More than half of Black children and more than one-third of all children in America are the subject of a child abuse or neglect investigation each year, researchers have found.
After Halimah Washington requested her ailing son be transferred to another hospital, she was soon confronted by security guards and an investigation of her family by child welfare workers.
The Bronx mother of four – who describes herself as “mothering on the margins” in one of the nation’s poorest communities – considered the advocacy for her toddler son that night several years ago to be good parenting. But the hospital workers, she told New York City child welfare leaders in a virtual public forum Monday, accused her of child neglect for seeking to leave with her son “against medical advice.”
For the next 60 days, Washington said, the city’s Administration for Children’s Services investigated “intimate details of my life, my community care network – anyone that supported me and my family, ACS was at their door asking questions about my mothering and my motherhood.”
Now, as the nation examines systemic and institutional racism like few times in its history, experiences like Washington’s are leading reformers to challenge long-held assumptions in the child welfare system. Her story set the tone for a Monday panel hosted by the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs titled “Child Welfare at a Crossroads: Where Do We Go from Here?” and attended by David Hansell, commissioner for Children’s Services.
Activists and some child welfare experts say long-held practices of the foster care system are overly punitive and target poor families and women of color. More than half of Black children and more than one-third of all children in America are the subject of a child abuse or neglect investigation by the age of 18, researchers have found, while millions of calls to child protection hotlines do not result in findings that children were at risk.
A growing reform movement – energized by global protests against racist policing – is calling for overhaul and even abolition of the child welfare system.
On Monday, Hansell acknowledged the concerns, citing “deep-rooted and pernicious effects” of societal racism and the need to “apologize for the legacy of child welfare, not just in New York City but across the country.”
Commissioner Hansell and nonprofit service providers who participated in the panel discussion appeared receptive to certain policy reforms as well – particularly those focusing on the foster care system’s “front door,” where state-run hotlines field millions of reports of child abuse and neglect and decide which homes need investigating.
Washington said in her case, the hospital’s report left her feeling that she and her children were under assault. “Instead of my rights being honored and respected,” she said, “ACS is weaponized against me and my family.”
Hansell did not respond directly to Washington’s account Monday, but he described her story as painful and important for him to hear. In response, he called on other public-serving institutions like schools and hospitals to help families facing crises and said he would like to see changes to the state’s child maltreatment reporting system.
“Child welfare cannot be the solution to every problem,” Hansell said, repeating an argument he and his deputies made before the City Council last October.
Under the law, states operating child protection hotlines must screen calls and refer to local authorities any that suggest abuse or neglect may be taking place. Most callers are “mandated” reporters such as teachers, law enforcement or medical professionals, but anyone can report anonymously.
According to federal data, roughly 8 million children were mentioned in formal child abuse or neglect reports in 2019. Eight percent of that group, or 650,000, were found to have been maltreated.
More than 400,000 children were in foster care last year, including about 8,000 in New York City.
The child maltreatment reporting system is decades old, emerging after child abuse first became the subject of sustained interest in the field of pediatrics.
Today, those systems, including child protection hotlines run by each state, are plagued by “confusing and insufficient standards,” as scholars from New York City’s Hunter College wrote in a 2019 commentary. And too often, they wrote, parents land on child abuse registries that employers access for background checks – creating further obstacles that are particularly damaging to low-income women of color.
Late last year, the city’s public hospitals began requiring written consent before the drug testing of new or expecting mothers – a pathway into the child welfare system that is believed to be most common for Black and Latino women.
Hansell said Monday that his agency supported that change and has also worked with city schools to narrow another avoidable entryway: educational neglect. During the pandemic, the education commissioner issued a statement clarifying that school staff should not be reporting parents to the Administration for Children’s Services simply because students who may lack internet access aren’t logging in to virtual classes.
“That is something the Department of Education and the schools have a responsibility to work with families to resolve,” Hansell said. “Similarly, when families are dealing with challenges in the health care system, it’s the responsibility of the health care system to work with them to make sure families’ needs are being met.”
A coalition of affected parents and legal advocacy groups is pushing the Democratic-controlled New York statehouse to approve broader child welfare reforms. Brooklyn state Sen. Jabari Brisport (D) has introduced a bill requiring social workers to offer parents a Miranda-style reading of their rights when they first visit their homes. Advocates are also promoting legislation that would expand statewide requirements for the health care system to receive written consent before drug testing of new or expecting mothers.
While Hansell did not clarify his positions on those proposed reforms, he underscored the concerns raised by Washington, the Bronx mother who spoke out on Monday. Hansell said in some instances his agency will even refer false, malicious reports to local prosecutors.
“We have to make sure mandated reporting as a system is not using – essentially weaponizing the child welfare system, to use your words – to address issues that are not really fundamentally child safety or child welfare issues,” he said.
Panelists assembled Monday by the New School seemed to agree on that point. Other participants included leaders of two large nonprofit agencies that contract with Children’s Services to work with foster youth and other at-risk families, Jess Dannhauser and Jeremy Kohomban; the scholar John Robertson from Columbia University’s school of social work; and Shrounda Selivanoff, a parent ally and director of public policy for the Children's Home Society of Washington.
Dannhauser, the CEO of the foster care agency Graham Windham, called it “astonishing” how easily anonymous callers can send the government into someone’s home and agreed statewide changes to reporting laws may be needed.
He also acknowledged that families receiving services from his agency, part of the same system that has the power to remove their children, do not always view Graham Windham as supportive.
“Families tell us they experience the support as surveillance, at least in that early stage,” he said. “No matter our intention, the experience is what matters.”