Hundreds more New York City parents reported for possible child maltreatment will be offered a way to avoid a formal investigation and will instead be referred to supportive services, as part of a program expansion announced by the Administration for Children’s Services last month.
Under the program known as CARES, when social workers find no allegations of serious abuse and determine there is no immediate danger to a child, they can refer parents to a child protective specialist who will assess the family’s needs and help find resources for child care, groceries, drug treatment or mental health counseling. In those instances, there is no official determination of whether abuse or neglect occurred, and no finding is entered in the statewide register for child maltreatment that would be visible in a background check of the parent.
But advocates for parents involved in the child welfare system say that, while they support greater access to services for struggling families, the city-run program is still too closely linked with a system that can separate children from their parents.
“If you’re taking notes and documenting things — and that information that can be used at some point against a parent — it’s an investigation,” said Teyora Graves, a senior advocate at the Center for Family Representation and a member of the Parent Advisory Committee for the Administration for Children’s Services, or ACS.
New York City first piloted the CARES program — shorthand for Collaborative Assessment, Response, Engagement and Support, and formerly known as Family Assessment Response — in Queens in 2012. Currently, the alternative pathway for families is available only to parents in Brooklyn, Queens and parts of the Bronx. By December 2021, it will be offered in all five boroughs.
The need for the expansion is clear. City data suggest that, to date, the program’s limited capacity has led to many eligible parents ending up being investigated by social workers instead: Between July 2018 and June 2019, 42% of families with an open child protection case were estimated to be eligible for CARES, yet only 11% of those families were referred to the program. Even while reaching just a fraction of all the families with child welfare cases, CARES served a total of 2,040 families in 2019, and almost 95% of those families’ assessments were resolved without the need to open a formal investigation, according to city statistics.
For generations, families of color have been far more likely to be investigated and have their children removed than white families. Now, officials are positioning the CARES program as a remedy.
“Citywide expansion of the CARES program means more support for more families and a reduction in unwarranted and unnecessary child welfare investigations,” ACS Commissioner David Hansell stated in a press release. “Often times, families reported to the New York State child abuse hotline are simply in need of a helping hand — whether that’s food, clothing, or extra support — and specially trained child protective staff help connect those families to the resources they need.”
To be sure, the CARES program — which by the end of next year could double the number of families served — is not designed as a service center where parents in need can seek help on their own. Rather, it is offered as a less-invasive option for parents already under the eye of the child welfare system. If parents decline to participate in CARES or drop out partway through, they are then subject to a traditional investigation and determination as to whether maltreatment occurred.
Those in the program receive home visits every two weeks — or every week if the child is under the age of 1 — for up to 60 days. Michael Tamayo, a CARES child protective worker who works in East New York and Crown Heights, estimated that 95% of the families referred to him agree to enroll in the program.
Yet advocates for parents are wary. They say families are apprehensive about the program because of its close ties to the city’s investigative process. A spokesperson for the agency confirmed that the information recorded about a family by their CARES worker is available to other agency employees who may later investigate a family for alleged maltreatment.
This spring, for example, one of Graves’s clients was referred to CARES because her child lacked an iPad to log into virtual classes. That prompted a notification to the ACS lawyer who was handling the case for her other child, who was in foster care. Seeing that connection between CARES and the agency’s investigative side eroded the mother’s trust in the program, and she was emphatic that she didn’t want more home visits.
Ultimately, Graves helped her reach an agreement with the CARES worker to close out her case. But she remains doubtful other similar situations will be resolved fairly.
“ACS has a lot of work ahead of them to get the community to buy in that they won’t be punished for being transparent with the worker, and for coming in for help,” Graves said. “The program is not clear in its messaging.”
Tamayo, the CARES worker, acknowledged the importance of being transparent with families and gaining parents’ trust — especially if they have previous involvement with the city’s Administration for Children’s Services.
“I’m very straightforward and honest with them, I let them know the differences between the two approaches, and how we can better work as partners and collaborators as opposed to what an investigative travel would entail,” he said. “I’m empowering them using their strengths so they can pretty much have ACS out of their lives.”
Those strengths, he added, can include parent’s previous attempts to meet their children’s needs, close ties to family or friends, or connection to a school or faith community. Workers with CARES also help families identify the people in their lives who can serve as supports.
Jeanette Vega, a parent advocate with Rise, a nonprofit that assists parents with child welfare cases, agrees with Commissioner Hansell that helping families meet basic needs like groceries, diapers, formula and child care can reduce the need for formal child welfare investigations. But she would rather see the city invest in supporting families through community-based organizations that aren’t part of the child welfare system, which many parents are too fearful of to approach for help on their own.
“It doesn’t matter what program ACS creates, as long as their image is that they steal people’s children, New York City families will continue to be scared of them,” Vega said, “and that is the reality of why parents are hiding their struggles.”
Parents are more likely to trust family support services they can choose of their own accord, said Christine Gottlieb, co-director of the Family Defense Clinic at NYU School of Law. She believes preventative programs would be more successful if they approached poor parents more like consumers whose business they want to attract — an experience that’s routine for affluent parents in New York City.
“Privileged parents walk around being able to make true choices all the time, while other people walk around being told they have choices, but every other message is, ‘It’s not really your choice,’” Gottlieb said. “We have to be very aware that simply because a government system says it’s about helping, that doesn’t mean that’s how it’s experienced.”
Gottlieb would prefer to see the city set up walk-in centers offering in-demand services like diapers and respite care, so that parents could get help without a referral to child welfare. In 2018, ACS set up three such Family Enrichment Centers in neighborhoods with high rates of child welfare cases, two of them in the Bronx and one in Brooklyn. An evaluation released this summer found that more than 70% of parents who accessed them said the programs made them feel like they had stronger social support than they did before.
In some parts of the country, parent helplines are used as a way to connect families to resources and to prevent maltreatment without involving a child welfare agency. The 24-hour Louisiana Parentline, for example, invites parents to call or text for emotional support and help with de-escalation, crisis intervention, information and referrals and plans for coping with difficulties. In Tampa, Florida, a 211 resource hotline offers parenting support and resources for basic needs, including transportation and rent and utility assistance.
Currently, parents seeking help in New York City are directed to call the general 311 information hotline, which offers referrals to parent support groups and resources. But operators aren’t trained to coach parents through individual challenges in real time. Prevent Child Abuse New York runs a similar Parent Helpline accessible across the state, but it is only reachable on weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Parent advocate Vega, who is also a member of the city Parent Advisory Committee, said the community should be surveyed to find out what their needs are and how they would like resources to be provided. And so far, she added, she hasn’t seen any feedback on CARES from affected parents; a spokesman for ACS confirmed that none has been collected so far.
“It just feels like once again, the system is telling families what’s best for them and creating programs that they say work,” she said. “But they’re not involving the community in making the decisions to say: This is what we need.”