Emergency removals of children from their parents by the child welfare system have increased in New York City. According to Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), New York City’s child welfare agency, nearly half of all cases where children were placed in foster care were emergency removals — involving a total of 1,699 children in 2018.
The number of such removals increased by nearly 30 percent from October 2016 to May 2018, compared to the previous 20 months, according to city data in a report issued last summer by The New School’s Center for New York City Affairs. ACS Commissioner David Hansell recently revealed that the numbers dipped overall from calendar year 2017 to 2018, but such removals remain more common than the years before 2016, even as the city’s total foster care population remains at historic lows.
On a recent Thursday in downtown Brooklyn’s Family Court, ACS faced a judge who would review one of these emergency removals.
The judge began the hearing asking if the parent who had lost their child would need a Spanish language interpreter. She said no.
At this hearing, parents often are trying to get their children back. In this case, ACS and the attorney for this child do not want the boy to return home. They passed around pictures of the boy, who was probably nearly finished with elementary school and had bruises on his face.
Everybody agrees the mother had left the bruises on the little boy. The guidance counselor at school spotted them and called the state hotline after the boy explained that his mother swings a belt at him.
The focus of this hearing was whether the mother hit the child by accident, as she said, or in response to a negative report from the boy’s teachers the day before, as ACS alleged. An ACS caseworker testified that the child had told her he is not scared of this mother, except when she has the belt. The caseworker couldn’t remember how many times she was told that this mother hit the child with the belt.
“Definitely more than twice,” she told the judge. Although the caseworker is testifying under oath, the evidence being presented at this point in a case has yet to be fully vetted and substantiated.
The nexus between school performance and abuse has been in the news lately. A widely discussed Florida study released in December suggested that releasing report cards at the start of the weekend might prompt more child abuse. A review of nearly 2,000 cases in the state found that on Saturdays that followed a report card release, there were four times as many confirmed abuse cases as on other Saturdays. The association between report cards and abuse was not noted when report cards were released on other days.
The American Academy of Pediatrics released an update of 20-year-old guidance on corporal punishment for kids last November. It was the most forceful message to date against parents relying on physical punishment, as alleged by ACS in this case. Better to “teach the child to regulate his or her own behavior,” with time-outs and the like, reads the update.
ACS was asking for this mother to attend parenting classes. In the meantime, her son was staying with a grandmother. Even though ACS had only granted the mother supervised visits with her son, she had been walking her son to school from the grandmother’s home. For the time being, the judge ruled that the child will stay with the grandmother for at least another few weeks and until another hearing.
In order to conduct an emergency removal, under state law, child protective workers must perceive imminent danger. ACS can also only file petitions with judges between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. during the work week. If courts are closed, child protective workers are allowed to remove a child from a home without seeking a judge’s permission first.
After ACS removes a child from their home, they must report to a family court judge as soon as possible to review the removal decision and figure out a plan for the family.
The New York City public radio station WNYC recently highlighted the increase in emergency removals of children from their parents by the city’s child welfare agency. Advocates for parents have criticized the practice to city council, but Mayor Bill de Blasio seemed to approve the trend in an interview last week.
“I’ve seen cases where we lost kids,” de Blasio told WNYC. “Sometimes, over the last 20, 30 years in the city, there have been some absolutely painful, horrible cases. We learned from all those sometimes you have to be assertive and not take the chance.”
ACS’ Hansell recently told the city council that in 20 to 25 percent of emergency removal cases, a judge had ordered the child to be returned home under supervision — which, Hansell argued, did not mean ACS had been rash to remove. Instead, the agency may have negotiated a supervision plan with parents or family members, or secured an order of protection (sometimes called a restraining order) from a judge, against an abuser in the household.
Parent advocates believe the number of unnecessary emergency removals that get quickly reversed by a judge are on the rise. Those who spoke to WNYC — reiterating what they’ve recently testified to city council — believe such removals are an “affront to due process, namely legal representation.” Most parents who catch a child welfare case do not get a lawyer until after a child has been removed, ACS has had a chance to file a petition in court, and the parent makes their first court appearance.
After the Thursday hearing, as I sat in the lobby pews waiting for the next case, a foster care agency caseworker told me she thinks the American system is too hard on parents. When she grew up in the Dominican Republic, they made kids who did poorly in school kneel on cheese graters in the midday sun for hours. If you misbehaved, you had to kneel on rice in a hut, balancing books on your outstretched arms. The worse you were, the more books you had to balance.
Still, she shrugged, “a lot of these kids just really can’t stay with their parents.”