An influential federal civil rights commission approved a plan this week to investigate possible violations of Black families’ civil and constitutional rights by the New York child welfare system. Public hearings are planned for the fall, with a final report due next year.
The 11-page plan for further research, obtained by The Imprint, highlights evidence that Black families are overrepresented at every step of the system, from reported child maltreatment allegations to removals from home into foster care. This remains the case, “despite the federal government’s efforts to reduce the disproportionate overrepresentation of children of color for over two decades,” states the Project Proposal of the New York Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights.
“Once in foster care,” the document continues, “Black children receive fewer and poorer quality services, are separated from their families for longer periods, are less likely to be reunified, and once in foster care are significantly less likely to be adopted.”
Congress created the United States Commission on Civil Rights in 1957 to investigate social injustices during the early years of the burgeoning civil rights movement. The independent, bipartisan panel with numerous state advisory groups is tasked with assessing discrimination issues and proposing reforms. For example: In 2018, the eight-member body based in Washington, D.C., issued a 400-page study finding a steep decline in voting rights enforcement over the past decade.
While the commission has no enforcement authority, its sweeping reports have contributed to the passage of key civil rights legislation, including the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Its members are also known to consult and advise every branch of government, including governors and presidential administrations.
The newly approved federal inquiry in New York will be conducted by prominent local attorneys who serve as four-year, unpaid advisors. This local advisory committee’s chair is Bryanne Hamill, a retired Family Court judge. It also includes 11 other ideologically diverse contributors, from human rights watchdogs to the general counsel for a software firm, and a Montessori school leader. The committee also includes researchers who belong to the conservative Federalist Society.
Of their new inquiry, Judge Hamill said they are being careful not to prejudge potential issues in the child welfare system.
But, she noted, “sometimes you need the additional weight of the federal, bipartisan civil rights committees to be able to speak on these issues and affect change.”
“I don’t see where any other state has looked at this set of issues,” she added, referring to discrimination in child welfare and the dozens of local groups nationwide mandated to advise the federal civil rights commission.
Her local advisory committee has made some noteworthy contributions to date. A similar 2014 report on juvenile justice “helped galvanize the movement to eliminate solitary confinement in New York,” according to The New York Times.
The inquiry is yet another sign that groups far beyond the child welfare field are focusing attention on its entrenched inequities. Last month, a United Nations subcommittee on racial discrimination urged the United States government to review key federal child welfare laws for possible reform. Leading institutions within the field such as the American Bar Association and the pro bono litigation firm Children’s Rights have also issued first-time proclamations and reports over the past year, highlighting racism in the foster care system.
Over the summer, local residents, advocates and attorneys with New York City public interest law firms including the Center for Family Representation and Brooklyn Defenders Services, attended public planning meetings and submitted comments to shape the New York advisors’ new inquiry.
“The ‘family regulation system’ is weaponizing people with a mental health diagnosis, deeming them unfit,” Darlene Jackson testified at one such meeting, held virtually. “They are using punitive measures instead of trauma-informed care to stabilize families.”
Hamill, who retired from hearing child abuse and neglect cases in 2010, also described the intense engagement in public meetings held in New York to date.
“I’ve been on this committee for six years, and I’ve never seen this level of interest this early in the stage of our proceedings for a new study,” she said during a recent live-streamed online meeting.
The inquiry overview finalized this week cites four news articles and one op-ed published by The Imprint to present its case that racism in the child welfare system is rife for examination. The stated goals are to provide a “state level perspective on potential civil rights concerns related to the administration of the New York child welfare system,” and to explore the “intergenerational” impacts on Black families.
The plan also notes that the state’s own child welfare agency, the Office of Children and Family Services, has reported “extreme” racial disparities in some New York counties in recent years. The administrations for the two most recent governors, Democrats Andrew Cuomo and Kathy Hochul, who is running for re-election this year, have both pursued efforts to address the issue.