NY State Assembly Hearing on Family Involvement in the Child Welfare and Family Court Systems
Mariya Kolesnichenko, Rise contributor and child welfare system-affected parent, submitted written testimony to the NY State Assembly Committee on Children and Families and the Task Force on Women’s Issues. This testimony was provided as part of the Public Hearing to Examine the Child Welfare and Family Court Systems as it Relates to the Availability of Supports and Services to Help Keep Families Together. The hearing took place in Albany, New York, on November 21, 2019.
My name is Mariya Kolesnichenko. I am a contributor for an organization called Rise. Rise was built for families that have been affected by the child welfare system. Parents, like myself, come to Rise to tell our stories, share them with other parents that may have had similar experiences themselves, and help create communities that are safe for families dealing with child welfare related stressors. Thank you for giving me the chance to share my truth and for being interested in finding ways to make child welfare involvement better.
I grew up in foster care myself so I know first-hand what the child welfare system is all about. My father was incarcerated most of my life and my mother abandoned me and my older brother when I was 6 years old. She ran off with a man she was dating at the time. We lived with my grandmother until she passed away shortly after I turned 11. After her passing, I was passed around from group homes to foster homes every couple of months. I was basically passed around like a hot potato from age 11 up until I aged out when I was 18. Being passed around like an object made me angry and emotional and made me lash out in ways I didn’t expect. I fought any and everyone in sight, I did drugs and hung out with the wrong crowds, and I dropped out of school. All that lashing out was because I was angry that nobody wanted me and felt very unloved by everyone that took me in.
Because of everything I went through with child welfare growing up, I made myself a promise I would never allow the system to swallow my child the way it did me. So when CPS came knocking on my door and making threats to take my son away because he had missed some school, I was distraught.
I was already going through enough in my personal life and CPS made it worse and harder for me to cope. I had just lost my second grandmother, my sons’ father abandoned me and our 5 year old son, and I lost my job, causing a chain reaction that led to me losing our home and ending up in a homeless shelter. And here came CPS scaring my son and me by making threats of removing him from my care.
When they investigated me, CPS did not tell me anything about the rights I had as a parent and didn’t provide me with any resources I could have used to make my case run a little smoother. I feel as though they could have helped me with pantry access and carfare for travel to appointments and things I needed to attend, but they didn’t. All they did was traumatize us and make me feel like nothing I did would change the fact that they wanted to take my son away from me.
CPS insisted that I needed parenting classes, mental health, and anger management therapy. I refused and had to constantly remind them that there was nothing in my case in regards to any type of abuse so there were no indications that I didn’t have my behavior and emotions under control. Luckily after doing my own research at local libraries and speaking to other moms in my shelter I knew enough about the rights I had as a parent, I denied to take the services. Because of me denying it they placed us under court ordered supervision.
In the midst of the supervision, they tried to shove me into mental health therapy with claims that the court involvement had an impact on my emotional well being and my ability to parent my child. Luckily, I had an amazing legal team on my side. My lawyer and parent advocate fought off all allegations they tried to put against me. My lawyer made sure to document that my home was clean and always had a sufficient amount of food and that my son attended school on time on a daily basis. She also kept track of my mental state and made sure it was well maintained.
I did agree to attend some of the services they wanted me to take part in, services that I knew I would benefit from. I went to a single mom support group for moms going through a rough time. That group helped me open up about what I went through when I was in foster care as well as some of the struggles I faced becoming a single mom. I also went to Parenting Journeys where I gained a lot of knowledge and resources that I needed to make a better life for my son and myself.
As proud of myself as I am that I stood my ground against CPS despite everything they threw my way, I cannot help but think about how many parents do not have the knowledge that I have and are not aware of the rights they have as parents. I hope that my story may have shined a light on some of the bigger issues families like mine have faced and are still facing within the child welfare system.
Although the number of children in foster care in New York City has decreased in recent years, the number of investigations has increased. Citywide, 5,000 more families were investigated in 2018 than five years before. Too often, when families are struggling, school personnel, doctors and police are quick to call a hotline instead of connecting them to resources and support. In my community, 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. Even in families that have had absolutely no prior incidents that one phone call can change everything.
This kind of surveillance hurts families and weakens communities. We are scared to talk to our doctors or our children’s teachers because we fear they may misinterpret our words and use them against us when they make these calls. These people are supposed to be our helpers, but because of over-reporting, we see them as people who can harm us. That makes our children more vulnerable. Parents who are struggling, hide what they’re going through because they fear the system is out to get them, and struggles can become crises because they have nobody to turn to for judgement-free help.
Some of the reforms that have been proposed in New York City and the state can help.
First, increase legal protections in investigations
When CPS arrives at your door, they should be mandated to provide you with written information letting you know of what rights you have as a parent. This should include the right to a lawyer, and legal advice not affiliated with CPS.
The New York State Commission on Legal Representation has recommended that parents be provided with access to legal counsel during child protective investigations, before there is a court case. In New York City, this is starting to happen. Parents’ having access to the support of a legal team, including attorneys and peer parent advocates, benefits families. These advocates protect parents’ from coercion, provide emotional support, and also provide parents with resources that benefit the home and speed up the process of CPS leaving the family alone. In my own case I feel I definitely benefited from having a lawyer because she helped me understand a lot of things that I wouldn’t have been able to do on my own, such as knowing when is the right time to deny or accept services, and how to remain calm when dealing with everything CPS threw my way. It felt good to have someone in my corner fighting my battles with me.
Reduce unnecessary investigations by ending anonymous reporting
Although the number of children in foster care has decreased, that doesn’t affect the number of fake reports called in by bitter exes, neighbors and even family members trying to make parents’ lives a living hell. If we can require anonymous callers to identify themselves, we can possibly reduce the number of the fake reports being called in and give CPS more time to focus on actual cases where children need help.
Fewer fake investigations can also help the families that are impacted emotionally by these constant calls being made against them. At Rise, one mother we worked with recently endured seven investigations! Another mother face three investigations, all called in by her ex. People don’t realize that not only do unnecessary investigations affect the mental well-being of the parents, but they can also have a long term effect on children’s mental health as well. The constant fear of possibly getting removed from the care of mommy and daddy may do permanent damage to the child emotionally and mentally. That impact stays with the child even after the case has been unfounded.
Invest in community
Most importantly, efforts to improve child welfare should target the situations that increase stress and risk, not just individual families struggling under these conditions. 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 not available or low quality. But instead of investing in improving these systems, the child welfare system punishes parents—and punishes the child as well by threatening or separating them.
Parents raising children under the stress of financial hardship and racism should not have to live with unprecedented numbers of investigations based on judgements of their parenting. Families under stress need opportunities to decompress and brighten their situations. We need safe and comfortable places for our children. We need opportunities to develop strong relationships with other parents. We need outlets from isolation and stress. We need an environment where all parties involved can feel safe.
As New York State considers using federal funding through the Family First Act to expand prevention to reduce foster care placements, it’s important that it avoids expanding surveillance. Upstate counties definitely need to use intensive preventive in place of foster care. But they should use caution that prevention services remain voluntary for most families. In New York City, the balance is off, with nearly 80% of families coming to prevention from an investigation. We know stop-and-frisk didn’t improve safety, and neither does over-reporting and monitoring of families. It’s time for a new goal—to strengthen families without surveillance. Most parents we speak with at Rise say that means resources and services unconnected to the child welfare system should be available to families—instead of expanding the child welfare system to offer more, the state should invest in communities directly, through the community organizations families trust. Help shouldn’t have strings, or threats, attached.
Taking action on some of these issues can make it more likely that families will thrive without intervention by the child welfare system, and that when it does happen, CPS involvement will go a little smoother for the family, and possibly for CPS as well. And it will absolutely help the children and the parents be less traumatized by the whole ordeal.