For Taylor Thomas, a social worker in the Bronx, the nightmare started on June 1, with the coronavirus pandemic raging and protests against racism in policing filling the streets.
She and her partner had rushed their 4-month-old to the hospital after she fell out of bed, she told a virtual hearing of the New York City Council Wednesday. And after that desperate run, medical staff called the state central registry to report the New York mother for child abuse. Police and social workers grilled Thomas multiple times over several days about the most intimate details of her life, she recounted on video conference, and recommended putting her newborn in foster care. Finally, she said, after months of being forced to live without her partner, Joseph, the family reunited, happy but scarred and fearful of every knock on the door.
“This experience has humbled me and served as a stark reminder of my blackness,” said Thomas during the Council’s General Welfare Committee oversight meeting. “I was not treated as a patient’s mother, but as a criminal.”
Thomas was one of a stream of parents, advocates and the city’s Administration for Children’s Services leadership who testified Wednesday about the persistent and dramatic overrepresentation of Black and Latino families in the child welfare system. The parties mostly agreed on one thing: The system’s front door — the state-run child abuse hotline that prompts investigations by Children’s Services — is a major driver of the problem.
“By far the most concerning is the disproportionality at the front end of the system because that affects every step of the system that follows,” said Andrew White, deputy commissioner for policy, planning and measurement. “That’s not to take any responsibility away from us, because there are also disparities at every step of the system that we need to address.”
Roughly 56% of New York children in foster care in 2019 were Black, more than twice their 23% share of the city’s child population. That number has barely budged since 2014, even as white, Latino and Asian youth have all remained underrepresented, according to data provided to The Imprint by Children’s Services.
Even starker, White said, a Black child was roughly six times more likely than a white child last year to be named in an initial abuse or neglect report, which can result in an intensive investigation and land parents on the state’s maltreatment database that can block employment opportunities.
“We need to make sure schools and other folks making calls to the state central registry understand how to get support to families sooner than a crisis,” White said.
Children’s Services Commissioner David Hansell described a sprawling set of initiatives his agency has undertaken in recent years to reduce disproportionality, including the recent expansion of peer support programs for parents under investigation. More significant, the city is expanding its diversion program – now known as CARES – to get struggling families prevention services without subjecting them to a full-blown child maltreatment investigation.
The agency also requires implicit bias training for all employees and has an Office of Equity Strategies that Hansell created after his appointment by Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2017.
Yet, while the foster care system has shrunk significantly from about 50,000 in the 1990s, to under 8,000 today, the rate of racial disparities has not changed.
“We’re wrestling with decades and decades if not centuries of institutional racism and structural racism that have led to this point,” said Councilmember Stephen Levin of Brooklyn (D), chair of the General Welfare Committee. Levin praised the system’s comprehensive efforts to make the system more equitable. “This is the first time I can really recall where ACS has taken this on as a priority.”
For parents like Thomas who spoke out Wednesday, as well as advocates, scholars and even some nonprofit agency heads funded by ACS, those efforts haven’t gone nearly far enough.
“It’s hard to argue that this is not our apartheid system,” said Tricia Stephens, of Hunter College’s Silberman School of Social Work, referencing the widely cited University of Pennsylvania legal scholar Dorothy Roberts, who has called for the abolition of the current child welfare system. “I want to go through with thinking with how South Africa deconstructed its apartheid system. It did not do so through bias training. It had to recognize that what was happening with the country was unacceptable.”
She added that she was almost moved to tears by the Bronx mother Thomas’ earlier testimony, because she’s heard similar stories over years of interviewing parents about their experiences in child welfare.
“I conducted interviews in 2014 of mothers who took their children to the hospital for care and left in handcuffs,” she said. “Their child didn’t go home with them, (but) with a CPS worker, when they became understandably enraged that their child was being restrained from their care. If this is not a regulatory system, then I don’t know what is.”
Advocates who spoke at the public meeting described other reforms needed to address due process gaps for families under investigation for abuse and neglect, including expanded, free legal support for parents sooner after investigations are opened.
Karen Freedman, founder and executive director of Lawyers for Children, a pro bono firm for foster youth, echoed many others suggesting that state-mandated reporters of child maltreatment need more training in directing families to alternative supports like food banks and mental health services, instead of calling the state hotline.
“This is the only way to begin to transition from the role of mandated reporters to mandated supporters,” she said.