New York City Debates Lawyering Up Parents Early in Child Safety Investigations

NEw york City parent child welfare lawyer legal representation

Administration for Children’s Services Commissioner David Hansell. Credit: John McCarten NYC Council

The New York City Council is considering a new frontier in establishing rights for parents accused of child abuse and neglect, over objections from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration and child protective caseworkers.

At a hearing on 11 proposed reform bills today, council members grilled the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) Commissioner David Hansell on the power dynamics in his agency’s child safety investigations. When should accused parents get an attorney, or at least be informed that they are entitled to one?

“Breaking up a family, moving a child from the home [into foster care], is the most draconian thing a state can do,” said Brooklyn city councilman Stephen Levin, chair of the council’s General Welfare Committee, which oversees ACS. “How do we ensure the safety of children, looking to best practices around the country, while also fully respecting the rights of parents to not have the state unduly infringe on their relationship with their child? That is sacrosanct.”

Among the 11 bills proposed by the council’s progressive caucus, one authored by Levin would require parents to be offered a lawyer soon after the first knock on the door by an ACS worker. Under state law now, parents aren’t offered or guaranteed a lawyer until ACS files a petition in family court, after an investigation.

Other proposed bills, authored by Manhattan council members Carlina Rivera and Margaret Chin, would require caseworkers to at least disclose to parents their right to an attorney, and other rights, similar to so-called Miranda warnings police must offer criminal suspects.

“[ACS] said they wanted me to take more urine tests [for marijuana] — to adjust my schedule with my three children, to take more tests than I was already taking. I told them no, and asked to speak to a supervisor,” the council heard from Ray Watson, a parent leader for Rise Magazine, a publication written for and by parents involved in the child welfare system. “I caught my initial ACS case in 2007. It took me 10 years to learn what I did and didn’t have to comply with. This is information that should have been given to me the same way police ‘mirandize’ people when they arrest them.”

Hansell voiced general support for increased protections for parents, but sharply criticized Levin’s proposal guaranteeing attorneys for parents early in child protective investigations.

“We are concerned that [early representation] conflates investigative and legal processes in a way that could unnecessarily increase burdens on families,” he said. “It would expand litigation and family court involvement dramatically … [requiring] enormous financial and personnel resources to implement.”

Susan Chin of District Council 37, a union representing many ACS caseworkers, delivered a similar message:

“We do not oppose the principle behind expanding legal representation. However, we are concerned with the unintended consequences of this that may negatively impact the welfare of children …We are troubled by the prospect of delayed cases and investigations when children’s lives are at stake.”

Advocates for at-risk parents insist they deserve to be told they can seek legal advice. They argue ACS caseworker investigations can result in even more serious harms than a criminal investigation: separation from your child. ACS maintained today that the earliest stages of their investigations should be considered social work, not a legal or criminal process.

“If there’s legal representation at the front door, the conversation with families moves from a ‘social work’ conversation around what may have contributed to the reasons for the case getting called in, to a more legal conversation,” said Sandra Davidson, an assistant commissioner in ACS’ Division of Child Protection. “This may prevent families from learning about the vast resources that we have to help them support their families.”

Pressed by Brooklyn councilman Mark Treyger, ACS officials weren’t sure how many of their child protective specialists had degrees and formal training in social work.

“I think from the parent’s perspective, from what I’ve heard, very often they perceive the relationship to be adversarial at the get-go. There seems to be a difference in understanding of the relationship between the parent and ACS,” Levin said.

Children’s advocates were divided over Levin’s proposal. The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children testified that early legal representation for parents could endanger children. The Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York said Levin’s bill contained “numerous challenges that must first be clarified,” and highlighted ACS’ safety concerns about the bill.

In an email to the Chronicle after the hearing, Citizens’ Committee stated that the organization “supports parents’ right to counsel during an ACS investigation,” but reiterated that Levin’s bill “poses several logistical and implementation challenges.”*

Legal advocates for kids, including the Legal Aid Society, endorsed the bills, asking that they be clarified to expand similar protections for children.

“Children must be provided the same important support at some stage of the investigation,” said Shomari Ward, a staff attorney for the Legal Aid Society’s Juvenile Rights Practice. “While ACS characterizes the conversations at the knock on the door as a ‘social work’ conversation, those conversations have real legal consequences, and what’s said often becomes the legal basis for findings against parents.”

Attorney groups also touted pilot projects from a decade ago that provided early legal representation to children and parents. The pilots were successful, they testified, safely preventing expensive foster care placements. A source at ACS says the agency is working to decrease court involvement on its own, too. New, specialized prevention slots aimed at diverting families from court-ordered supervision opened last October, and 84 percent of 900 families enrolled to date have been successfully diverted, the source said.

*UPDATE AND CORRECTION, November 1, 2019: This paragraph has been updated to include a statement from The Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York. This paragraph also originally suggested that The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and The Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York raised safety concerns about multiple proposed bills. They did so for only one bill: Levin’s early representation bill.

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