Rise Testimony to City Council: Nov. 27, 2018 Hearing on Family Separation in Family Court

Hello Councilmembers,

Thank you for your attention to the issue of family separation in New York City family court. Although many people across our city and country have been moved by seeing how it affects children and families to be separated at the border, the separations that happen every day because of child welfare are seen differently. These families are seen as deserving separation, even though in many cases, families do not need to be separated—or kept separated for years because of foster care—for children to be safe.

I am speaking here today on behalf of Rise, which trains parents to write and speak about their experiences with the child welfare system and become advocates for reform. You have the opportunity to hear parents voices today through my testimony. I speak for the hundreds of writers who have shared their stories in Rise who are parents facing the system. The after-effect child welfare had on me stays with me. As I work within this system for reform and to highlight parents’ voices, I’m still traumatized by those horrible things I see still happening to families.

You may have read recent stories in the New York Times and City Limits that suggest that ACS is investing too much in reunification. We don’t believe there’s evidence to that claim. In NYC, only 30% of families reunify in 12 months vs. 40 percent nationwide.

This might seem related to the increase in prevention cases but some agencies are outpacing the citywide average on reunification, so casework quality plays a role. We want to highlight the need for the new foster care contracts to prefer agencies with better reunification outcomes if we want to reduce the impact of family separations. I would ask that City Council look carefully at the reunification outcomes of individual foster care agencies and make a priority to end contracts with agencies that don’t get children home.

Although the hearing is on separation, I also think the threat of removal is important for Rise to raise here today because it is increasingly part of how ACS deals with stressed, poor families.

I want to call your attention to the vast numbers of families dealing with investigations and court-ordered supervision. Investigations are rising every year, with more than 59,000 investigations last year, yet the commissioner chose to hold a press conference last week to reveal a new campaign to have family members and friends call in reports on one another over the holidays. Is this necessary?

In Brownville, 30% of families were investigated 2010-2014, and 10% of Hunts Point families were investigated just last year. City Council should understand the pervasiveness of child protection’s reach and who they are investigating.

In these communities it feels as if, because you live in a low-income neighborhood and are black or Hispanic, you are guilty already. ACS will be at your door.

Then there’s the growing number of court-ordered supervision cases. Five years ago, about 5,000 families each year had court-ordered supervision. In 2017, almost 7,500 families coped with this invasive experience.

What court-ordered supervision means is that families feel the threat of separation for months or even more than a year as they attend support services and come to court repeatedly to keep proving their fitness as parents. Our writers call court-ordered supervision an “endless investigation.”

At Rise, we are very disturbed by the way ACS is using court-ordered supervision. This is another form of surveillance over families that adds stress to families that are already having trouble coping. Families feel trapped into agreeing to anything ACS asks just over the fear of losing their children. It’s so bad that a few nurse home visitors called Rise a few weeks ago wanting to involve their parents in writing their stories because they feel they are seeing investigations and supervision of young parents that they think are only hurting the families.

There are better ways to deal with families that are facing crises. There are ways that the system can extend a helping hand, not a knock on the door.

Earlier this month, the federal Administration for Children and Families put out a memorandum about “primary prevention.” Primary prevention is when communities band together to help families cope before a family challenge turns into a family crisis. It’s when parents feel safe telling someone, “I need help,” and get the help they actually need.

As it says in the report, “While some families may benefit from an evidence-based clinical intervention, many families, jurisdictions and programs report that families would benefit from a temporary boost, someone to list to and provide good counsel, or very basic concrete supports such as help paying rent or a security deposit for housing, child care, transportation, legal services, or brief periods of respite care to allow parents time to seek help and work through a challenging situation.”

In New York City, parents are not finding that boost, that support. They don’t trust preventive programs to provide it, either. Almost 80% of families in preventive programs were referred by CPS.

It’s not safe for kids that parents feel they cannot reach out for help if needed because the child welfare system is still known for snatching people’s children away.

We would know this was a healthy system if that number was turned upside down. We would know that ACS was really reaching families if the number of investigations was going down, not up. We would know that ACS was connecting with families and lifting the burden of stress if the number of court-ordered supervision cases was also going down.

ACS is not making NYC a safer city for children by knocking on doors and catching thousands of parents into the court system every year. I ask this committee to commit to changing the surveillance that families are under. We didn’t tolerate stop-and-frisk to keep our streets safe—it hurt kids, and it didn’t work. We shouldn’t tolerate this number of investigations and court supervisions, either.

Time apart and even time under threat and stress changes a family. Threat of separation has families in a position of fear. Actual separation can be traumatic to children, doing more harm than good.

Today you can insist that ACS make changes that will show your commitment to your communities well-being. Low-income families need to see that someone hears us someone will help us fight. Hoping that someone is you today. Thank you.

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