Rise Testimony Submitted to the New York City Council Committee on General Welfare, October 31, 2019

Founded in 2005, Rise builds the leadership of child welfare-affected parents to create a future where community is strong for families under stress and child welfare involvement is rare, just and healing. Rise has worked with more than 350 parents nationwide to write about their experiences with the child welfare system. This year, Rise has focused our work on examining the harmful impact of child welfare’s culture of surveillance on families, particularly low-income families of color. We are pleased that City Council has taken on this issue, and write in support of the bills introduced by members of the progressive caucus to hold the Administration for Children’s Services accountable for their disproportionate presence in our families’ communities, and to provide parents with crucial legal protections during investigations.

In recent years, New York City’s child welfare leadership has proudly told the story of how the system has dramatically reduced the number of children in foster care while maintaining child safety. To be sure, that is a major accomplishment.

But there is another, troubling NYC child welfare story worth telling. For low-income Black and Latino families, child protective surveillance is growing. 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.[1] 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.[2] In the Hunts Point neighborhood in the Bronx, 10 percent of families were subjected to a child protective services (CPS) investigation in 2017 alone. So were nearly one in three families in Brownsville, Brooklyn between 2010-2014, according to the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS).

Citywide, families were subjected to 5,000 more investigations in 2018 than five years ago.[3] 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. Almost two-thirds of investigations are “unfounded.”[4] Yet for families, a CPS investigation isn’t a benign event but a source of fear and stress, sometimes with terrible and long-lasting consequences.

Rise contributor Cynthia Zizola wrote about the impact of investigations on her family and life:

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. [5]

Strengthen the Legal Rights of Parents Facing Investigation

Rise supports passing bills that will strengthen the legal rights of parents during a child welfare investigation. Parents should be informed of their rights immediately when they receive a knock on the door from ACS. Parents should know that they don’t have to comply with all of ACS’s requests during an investigation. Parents should have a right to legal counsel at the start of an investigation, and it is important that legal representation for parents is provided through an entity separate from and independent of ACS.

Rise contributor Samantha Ruiz wrote about the impact of an investigation and a record with the Statewide Central Registry on her family and life:

On October 2, I received a letter from ACS. I thought, “What now?”

I climbed the stairs, and with my coat and purse still on, I ripped the envelope open. All I remember reading is, “Your case is not indicated,” and, “All allegations were unfounded.” I jumped up and down. I called to thank all who were supportive.

Even so, the two-month investigation took a terrible toll. I fell asleep every night crying. My younger son even started biting and screaming. I think he could sense how out of control our family was, and that made him act out.

I couldn’t look for work either, because in my field I needed to be cleared by the State Central Registry. I felt like my life had been pulled out from under me. [6]

Careena Farmer, another system-affected parent and contributor to Rise, writes of the importance of clear legal rights information and legal representation early in an investigation:

Allowing the parent to know their rights up front and having legal representation during the investigation process will prevent the parents’ rights from being violated. Parents aren’t aware that their rights are being violated, which is causing unnecessary removal of children.

Having legal representation (lawyer and parent advocate) can: 

1) Help families receive the services they need to stay together to prevent unnecessary trauma which causes mental health problems in the parent and child. Being taken to foster care unnecessarily destroys the family’s bond; and

2) Will prevent ACS from using intimidation tactics like calling the police to harass and enter the family’s home which violates the family’s constitutional rights. We need data on emergency removals to prevent trauma. In my experience, knocks on the door have caused my children to hide in the closet and they don’t even want to talk to ACS workers.

The family could be asking for help, but the agency will use that against them. The agency has access to the services to help the family, for example, food, clothes, furniture, homemaking services, housing, therapeutic services and also school resources for the children that will help the family thrive, which is the best for the family, instead of causing unnecessary trauma to children that they are trying to protect. I just know that passing this package of bills could change a lot for families.

Reform the State Central Register and Provide a Right to Counsel in Administrative Hearings

Rise is in favor of bills proposed to address some of the harmful impacts of processes related to the Statewide Central Registry (SCR). Rise supports the City Council bills requiring parents be provided with counsel at fair hearings following an indicated report during an ACS investigation (a legal right to counsel for Statewide Central Registry) and requiring that ACS provide information to parents about their right to appeal to expunge a case record during an ACS investigation. Rise also supports City Council in calling on the Governor to sign legislation to heighten the standard of evidence applied to child protective investigations, reduce the length of time parents remain on the State Central Registry and to automatically expunge the records of parents with child abuse or neglect cases that were dismissed.

Rise’s Training Director, Jeanette Vega, leads work consulting with ACS and other agencies to improve their practice with families. She sits on city and state-wide commissions next to top child welfare officials. Still, under the unjust reporting statute, she must live with the stigma of an old reality:

Despite my accomplishments, despite my daily work on these issues, I have carried a mark on my record against me for two decades since June 1999, the shadow of an Administration for Children’s Services case opened decades ago. Even though the case has long since been closed, even though my son who was involved is now 22, even though I have successfully raised him and three other children who have never been involved in the system, I continue to be haunted by that record.

I was accused of applying corporal punishment once. That is all. It led to an investigation, and to my placement on something called the State Child Abuse and Maltreatment Register (SCR). Because I’m on that registry, I can’t get a job working with children or be a part of my children’s lives at school. I am not even allowed to be a member of the Parent Association, because it would mean being around children as a chaperone for school events and trips.

This year, when my younger son graduated and went on his senior trip to Dorney Park, I couldn’t go with him. He has autism, so I was scared to let him travel so far without me — but I didn’t want to deny him the opportunity to have fun with his classmates. All I could do was keep calling the school staff to make sure he was okay.

In New York City, more families than ever before are being investigated by child protective services. I have seen how high rates of investigations in certain communities, like mine in the Bronx, affect mostly low-income families of color. Parents in these communities end up with limited job options because these labels exclude them from entire categories of employment. When you consider that nationally, over 70% of cases involve allegations not of abuse but of neglect, which are largely connected to poverty, you have to wonder why this system punishes poor families by limiting their opportunities.

Thankfully, the Legislature has passed a bill that recognizes that one mistake shouldn’t haunt a parent forever. If Gov. Cuomo signs the bill, it will make the SCR process far more fair than it is now. [7]

Improve Reporting for Greater Accountability

The issue of surveillance and its impact on our communities extends beyond investigations. At the same time as investigations have increased, the number of families under invasive court supervision has doubled, with more than 10,000 under court monitoring in 2017, up from about 5,000 in 2012. 10,000 families had to report to a judge about how they were addressing family challenges, under constant threat of removal. That increase is not justified by reductions in the number of children entering foster care. Only about 700 fewer children entered foster care last year than five years ago.

To be sure, some children face grave danger at home. However, the harm of unnecessary child welfare investigations, monitoring and removals cannot be ignored. They add stress to families already carrying the burdens of poverty and racism. And over-reporting also can make children more vulnerable. When parents see teachers and doctors as threats, they hide what they’re going through, and family struggles can turn into crises. Rise also supports proposed bills requiring that ACS collect and report on critical child welfare data essential for transparency and advocacy, and that ACS plan to address racial and income disparities.

This proposed package of bills provides critical steps toward supporting families who experience child welfare investigations, which disproportionately impact low-income families and communities of color.

Attached, Rise has provided four stories written by parents affected by the child welfare system. The stories illustrate the impact of investigations on families and the imbalance of power that parents experience throughout the process with ACS. The stories also demonstrate the importance of the proposed bills and changes, particularly by highlighting the need for parents to receive information about their rights and to have access to legal representation from the initial contact by ACS.

To access the complete stories, visit the Rise website:

[1] https://www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/cb/cm2017.pdf
[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/21/nyregion/foster-care-nyc-jane-crow.html
[3] Compare https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/operations/downloads/pdf/mmr2017/2017_mmr.pdf to https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/operations/downloads/pdf/pmmr2019/2019_pmmr.pdf
[4] https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/acs/pdf/data-analysis/flashReports/2019/06.pdf
[5] https://chronicleofsocialchange.org/child-welfare-2/the-harmful-effects-of-over-surveillance/38441
[6] https://www.risemagazine.org/2016/11/out-in-front-2/
[7] https://www.nydailynews.com/opinion/ny-oped-loosen-this-vise-on-parents-20190823-jcmuvrz7hjcbtbaq7pxq2e2jmu-story.html

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