New York City Council Confronts Child Welfare Agency Over Emergency Parent-Child Separations

Levin and Lancman grill de Blasio's foster care chief

New York City Councilmen Stephen Levin and Rory Lancman, chairmen of the General Welfare and Judiciary Committees, respectively, question David Hansell, commissioner of the city’s child welfare system. Credit: Official NYC Council Photo by William Alatriste

New York City Council pressed the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) Commissioner David Hansell on Tuesday over a steep increase in emergency removals of children from parents who have been accused of child neglect or abuse.

“Recent reports suggest there is more we need to be doing to prevent the unjust or unnecessary removal of children from their parents,” said Brooklyn Councilman Stephen Levin, who presided over the hearing with Queens Councilman Rory Lancman. They heard four hours of testimony from more than a dozen witnesses, including Hansell, who was appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio in early 2017.

Usually, after a child welfare agency like ACS concludes that an at-risk child would be safer in foster care, it must ask a family court judge for permission to make the placement. But if caseworkers and their supervisors believe the child is in imminent danger and a court hearing can’t be arranged quickly, they can act unilaterally.

The number of such removals occurring between October 2016 and May 2018 was nearly 30 percent higher than over the prior 20 months, according to city data highlighted in a report issued this summer by the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs. The increase coincided with an ongoing surge in calls to the child maltreatment hotline, and in child maltreatment charges filed in court by ACS.

In the 2018 fiscal year alone, the 1,095 emergency removal cases represented about half of all cases where children were placed in foster care, and involved a total of 1,854 children. Hansell revealed Tuesday that in 20 to 25 percent of such cases, a judge ordered the child to be returned home under supervision. The seeming judicial ambivalence did not imply ACS had been too quick to remove, though, Hansell argued. Usually, he said, “ACS has consented,” to a judge’s decision to return a child home — because, for example, a supervision plan had been put in place with the parents or other family members, or an order of protection had been approved against an abuser in the household. “Ultimately, the decision-maker is the family court judge, not ACS,” he added.

“Many of the cases filed, in our view, did not need a court filing,” countered Tehra Coles, litigation supervisor for parent defense with the Center for Family Representation, in her later testimony to a mostly-empty lineup of council seats and a standing room-only audience in City Hall. “Any risk to a child could have been mitigated by connecting the parents to needed services.”

Emergency removals in New York City were the subject of critical scrutiny from federal and state judges in the early 2000s, particularly in instances where ACS charged a domestic violence victim with neglect for exposing their child to violence. Parent advocates like Coles and Emma Ketteringham of the legal aid nonprofit Bronx Defenders have expressed alarm about the recent increase in emergency removals in public comments and in private with ACS officials. They were also the majority of witnesses testifying at City Hall earlier this week, with the few present council members echoing some of their other concerns.

“The consequences of removing children from their parents or primary caregivers is often profoundly traumatic, as we have seen too often in national news reports over recent months,” said Lancman in his opening remarks. Levin further pressed Hansell about the lack of peer support for parents under investigation, and instances where dilapidated public housing led to child neglect charges.

David Hansell (center), commissioner of the Administration for Children’s Services, answers questions from New York City Council, flanked by Deputy Commissioners Alan Sputz and Julie Farber. Credit: Official NYC Council Photo by William Alatriste

Hansell also highlighted how abuse or neglect charges filed against parents in family court have begun to abate this year, with the number of children in such cases down 17 percent through the first six months of 2018. The numbers had increased 60 percent between 2015 and 2017, which the Commissioner attributed to “a sharp increase in the number of indicated investigations with domestic violence present in the home.” An ACS spokesperson later told the Chronicle of Social Change via e-mail that the agency hasn’t reached any conclusions why domestic violence-related cases are on the rise, pointing to reports that NYPD investigations of domestic violence are also up citywide.*

Despite the sustained increase in allegations against parents and emergency removals, the number of children in foster care overall has continued a two-decade decline under Hansell’s watch, down from nearly 50,000 youth in care 25 years ago to around 8,500 today. Closely watched safety indicators — such as the percentage of children abused or neglected within a year of a previous maltreatment finding by ACS — have held relatively steady. Meanwhile, the number of openings for prevention services for parents, which may involve parenting classes, drug addiction treatment, or home visits from a nurse, with the aim of helping parents avoid losing their children to foster care,  has continued to rise, to nearly 13,600 overall.

Councilman Levin, who oversees ACS as chair of the General Welfare Committee, praised these efforts.

“That cannot be overstated — the amount of resources this administration and the previous administration has put into preventive services and making sure every effort is taken to keep families together is the gold standard across the country,” he said.

*Updated Thursday, November 29 to clarify an ACS spokesperson’s response to a query about the rising number of domestic violence-related child welfare cases. 

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