in-home services, even when their families have the same problems as White families.
It’s impossible for parents to ignore the racial makeup in the courthouse—almost all the families they see around them are of color. Most of these families live in the same eight neighborhoods targeted by ACS. Parents living in targeted communities feel like they’re always under the shadow of ACS. When they come to court, they question whether there’s any justice at all in the system
One father wrote in Rise:
“Before child welfare came into my family’s life, my understanding of the court system was that truth is found by careful and dutiful dissection in the court room; evidence is paramount and lies are dissolved. However, I have come to learn that in child welfare, there are flaws that tilt the scales of justice.
The family is considered guilty until proven innocent. The judge is the decider, no jury required. The child welfare system has funds for legal representation and experts, while most families do not. Children may be taken instantly, on little evidence, and their time apart from family is of no consequence to the system.”
Parent Advocate Jeffrey Mays has written for Rise about how he was completely overlooked as a Black father. Here’s what Jeffrey said about race in child welfare:
“When I went on visits and I saw more Black families than Whites or Hispanics, I would feel very paranoid. I would look at all the Black kids and wonder if the system got more money for Black kids. I would want my kids to be quiet and for nothing to go wrong. It seemed like the system was expecting me to fail. Just seeing racial disproportionality makes it harder for parents of color to succeed.”
You may feel that the racism in the system is a bigger problem than you have the power to address, but you can learn from what has worked for child welfare systems like Fresno, California’s. We did an interview with the deputy director for child welfare in Fresno about their program to address race and bias in their system. They studied their system and found some of the reasons for the longer length of stay in care for Black children were:
* That workers did not look for Black families’ strengths;
* That workers did not act with a sense of urgency to get Black children home;
* That the court focused more on service compliance than safety.
Fresno is addressing these problems by better tracking data about race and paying attention to it.
You can also pay attention to race in your practice. Notice which neighborhood a family lives in and think about the presence of ACS in that neighborhood. When making decisions about families of color. Ask yourself:
* Am I holding this parent to the same standard I would hold a White parent to?
* Have I become more focused on compliance than safety?
Treating parents as experts on their own lives and communities can help reduce inequity. Seeing parents’ humanity can combat implicit bias and racism.
TRAUMA: THE HIDDEN STORY
Now we’ll talk about trauma. Feeling powerless or unjustly treated can be triggers for parents who have experienced trauma. Here’s what we want you to understand about trauma.
Trauma is the hidden story in child welfare.
* More than half of mothers with children in foster care in New York City meet the criteria for PTSD.
* The vast majority of parents who have written for Rise report that they were sexually abused or assaulted.
* Research suggests that between 25 and 40 percent of parents with children in foster care in New York City were in foster care themselves in childhood.
How does trauma affect parents in court? Here’s how one mom described it.
ANOTHER KIND OF ABUSE: CHRYSTAL’S STORY
When my son had been in foster care for about a year, I was consumed by feeling powerless and alone. In court, it seemed like the foster care agency just kept bringing up my long history of addiction and incarceration instead of focusing on the five years I’d been clean before I had my son and the progress I was making.
The worst was hearing about my history over and over again in court. I had to endure fancy people not caring about my story, people misjudging me and categorizing me and making decisions for me. I had to answer to people who seemed to loathe me.
As time passed, all of my experiences of being powerless—being abused and gang raped and going to prison—came together in my mind. I was reminded of being told when to eat and sleep, of not getting to make a phone call for days, of having someone scream in my face and not being able to knock their teeth out. Being told when I could and couldn’t see my child and what I should and shouldn’t do during visits came to feel like another kind of abuse.
PROTECT PRIVACY, QUESTION DIAGNOSES
We want you to understand that trauma is shameful. You heard in Chrystal’s story how hearing lawyers and others talk about her experiences in court triggered her trauma. Think about what information you share about parents in court and why. Not everything in parents’ lives is relevant to the case in court.
* You may do real damage by digging up the past in court.
* You can make your practice more trauma-informed by not making everything about parents’ personal lives public. That shows parents compassion and respect.
We also want everyone to be more skeptical of mental health evaluations, especially if clinicians spend very little time with parents, and never or rarely see parents with their children.
* These evaluations don’t really show what’s going on with parents because parents are afraid of them and try to hide what they’re going through.
* Evaluations where the clinician doesn’t know the parent well also undermine trust between parents and the court.
* As one mom put it: “When the system and the courts slap you with a diagnosis without even understanding the situation you’re in or listening to what you think you need, you feel stereotyped and discriminated against.”
We did an interview with personnel from a court improvement project upstate who developed a trauma-informed court. They told us:
* “Our standards for the court are: safety, trustworthiness, choice, collaboration and empowerment.”
* “We try to work with families instead of doing things for them.” We ask: “What do you think needs to happen for your child to be safe returning home?”
* “Everyone in the courtroom also tries to be friendly, because if our attitude is punishing, we’re not going to make progress.”
That’s not usually how it feels to go to court here in New York City.
ADVOCATE FOR SERVICES AND VISITS
Now we’ll talk about two aspects of a case where you have a lot of power: family time and service planning. How you advise caseworkers on these two aspects of a case, and what you advocate for in court, can help a family get the right support, and preserve their bond. That can mean successful reunification.
We’ll start with family visiting time.
* Think about how scary and sad it feels to be a child who sees her parent only once a week, and how weird it is to visit your parent in a small room in an unfamiliar place.
* The message child welfare seems to be sending to parents is: “Your love is not important to your children’s well-being.” But our children miss us and want to know that we love them! Treat us as a family.
* “If this was my child, would I feel comfortable with this visiting plan?”
* Make sure parents begin their cases with as much family time as possible, and question the agency when the agency or foster parent cancels visits.
* Ask caseworkers on every case whether a visit coach early on would be helpful. Too often, agencies wait until there is a problem before they pay attention to what is happening in visits.
* Challenge caseworkers about why visits need to be supervised and remind them of ACS’s own policy: Family time is not decided by service compliance.
For many parents, supervised visits are hard. Walking into the agency reinforces the message that they have failed. They’re also confused about what’s expected during visits and not usually given information about this.
Sometimes parents don’t show up for family time, or caseworkers say they behave inappropriately. There may be a lot more underlying that than you realize.
As you listen to Sara’s story, think about how getting the right services made her feel more confident as a parent.
GAINING CONFIDENCE: SARA’S STORY
When I started visiting my son Aaron in foster care, I felt that I might not be doing the right thing by trying to get my son back. Every time I made a small mistake, I was telling myself, “I am not good at this! I shouldn’t be a mom!”
Then I was referred to parent-child therapy. My caseworker said, “The program would be a good way for somebody to help you and your child learn to be with each other, and for you to learn to take care of him.”
I was nervous. It’s not easy for me to trust people because of all the things I’ve been through.
Not knowing my parenting therapist, Hazel, at first I was afraid she would be just waiting for me to make a mistake—like she’d write a list to the court saying, “At 1:45 this mother couldn’t calm her son down.” But it was not like that. She actually helped me see that, when a mistake happens, it’s not completely my fault.
Hazel showed me how to distract Aaron when I changed his diaper. When he got older, she showed me that I could let him pick out the toys and sing the Clean Up Song to get him in the mood.
The more time I spent with my son, the better I became at caring for him. I learned what he liked and didn’t. I learned his favorite foods, and that he loves Elmo and playing ball. And Aaron’s hugs, his kisses, his smiles showed me he loved me.
One day at Hazel’s office, my son fell. He tripped and he bit his lip when he fell. It got me all upset. I don’t like seeing my baby hurt. Plus, I thought, “What if everybody says this was my fault? Are they going to hold it against me? Is this going to be the end even though I’ve been working so hard to get him back?”
Hazel told me, “It’s not your fault. He’s learning to walk. He’s going to be a bit wobbly. And he’s exploring his surroundings. When kids are learning, they fall down. You can’t catch him every second.” She didn’t blame me. What a miracle!
From the therapy, I became more confident. That was so important when Aaron came home.
Aaron and I reunified in a shelter, and I felt horrible about taking Aaron to unknown and possibly unsafe conditions. I kept wondering: “Am I being selfish by getting him back? Who am I doing this for?” Aaron grew up thinking his foster parents were his Mommy and Daddy, and I was taking away from that when I didn’t even know if I was going to do a good job as a mother.
But in the parent-child therapy, I learned that if I can have patience with myself and stay calm and focused, then I will be able to calm Aaron as well.
So I have been telling myself, “Take a deep breath. Count to a hundred. Maybe a thousand.”
Aaron and I have a puzzle of a house that he likes to put together. I tell him to separate the pieces to make it less stressful and less complicated, to find the corners and then the edges, one piece at a time.
I am also taking life one step at a time. Piece by piece, I’m building a home for my child.
FIND SOLUTIONS WITH PARENTS
You heard in Sara’s story how the right services helped her reclaim her power. Effective services can help parents. But too often, parents are sent to bad services or services that don’t fit. Parents start to think the system just cares about compliance, and wants to keep their kids in care while they jump through hoops.
A constant theme at Rise is that parents want to be heard, not fixed. Parents want the system to support them in making good decisions about what can help them and their children, not make those decisions for them.
Ask caseworkers: What does the parent think she needs, or her children need. Parents often feel that the service plan is imposed on them without their input.
* Parents want information and choices so they can develop a service plan that fits their needs.
Lawyers should learn about the services, so you can work with and challenge caseworkers to come up with a plan that makes sense, and present that plan to the judge.
* Especially if you see angry parents, do not immediately suggest anger management. (As the former NYC commissioner said: “If a parent isn’t angry when her child is removed, we should worry.”) Anger is often a normal response.
* Ask agencies, “Has this parent been introduced to the parent advocate at her foster care agency?” or, “Is there a peer support group this parent can try as an alternative to anger management?”
* Lawyers also often don’t consider the reality of parents’ lives when proposing or agreeing to services. Ask the caseworkers to consider parents’ schedules and what else they have on their plate. Help set parents up for success.
* Finally, be sure to communicate with parents’ lawyers about the service plan before If parents’ lawyers know what you plan to recommend, they can discuss it with their clients. More communication will make it more likely that the final plan will be one that works.
Services are important to address challenges in parents’ lives and the reasons their children enter foster care, but it’s also important to look beyond service compliance when assessing what’s best for a child and his or her family. One common way this comes up is when children are moved from foster home to foster home.
* Always challenge caseworkers when they move children. Ask, if the child needs to be moved, can he or she move home?
* Ask the caseworker what the safety concerns are that keep the child from returning to the parent.
* If a child can’t be returned to the parent, have any family resources been identified that a child can go to instead?
THREE LOST YEARS: JEANETTE’S STORY
To end, Jeanette is going to share her story with you. As you’re listening, please think about power and powerlessness – the powerlessness we so often feel, the power you have, and the power we all have to make changes for parents and children in family court.
Once child welfare got involved in my life, things went sideways real fast.
Imagine being a parent who has never faced the child welfare system and is being accused of being evil, bad. Your one sense of comfort is gone. Your child, the one thing that as a parent you thought could never be taken away, has been ripped away from you and put into the care of strangers. How intrusive and violating is that feeling. How scary it is to not know where children are sleeping or if they are okay, did they eat, are they scared and as confused as you, the parent? All these feelings no one ever thinks about, and they are real feelings, feelings that stay with you even after the child has been returned home. Even after therapy for years the trauma never goes away.
When I was 19, and my son was 2, I lost my son to the child welfare system for three years. The day my son was removed I was treated as a criminal. I wasn’t given a chance to explain myself. I wasn’t asked: What happened? I was just thrown behind bars. I felt like I was seen as a monster.
I felt alone and scared and felt like everyone was just telling me what to do and my attorney was also just going through the motions of the process. How I wish I had time to tell my attorney who I was before child welfare got involved in my life. Maybe then he would have not also felt as if he were representing a monster. He could have understood me and my culture, my background. How great I was as a mother before that one incident ruined my life for three years.
In court, it felt like I had no voice and I was just supposed to sit and have everyone tell me what to do in my life. The first day, I walked in my lawyer came out screaming my name and said, “Let’s go.” The first remark I heard from the judge was him saying, “Do you think this is the ghetto?” because I had on sweatpants and a sweatshirt. I felt frozen. These things were happening to me, but I wasn’t even really there.
I thought, “This court hates me, and I’m never getting my son home, because I’m from the ’hood and I’m seen as a low-income, poor family.” I felt defeated and angry.
I lost my son to foster care for 3 years. During that time, I was sent to anger management three times. But I really wasn’t an angry person, I was angry at the situation.
It was like I lost control over my body and mind. I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t get things done the way I used to. I could not keep track of anything anymore.
Plus, losing my son wasn’t my only challenge. During the years my son was in foster care, I also lost two family members, but the system did not care.
Trying to stay calm was easier said than done. My anger would jump from 100 to 1,000 on a regular basis. I was always the type to have my guard up. I was in defense mode. But when my son went into foster care, I went from defense to attack. Everything felt like a threat to me.
No one at the agency or in court understood what was wrong with me, or what I’d been like before. They assumed that I was always an angry, violent person, and that by itself kept my son in care for longer.
I wish that the lawyers could’ve had more time to understand me as a person.
Ultimately, what helped me get my son home from foster care was having people who believed in me. My husband was my biggest support.
It wasn’t easy to get my feelings under control, but I did it. I didn’t want to be the cause of my son staying in care any longer.
YOU HAVE THE POWER TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE
These recommendations that you’ve heard here today may seem hard to implement. I understand how difficult change can be. You may be feeling a little overwhelmed right now. Maybe you feel like a parent who’s forced to do one more thing. As soon as you think your service plan is done, the worker just adds more services!
But I hope you’re also feeling what you want parents to feel: willingness to try, and to keep trying, to be able to provide something better for themselves and their children.
I can assure you that while looking at your work from a parent’s perspective might be hard, changing how you think about your work and the power you have to assist these parents may make a powerful difference for the children you serve, and for parents like me.