The Harmful Effects of New York City’s Over-Surveillance

Image: The Century Foundation

In recent years, New York City’s child welfare leadership has proudly told the story of how the system has dramatically reduced the number of children in foster care while maintaining child safety. To be sure, that is a major accomplishment.

But there is another, troubling NYC child welfare story worth telling. For low-income black and Latino families, child protective surveillance is growing.

In the Hunts Point neighborhood in the Bronx, 10 percent of families were subjected to a child protective services (CPS) investigation in 2017 alone. So were nearly one in three families in Brownsville, Brooklyn between 2010-2014, according to the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS).

Citywide, families were subjected to 5,000 more investigations in 2018 than five years ago. Almost two-thirds of investigations are “unfounded.” Yet for families, a CPS investigation isn’t a benign event but a source of fear and stress, sometimes with terrible consequences.

Even worse, the number of families under court supervision has doubled, with more than 10,000 under court monitoring in 2017, up from about 5,000 in 2012. That increase is not justified by reductions in the number of children entering foster care. Only about 700 fewer children entered foster care last year than five years ago.

That’s why Rise, a publication produced by impacted parents, launched a series this year documenting how surveillance hurts families and weakens communities.

One mother, Lou H., who grew up in foster care herself, endured seven investigations (likely prompted by calls from an angry ex-boyfriend) even while enrolled in a family support program. She wrote:

I made it part of my daily routine to take pictures of my kids before taking them to daycare and school so that I would have proof that my children were fine before they left my home. That’s probably not something many parents would even think of doing, but for a parent like me, it just makes sense.

Can you imagine living in this daily fear?

Another mother, Cynthia Zizola, wrote:

I followed all their instructions. I didn’t go to work once a week for months in order to take my daughter to a psychologist who was an hour away by public transportation. I left my job early every two weeks to receive CPS investigators at my home. My daughter, who was only 3, was so nervous being interrogated by strangers so many times that she started behaving irregularly. And, as the investigation dragged on, I was so nervous at work that I couldn’t concentrate. Plus, my boss was losing patience with my increasing absences. Eventually, I lost my job.

To be sure, some children face grave danger at home. However, the harm of unnecessary child welfare investigations and monitoring cannot be ignored. They add stress to families already carrying the burdens of poverty and racism. And over-reporting also can make children more vulnerable. When parents see teachers and doctors as threats, they hide what they’re going through, and family struggles can turn into crises

Rise’s series starts with a focus on schools, since school officials are the number one source of reports to New York’s hotline. Mandated reporting laws were passed to protect children, yet each of the school stories in our series represents a profound missed opportunity to work with families to meet children’s needs.

One school reported a mother, Sarah Harris, when she disagreed with a recommendation that her child be placed in a special education classroom. Her son spent two weeks in foster care before a judge ordered him returned home.

My son “came back angry and upset,” she wrote. “He wasn’t old enough to understand why we were separated, so instead of being angry at ACS he came back angry at me, and his behavior got exponentially worse.”

Another school reported a mother for disciplining her son, but had repeatedly refused her pleas to get him assessed for an Individualized Education Plan, even though he was held back twice in kindergarten. (He was later diagnosed with ADHD and a mood disorder.)

Shakira Paige, who authored the article “A Punishment Worse than The Crime,” with her son. Photo: Rise.

“If my son’s charter school had helped me when I said I needed help, I think CPS would have never gotten involved in my life,” wrote Shakira Paige. “CPS stands for child protective services but there’s no real protection ’cause they take the kids and don’t seem to give a damn where they end up or about the pain it causes once they take them.” Her son was hospitalized four times in the seven months he spent in foster care.

How might the trajectory of these children’s lives have been different if school personnel had been willing or able to connect their families to help when they asked for it? Or if it were easier for their parents to access the resources available to better-off parents — to pay for expensive educational testing to assess their children’s needs as well as therapy and tutoring to address those needs, and to hire attorneys to represent them in ensuring appropriate school-based services?

It’s critical that we reimagine the role of schools and mandated reporters to ensure that the first step with distressed families is a referral to community-based supports. In New York City, schools, parents and the city’s education and child welfare agencies must work together to clarify what teachers should and should not report, and ensure that schools are connected to quality community resources. Social work schools, schools of education, hospitals and other institutions that train and employ mandated reports must include training on the harm of unnecessary reports.

More broadly, it’s vital to invest in communities most impacted by child welfare involvement. In these communities, schools, parks, sports and arts programs for children, mental health supports for families, affordable and safe housing, and crisis services are often inaccessible or low quality. Yet rather than target community conditions, the child welfare system targets individual families.

Across the country, as states begin to use federal funding through the Family First Act to expand prevention to reduce foster care placements, they must avoid expanding surveillance.

In New York City, it’s time for ACS to publicly commit to a new goal — to keep children safe without unnecessary surveillance. Parents we work with know what could’ve helped their families address challenges without child welfare involvement, and they know the organizations that have earned their communities’ trust.

Mayor De Blasio, the Children’s Cabinet and other city leaders on children’s health and development must make it a priority to listen to parents, take seriously the impact that surveillance has on families, and invest in impacted communities.

Nora McCarthy is the director of Rise. Rachel Blustain is a contributing editor and content supervisor for Rise.

Click here to access Rise‘s series, “Surveillance Isn’t Safety.”

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