Lawmakers joined New York City parents Monday for a virtual rally in support of an ambitious reform package that would bar anonymous child abuse and neglect reports, arm parents with Miranda-style rights when they are accused and require written consent for drug testing new and expecting mothers in hospitals. If the bills can overcome concerns about child safety and are signed into law, the statewide legislation would significantly expand due process protections for families at risk of foster care removals.
“There is no welfare or protection to be found in this system at all,” said Halimah Washington, a Bronx mother, activist and community coordinator for the parent advocacy group Rise who is among the supporters of the proposed legislation. “Every day, the family regulation system disrupts the lives of thousands of families, exposing them to the long-lasting harms and traumas of unyielding surveillance, monitoring, separation and dissolution.”
New York City Democrats in the state’s Assembly and Senate have introduced two of the three bills so far, backed by nonprofit groups that include the legal advocacy firm Bronx Defenders, the Drug Policy Alliance and the Parent Legislative Action Network, founded by Harlem-based activist Joyce McMillan.
One bill would require all health providers to receive written consent from pregnant women or new mothers before they or their babies are drug tested. Another would bar anonymous reporting of child maltreatment to the state hotline. A third bill would require social workers to inform parents and caregivers about their rights at the beginning of investigations into abuse or neglect — similar to the “Miranda” warning police deliver to people who are arrested.
There are roughly 160,000 allegations of child abuse and neglect each year in the state — including 50,000 in New York City. About 15,000 New York children are now in foster care.
On Monday, the Manhattan Democrat sponsoring the drug testing bill, Linda Rosenthal, said her support for the reform was based on her experience working with parents on issues faced by those seeking treatment for addiction.
“Pregnant people were stripped of their own autonomy over their own bodies and the bodies of their babies, to no good,” said the chair of the Assembly’s social services committee. “Those kinds of episodes can lead to taking the child away from the parents. We know and experts know if we take a child away from a parent, the child suffers trauma, the parent suffers trauma, and the result you get is a generational effect of harm.”
State Senator Julia Salazar of Brooklyn and Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi of Queens, both Democrats, also appeared at the virtual rally and said they are confident the bills can pass this year. Despite that, some opposition from child welfare officials is expected.
In a statement, a spokesperson for New York City’s child welfare agency, the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), indicated that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration supports parts of the legislative package, including the requirement for informed consent prior to drug testing.
Children’s Services wants amendments to the so-called “Miranda” warning proposal, though. The agency’s alternative proposal would “provide parents with information verbally and in writing about the child protection process and their legal rights, while also ensuring CPS can see the children and assess their immediate safety.”
The spokesperson, Marisa Kaufman, added that the agency also opposes barring anonymous reporting, which she said can be a vital pathway for people who may be in danger themselves to report a child safety issue. Instead, the agency would prefer to focus on eliminating false, harassing reports, which it has been working with the state to reduce.
“ACS is committed to providing New York City families with the support and resources they need, while ensuring that parents’ rights are protected in all interactions with the health care and child welfare systems,” Kaufman stated in an email. “We strongly believe that there are ways to ensure parents understand the process and their rights, while also fulfilling our obligation to assess and protect the safety of the children.”
The drug testing bill, the “Miranda” bill and the anonymous reporting bill have a similar purpose: Narrowing the “front door” of the foster care system that ensnares Black, Latino and Native American children at far higher rates than white children. As part of growing activism nationwide demanding racial justice, the movement of family defense advocates calls foster care overly punitive and traumatizing, unnecessarily surveilling the families it was created to help.
“The current CPS system has a needle in a haystack problem. Literally millions of children are reported to CPS agencies nationally every year, but the vast majority of those calls lead to no positive intervention because the evidence is weak or the alleged misconduct doesn’t rise to neglect, let alone what would justify a removal,” said Josh Gupta-Kagan, professor of law at the University of South Carolina School of Law. Gupta-Kagan has conducted research on due process issues in the early stages of child welfare interventions. “As a result,” he said, “many families are subject to invasive and unnecessary CPS investigations, and CPS agencies may have greater difficulty investigating more serious and more rare cases.”
Gupta-Kagan said the proposed laws being considered in New York “are trying to take some of the hay off the stack.”
He added that maltreatment allegations from anonymous reporters — such as those from vindictive ex-partners or ill-informed neighbors — “are not particularly likely to lead to substantiations or removals, so they are an obvious target for reformers.”
Advocates from New York City won an initial victory on the drug testing issues late last year, when the city’s public hospitals agreed to require mothers’ written consent, with Children’s Services’ support. The current bill would extend that protection statewide and include newborns. It would also require written consent at both public and private medical facilities.
Assemblywoman Latrice Walker, a Democrat who represents predominantly Black communities in Brooklyn that send children into the foster care system at some of the highest rates citywide, echoed other lawmakers’ concerns Monday.
“If it is one child taken into the system, and then the mother has another baby, and then every one of her babies — her entire entire legacy, generations of her womb — are stripped away from her,” she said. Walker compared that traumatic family separation to the legacy of slavery, when women gave birth in the fields without an opportunity to kiss their babies before they were stripped out of their arms by slaveholders.
The New York City area sees some of the nation’s most extreme racial disparities: A 2019 state report revealed that Black children in the city are roughly seven times more likely than white children to be the subject of child maltreatment allegations called in to the statewide hotline and to have the allegation investigated, increasing the likelihood of foster care. Removals of Black children into foster care were about 11 times as likely as for white children.
Latino children were also overrepresented in the New York City area, where counties including Nassau on Long Island, and Rockland and Westchester north of the city saw similar disparities for all races. Despite their small numbers, Native American children are also overrepresented in some upstate counties, including around Buffalo and Syracuse.
For the women who spoke Monday, the rights at stake are too fundamental to be ignored or denied any longer.
“I’m talking about our basic human rights, that you and I have,” said Nancy Fortunato, a Latina mother and grandmother. “But in my community, those rights are regularly violated during investigations, investigations that often come from baseless claims, from malicious reporting, like an angry ex-boyfriend, a next-door neighbor, a family member, or even strangers that know nothing — zero — about our families.”