On October 22, 2021, Naashia B., Rise parent organizer, testified at the New York State Assembly’s Public Hearing on Family Involvement in the Child Welfare System.
Good morning to everyone in attendance today. I want to first start by introducing myself. I am Naashia B., a parent organizer at Rise and a mother impacted by the child welfare system, also known as the family policing system. Rise is a community of survivors dedicated to challenging the prevailing narrative about parents whose children enter the foster system, and to dismantling the system and creating communities that offer collective care and support. We envision communities that are free from injustice, family policing and separation, and that cultivate new ways of preventing and addressing harm. We imagine a radical commitment to ensuring that all families have what they need to live beyond survival and truly thrive.
Today, I am highlighting the support networks and policy changes that families say will aid in thriving in NYC. I want to start by sharing some crucial findings from Rise’s participatory action research study we released just a few weeks ago. Over the last year, parents at Rise held focus groups with 48 parents. We conducted surveys with 58 parents in NYC to document their experiences with the family policing system and their vision for community investments that would support families without system involvement. Moreover, our research report is an extension of the over 300 stories from parents that Rise has published that also share the pervasive harm and trauma that families have experienced at the hands of the system.
Our report, An Unavoidable System: The Harms of Family Policing and Parents’ Vision for Investing in Community Care, is highly relevant, since the purpose of today’s hearing is to examine the child welfare system, including ways in which families initially interact with and enter the system.
Research participants were primarily Black and brown parents in highly-impacted communities, with life histories of ACS contact, including thorough investigations, court-ordered services, preventive services, the removal of their children and termination of their parental rights. One thing that became increasingly clear is that ACS is an unavoidable system for Black and brown communities and that it’s deeply interconnected with other systems that families come in contact with within their daily lives.
Schools, hospitals and shelters are some of the main places that child welfare reports are made to the State Central Register. As mandated reporters, the focus is on calling in cases of possible child abuse and/or neglect, rather than offering support to families. Mandated reporting uses the threat of child welfare involvement and family separation against families, when in many cases, families are struggling with issues related to poverty and socioeconomic status.
The possibility of a report being called in is ALWAYS there. Rise parent Shakira Paige shares one example of just how scared parents are of asking for help, out of fear that a call for help will lead to an ACS case. She states, “I was in a shelter with three kids and we didn’t have food. I didn’t tell anybody because I was scared to get an ACS case. We ate peanut butter for six days. I wasn’t aware of pantries. If there was peer support or somebody that wasn’t a mandated reporter, I would have asked for help.”
ACS, the city’s child welfare agency, has the power to remove and strip children from their caregivers and is even charged with providing thorough investigations of abuse and neglect in order to promote the safety and well-being of children. Well guess what—this is far from the truth and our experiences! This isn’t the work of your CPS workers. Mine didn’t see the seriousness of my three year-old son’s iron burns that he had sustained on an unsupervised visit. Maybe because, as she explained, she was too concerned about her commute home and finding a new job anyway. This same super powerful agency gets it wrong more likely than not.
What happened to ACS’ Five Key Commitments that state:
- No child we come into contact with will be left to struggle alone with abuse or neglect.
- No family who needs and wants help to keep their children safe will be left without the help it needs.
- Every child we come into contact with will get the help she/he needs to be healthy and achieve her/his full educational and developmental potential.
- No child in our care will leave us without a caring, committed, permanent family.
- Every team member at Children’s Services and each of our partner agencies can expect guidance, respect and emotional support to achieve our goal. Every child, family, community member and foster parent we come into contact with will be treated with concern and respect.
WE know this not to be true. So it’s time for ACS to take the cape off their backs and put it on ours for our resilience, strength, unconditional love for our children, persistence and the ability to speak up for the real care that we KNOW our families need and deserve.
When we think about what effective preventive services look like, we can’t look towards ACS to be the solution. Accessing the services can be extremely difficult. First, there’s real shame and fear surrounding seeking help. And if by chance, we get the help that we need, we are connected to services that don’t always meet our families’ needs or lifestyle. So much loss comes from having an ACS case. We also become at risk of losing our jobs, relationships are strained, and our identity as a parent is constantly questioned as we try to navigate this system. We live in fear that we’ll be punished and judged for not complying with the system’s unattainable demands. The results are devastating as we live in fear that our children will continue to be taken away from us, or worse—never returned.
As one parent shared, “It messed up my life. It messed up life really bad. When I first got my first case, it messed up my group spaces. I was a parole officer; I was an evaluation specialist for the Board of Ed, I lost those jobs. It just messed up my life for no reason. So, it affected me emotionally in so many ways. Because I was doing so well, and this case happened, and I felt like I didn’t need to be on this earth anymore. I was really angry.”
The course of our lives changes because of ACS involvement, so why would anyone risk asking for help when it could happen to them, as well? Those in privileged communities do not have this type of surveillance. Why shouldn’t Black and brown families be afforded the same resources and networks of support that don’t include mandated reporters?
Fortunately, our report also explored what real supportive services can look like for our families.
As impacted parents, we shared our vision for Community Care Networks, which we defined as the set of people and places in your life that genuinely helps you and cares for you during difficult times. Your community care network might include neighbors, friends, family, faith leaders, faith-based groups, community centers, clubs, building associations or even coworker hangouts.
Barriers to preventive services were amplified during COVID. When times became difficult, mutual aid groups, neighbors and our community showed up to help one another—not ACS. Our communities and families need well-resourced communities like affordable childcare, housing and supportive mental health care. Many parents felt that the system was impersonal, insensitive and diminished them to just a “case number.”
I really want to highlight how significant the impact of new structures of care and approaches would be. Parents wouldn’t feel alone, and would feel secure about asking for support. There would be no shame around being human and experiencing life as it comes at you—hard times. Rise developed a model for peer support in communities most surveilled and impacted by system involvement. In other spaces, such as criminal justice and harm reduction, we have seen that peer advocacy helps to build meaningful relationships in communities, and as a result, reduces interactions with, and the overuse of harmful systems like family policing.
In our peer report, Someone To Turn To, we specifically call for investment in peer support from folks who are not mandated reporters. Effective preventive measures exist, and Rise and other community organizations are already doing the work. As I end my time today, I encourage you all to take a deeper dive into both of our reports, and to learn from impacted parents directly about how to invest in and support the work of other community-based organizations, and what we’re doing to help our families and communities.
Thank you for your time!