At the city and state level, affected communities and parents should guide decisions about how to use available funds to best meet the needs of our communities and families.
Nancy Fortunato, Senior Parent Leader, and Jeanette Vega, Training Director at Rise, 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.
We are Nancy Fortunato, Senior Parent Leader, and Jeanette Vega, Training Director at Rise. Founded in 2005, Rise builds parent leadership to drive changes that families believe will help them thrive. In nearly 15 years, Rise has worked with more than 350 parents in New York and nationwide to write about their experiences with the child welfare system. We thank the Assembly Committee on Children and Families and the Task Force on Women’s Issues for holding this public hearing.
The discussion about how to prevent family separation shouldn’t be a conversation between professionals and elected officials, without meaningful family involvement. This conversation should be community-led. At the city and state level, affected communities and parents should guide decisions about how to use available funds to best meet the needs of our communities and families. In New York City, leadership needs to partner with parents and advocates to hear first-hand how any services involving NYC Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) will be experienced as harmful and to plan for investment in community through organizations that parents trust.
Prevention is viewed as a solution in child welfare, but it is important to be aware that preventive services provided through the child welfare system can also have a negative impact on our communities and families, as we’ve experienced in New York City. Counties that use foster care when they could keep children at home under intensive prevention programs need to invest in those programs. But child welfare prevention programs shouldn’t be the main way families can get support. The same system bringing fear to families can’t be trusted to bring support.
In New York City, that fear comes not just through removals of children, but also through surveillance. The majority of prevention cases are referrals from CPS investigators, or families enter prevention under court-ordered supervision, bringing more fear to families. We receive the message, “Go to preventive services or we will remove your child.” Parents (and many system professionals) now call preventive services a “light” foster care system and describe the trauma and stress that child welfare investigations cause families. There are plenty of families wanting to cry for help, but at the same time many are fearful that if they ask for help, they’re going to face the tragedy of having their children removed.
Under these circumstances, it’s essential that we start providing legal representation for parents facing the child welfare system so that more families get the assistance they need, instead of being traumatized by separation. Legal representation is important in all phases of a child welfare case, from the investigation phase, when most parents currently have no right to an attorney, to the pre-filing phase, when many parents are pushed to settle even when they believe the case against them is unjust, to the hearings that follow, when quality legal representation can determine whether children come back home, or never do.
In addition, when families get that knock on the door from CPS, they should be told their rights during the investigation and be given information about seeking legal representation.
Sending families to family support programs will be great when agencies providing those services are the ones that have already built up trust in their communities and are not connected to or contracted with the child welfare system. It will also be great when those support program focus on helping parents meet basic needs like childcare and food and housing stability so that family situations don’t escalate into crisis and child welfare intervention. Families also need adequately-funded, community-based services that offer opportunities for children and parents to thrive, have fun and get peer support.
New York City leaders don’t seek to address the real issues of poverty. Instead, we get services that are just a Band Aid.
Times get hard within families, but separating children from their mothers, fathers, grandparents, and siblings is cruel and not humane. In most cases, it’s not individual family issues that cause child welfare involvement. It seems that the narrative in this country is that poverty is a crime and causes you to be viewed as unfit as a parent.
As elected officials, you can make a difference for families by investing in legal representation for parents during a child welfare investigation to help protect their rights and by developing community-based programs and supports that communities say they need. Investing in families is your duty as elected officials that represent us and have power over shaping support systems.
We have attached five stories written for Rise by parents affected by the child welfare system. The stories illustrate the impact of investigation on families, the imbalance of power that parents experience through their interactions with ACS, the challenges preventive services situated within the system, and the powerful potential of community-based resources to lift up families.
My Broken Life
by Sarah Harris
A Punishment Worse than the Crime
by Shakira Paige
We Need a Childhood Protection Service (not yet published)
by Keyna Franklin