The new legal center said it will sue government agencies ‘that unlawfully separate low-income children of color from parents.’
A group describing itself as “the first civil rights organization in America dedicated to suing Children’s Services and other government agencies that illegally separate children from their parents,” announced its formation in New York City today.
With the backing of some of the city’s most prominent parents’ rights activists and legal advocates, the Family Justice Law Center said its work will involve challenges to the “entrenched abuses of government power” that disproportionately sweep up Black and Latino children and families.
The new organization is backed by the Urban Justice Center, an “accelerator” for ground-breaking social welfare projects that include legal clinics. It will be led by public defender David Shalleck-Klein, currently an attorney at the nonprofit Bronx Defenders. The center will focus on filing lawsuits “to seek justice for families wronged by the child welfare system,” a press release states. The firm’s work will “redress harms, while promoting change that will help families survive and thrive.”
Responding to requests for comment from The Imprint, Stephanie Gendell, spokesperson for the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), said her agency works hard to keep children out of foster care and at home with their families.
“ACS is committed to being responsive to the needs of children and families,” Gendell said.
She cited a “robust continuum of family support services” that has led to a 36% reduction in the number of children entering foster care from 2017 to 2021. Those foster care numbers represent “an all-time low of 7,111 children,” she added.
“We are continuing to develop new ways, in partnership with government and community organizations, to keep children safely at home while carrying out our legal responsibility to keep New York City children safe,” Gendell said.
More than 50,000 children are the subjects of a CPS investigation each year, mostly under the broad category of neglect, city data show.
But according to the new Family Justice Law Center, approximately 30% of “emergency” child removals in New York City “fail to garner judicial approval,” cases which the legal advocates say they will focus on as “blatant civil rights violations.”
Shalleck-Klein, who will leave Bronx Defenders in the coming weeks to work full-time for the new venture, said advocates for child welfare-involved parents have not had “what every other single civil rights issue across the country had, which is an organization that is dedicated to going on the ‘offense,’ and suing ACS for their transgressions and illegal activities.”
He said the new organization aims to tackle problems in the child welfare system in a manner similar to legal advocacy groups that serve as a watchdog for human rights violations within law enforcement agencies and police departments. Without the pathway of legal challenges, he added, “there’s no accountability.”
While white and Asian children are under-represented in the foster care system in New York City, Black, Latino and Native American children are disproportionately far more likely than their peers to be removed from their families. According to state data, in 2020 nearly 9 in 10 children admitted into foster care in New York City were identified as African-American or Latino, a vast overrepresentation of their numbers in the general population. Jamaica, Queens, Williamsbridge, Bronx and East New York, Brooklyn have the highest foster care populations. They also have the highest proportion of Black residents and child poverty rates.
To combat these removal rates, the Family Justice Law Center has been selected for the Urban Justice Centers’ Social Justice Accelerator program, which is one of the city’s most prominent nonprofits. The program has a history of incubating new organizations and community leaders that address societal injustice. The Urban Justice Center will serve as the new legal hub’s fiscal sponsor and will provide office space, administrative support and legal advice.
“The child welfare system’s overregulation of poor families makes clear that the Family Justice Law Center is sorely needed to stand with and fight for this marginalized community and push for transformative, system-level change,” Doug Lasdon, executive director of the Urban Justice Center, stated in a press release.
The new center will have an academic and community advisory board. The academic advisors include leading law professors from across the country, including scholars from New York University, Harvard University, Georgetown University, the CUNY School of Law and the University of South Carolina. These legal advisors specialize in a range of topics — from criminal, family and juvenile defense to poverty law, LGBTQ rights, reproductive justice and immigration.
“Families need lawyers to defend those rights, to hold agencies accountable, and to help develop the law to protect family integrity and focus CPS agency power on the narrow set of cases where it is needed,” Josh Gupta-Kagan, professor of law at the University of South Carolina School of Law and a member of the academic advisory board, told The Imprint.
The community advisory board represents a diverse set of voices, including experts in the child welfare field, and people with lived experience who have dealt with CPS investigations themselves.
“We obviously wanted people from the community to talk about what is most important to them, because that helps us decide what issues we should litigate,” Shalleck-Klein said. “It was important that we have really structured input from experts who are deep in the communities that are most targeted.”
Community advisors will include Joyce McMillan, founder of the Parent Legislative Action Network and JMac For Families, Jean Padilla, a parent advocate at Bronx Defenders, and Shrounda Selivanoff, the director of public policy at Children’s Home Society of Washington.
The new center’s goal is to scale back the city’s use of “emergency removals” and better protect Black and brown communities from family separation. Participants also want the Family Court to better prioritize hearings involving children separated from their parents.
The center’s leadership hopes to prompt national attention to the issues it intends to tackle, creating a new framing of the harms caused by the child welfare system as one of the most important civil rights issues of our time.
“We think that we will go a long way to keep children safe, while not having the government interfere unnecessarily in the most sacred relationship,” Shalleck-Klein said, “which is the parent-child relationship.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the title of Jean Padilla. She is a parent advocate and team leader at Bronx Defenders, not an attorney.