Calls to dismantle child welfare systems that disproportionately impact Black families grew this week, as a group of roughly 100 parents, lawyers and even city social workers gathered on Martin Luther King Jr. Day beneath a new East Harlem billboard with a confrontational message: “Some cops are called caseworkers.”
Top officials say they’re aware of long-standing racial disproportionality and are acting to address it. On Tuesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced in the State of the State address his intention to create a “more just and safe” child welfare system. The announcement came one day after Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) Commissioner David Hansell pledged to combat systemic racism in his agency.
The new billboard and rally were organized by Joyce McMillan, a veteran activist who led efforts to pass legislation last year that reduced the number of years a parent accused of child neglect will be identifiable on the State Central Registry. From 2016 to 2018, she led the Child Welfare Organizing Project, which provided peer advocacy to parents with child welfare cases.
“The system is not designed to be of assistance; this system is designed to be harmful and to set people up for failure,” McMillan said at the rally, speaking over the opening bars of Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up.”
“Everybody says I’m radical, but how much more radical can you be than snatching kids out of the home under the guise of protecting them and changing their rooms every three to four months?” she asked the crowd.
In his new State of the State plan, Cuomo outlined several new policies intended to counter racial disproportionality in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Cuomo is calling for child welfare agencies to use a race-blind process to determine whether youth need to be “stepped up” from a foster home to a group facility and for the word “incorrigible” to no longer be used to label young people. Implicit bias training, already provided in New York City, should also be required for all child welfare workers statewide, he said.
The holiday that celebrates American’s best-known civil rights leader also saw Commissioner Hansell acknowledge the systemic racism in the child welfare system. In an op-ed in the New York Daily News, Hansell wrote that his agency is taking “more aggressive and comprehensive action than ever before” to address the overrepresentation of Black children and families in foster care.
Hansell argued that his agency investigates more Black families in part because they are overrepresented in calls to the child abuse hotline, which his staff are required to follow up on. He said the agency is “educating” professionals who work with children on other ways they can link families to services without calling the hotline, and urged the state to require implicit bias training for all mandated reporters.
In his opinion piece, Hansell highlighted the city’s ongoing efforts to prevent the need for child protection investigations by offering on-the-ground support to families through centers based in high-need areas, as well as through expansion of differential response programs that allow parents to accept services in order to avoid an official investigation and determination whether maltreatment occurred.
Cuomo’s State of the State plan also calls for the statewide expansion of differential response programs, which are currently in use in only half of New York counties.
But for many at the rally, the idea of suggesting parents seek out or accept services from an agency they view as unjust is anathema. Among them was Erin Miles Cloud, co-founder and co-director of the Movement for Family Power, who helped pass out stickers critical of ACS to rally attendees.
“I don’t think the same agency that can remove their children can ever be an agency for support,” she said. “While I appreciate the idea of prevention services, real prevention can’t lie within the power that already oppresses.”
At the rally, McMillan said New York should replace its current practice of accepting anonymous child maltreatment reports with a confidential reporting system, where the caller’s name and contact information would be privately recorded. She and others argued that the change — the focus of a 2019 bill introduced by recently retired state Sen. Velmanette Montgomery — would deter malicious or unnecessary reports.
Cloud and McMillan are also advocating for legislation introduced by Montgomery that would require child protective workers to read out a “Parents Bill of Rights” as soon as they come into contact with a family, similar to the Miranda warning required in criminal arrests. Such a warning would inform parents that, in the absence of a court order, they are not required to speak with child welfare investigators or allow them to enter their homes.
One rally attendee who has worked at ACS for more than a decade said that agency workers use parents’ fear of having their children taken away to gain their cooperation and get access to information for the investigation.
“We take advantage of families’ ignorance,” said Robert, an assistant supervisor in Brooklyn, who asked to be identified only by his first name to avoid reprisal at work. “If I knock on your door and you won’t let me in, I’ll say you have a right to do that, but most of my co-workers paper over that fact to get their job done.”
Robert argued that meaningful reform can only be achieved through policy changes, rather than through efforts like implicit bias training that focus on changing workers’ attitudes. For example, he said, if child protective investigators had to get a warrant from family court every time they wanted to enter a home, “that would bring the system to face a crisis of legitimacy and have the rebuilding of it to be a caring system and not a policing system.”
Ericka Brewington, a Harlem mother who attended the rally, said she needed more support in 2017, when her youngest child was screened for drugs soon after birth — without her consent — and the test came back positive. Instead, the city agency removed all of her children, even the ones who had been spending the summer with their father in Georgia.
“A lot of the workers get desensitized, so they automatically think the mother or father is wrong and they don’t try to get to the root of the problem, and that’s not right,” Brewington said. “Maybe it’s an underlying issue, maybe they’re depressed and self-medicating — in my group, we’re just starting to get mental help because no one wants to be stigmatized as crazy.”
Brewington said her psychiatrist ultimately connected her to McMillan, who helped her navigate the child welfare system and motivated her to get her kids back from foster care.
Protesters in attendance Monday are advocating for legislation that would help families like Brewington’s remain together by requiring pregnant and postpartum mothers to consent before hospital staff conduct any drug tests. Last fall, New York City’s public hospital system adopted a policy that requires written consent for drug testing, something advocates say should be more widespread.
While McMillan and most of the speakers at Monday’s rally called for the city’s Administration for Children’s Services to be abolished, City Council member Alicka Ampry-Samuel — once a child welfare caseworker herself — told the crowd she encourages people to work for the agency so they can effect change from the inside.
“We can’t keep begging people to do something for us they ain’t done in all these decades, cause they ain’t going to do it,” she said. “We have to be in charge.”
Still, she too said the child welfare system may need to be rebuilt from scratch.
Robert, the agency supervisor, said that while some of his colleagues were mad about the accusatory billboard, he was more outraged by the price of gas at the station it stood above.
“No one is doing anything about overrepresentation,” he said, “and they won’t, unless billboards like that and people like Joyce continue to do what they do.”