The so-called “child welfare system” in New York City is damaging to parents and families. It must be dismantled, and new supports and structures of care must be built in its place. Parents should not be subjected to surveillance, control and trauma in order to get the support they need to care for their families.
These are the only conclusions someone could come to after reading the findings of our recent research on how New York City parents experience the family policing system — the term we use to more accurately describe the system’s purpose and impact. Our organizations conducted a participatory action research project, led by parents directly impacted by the system, to document the harms of the system and to elevate parents’ vision for change.
We conducted 10 focus groups with nearly 50 people impacted by the family policing system, as well as nearly 60 surveys with impacted parents. The research findings are compiled in our new report: An Unavoidable System: The Harms of Family Policing and Parents’ Vision for Investing in Community Care.
Our research finds that the New York City Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) is described as an unavoidable system in Black and brown communities, deeply entangled with schools and services. As one of our focus group participants put it: “It is hard, hard — I’m going to say ‘hard’ again, to avoid ACS. Especially when they’re in the school system, the juvenile system, the court system, it is really hard to avoid them.”
Intervention by the system inflicts lasting and layered trauma on families, including harming children. “Was it harmful?” a focus group participant asked. “Most certainly. Because now my family is traumatized. We will never be the same.”
ACS disrespects cultural practices and norms of autonomy and privacy, leaving parents and families feeling violated. Three-quarters of surveyed parents said that their cultural values and practices were not respected during their involvement with child welfare. System involvement damages relationships — the very relationships that parents and families rely on to thrive and to navigate times of stress. More than two-thirds of surveyed parents reported that child welfare had a negative impact on their romantic relationships and 60% said that child welfare had a negative impact on their familial and platonic relationships. One focus group participant shared: “It ruined my family — my side of the family, and there’s been no contact with them. It’s devastating. I’m still devastated. Something that’s gonna stay with me, with my family, for the rest of our lives.”
Ultimately, ACS fails to help parents. Our research found that economic supports of financial aid or employment assistance were the least common services in parents’ ACS service plans, even though most families had extremely low incomes, and most system involvement is related to issues of poverty. Only 10% of surveyed parents said financial assistance was part of their service plan, and 6% said employment assistance was part of their plan. In the few cases where parents reported that discrete services helped their families, these came at the cost of harmful and traumatic experiences within the system.
Parents and advocates have a vision for change, including an end to a system that cannot fulfill its claim to help families, because it harms them by design. We envision a city in which communities are well resourced, including child care, jobs, housing and supports such as therapy. A city in which parents know their rights, and have access to support that is non-judgmental, non-coercive, peer-led and community-based. A city without ACS and other punitive systems, in which families are cared for and harms are averted without subjecting parents and children to a system that damages their lives and communities.
To move toward abolition of the family policing system, our report outlines recommendations based on our research that can serve as immediate and concrete steps New York City can take to eliminate reliance on ACS and strengthen networks of community care. Following our report release, Rise held a series of eight online community report back sessions, engaging parents, parent advocates, social workers, legal services providers and community members in discussions about our research findings to identify priority issues for organizing and advocacy. Through this process, Rise identified three policy priorities:
- increasing access to respite and child care, including ending ACS oversight of child care vouchers, processes and services
- replacing mandated reporting with support and access to community resources
- investing in community-led mental health supports and peer support networks, and making culturally relevant individual and family therapy and grief support readily accessible for children, adults and families
The specific recommendations outlined in our report, in addition to the policy priorities identified above, provide us with a roadmap to guide the work ahead, which must be led by parents and community members. They offer a clear set of concrete, actionable steps we can take to work toward ending family policing and creating a system that truly supports families by investing in community care. We call upon not only elected representatives and policymakers, but also on the philanthropic community, the media and the public at large to view this as a social justice crisis that is critical to address. Families are being harmed daily by a system that is failing them, and all of New York City. We must do something different. We can do something different. And we must fight to get there.