Amid growing calls for due process in child maltreatment investigations and a vocal advocacy movement in New York City, beginning next month some residents of low-income neighborhoods will soon be better informed of their rights when CPS comes knocking.
A pilot program being launched in late October in certain neighborhoods in Brooklyn and the Bronx includes a palm-sized card that Child Protective Services will hand deliver. The information card now being finalized will be available in 10 languages. It will be handed over at the earliest stage of a child welfare case, when a city worker responds to a report of child maltreatment by asking to enter a family’s home to conduct interviews and search the premises.
“We want you to know that you are not required to let ACS into your home,” a draft copy of the card obtained by The Imprint states.
The quietly rolled-out program follows years of concerns expressed by parents, activists and attorneys. They say unwarranted CPS calls reporting alleged child abuse and neglect — the majority of which are deemed unfounded — terrify and intimidate family members, often unnecessarily. Parent advocates have long called for more transparency from the city’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) upon initial contact with a child welfare worker by informing parents of their rights to refuse entry and to contact an attorney.
Going forward, in select neighborhoods parents will be told, explicitly, that without their consent, social workers cannot enter without a court order. The card also reaffirms to parents that they have the right to seek defense counsel.
City officials will monitor the new approach for six weeks before evaluating how to proceed. The first sites will include neighborhoods in the North Bronx, such as Baychester and Western Brooklyn, where calls for abuse and neglect investigations are far more numerous than in certain zip codes in Manhattan and Queens, according to a recent analysis by the city agency.
Children’s Services Commissioner Jess Dannhauser said by the end of October, his agency intends to expand the pilot, “providing families with information as to their rights regarding CPS requests to enter and assess the safety of the children.”
Dannhauser further noted: “ACS seeks to protect children and protect the rights of families, and we firmly believe both can be accomplished together.”
The issue of providing “Miranda-style” rights to parents under investigation for child abuse and neglect — similar to the rights of people under arrest — has been at the forefront of activists’ efforts to improve the foster care system, which disproportionately separates families of color.
Senate Bill S901, authored by state Sen. Jabari Brisport (D), would require such notice. The legislation has been introduced twice but has so far failed to pass both houses. Brisport’s bill would have required that parents be informed of all their rights, including denying the caseworker entry and refusing examination of their child at the initial point of contact, but reportedly met resistance from the city agency and some lawmakers from both parties, including the state Senate’s powerful Democratic majority leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins.
Anthony Wells, president of SSEU Local 371, the New York City labor union representing child welfare and juvenile justice employees, has been vocal about his opposition to the Miranda bill. In an interview last week, Wells said he was surprised to hear about the introduction of the pilot program informing parents of their rights.
While acknowledging prejudice toward the impoverished and people of color in child welfare cases, Wells said there is a “delicate balance” the city’s agency has to maintain. The Miranda rights bill, he said, could lead to children remaining in harmful situations longer than necessary in cases of serious allegations.
Wells added that it takes time for workers visiting homes at all hours, on short notice and often under tremendous caseload pressure, to go back to the family court and obtain an order allowing them to enter.
“If the perpetrator says ‘I’m not going to talk to you, I’m not going to let you in the house,’ what do we do? What’s the answer to that?” Wells said. “A neglect case can also turn into a tragedy.”
Still, in interviews, advocates, lawyers for parents and heads of foster care agencies agreed: Most parents are completely unaware of their rights when a CPS worker arrives unannounced to investigate a complaint of child maltreatment. Calls to the Statewide Central Register of Child Abuse and Maltreatment by a mix of mandated reporters, observers who are not required by law to report concerns, and some anonymous callers are initially triaged by hotline workers. Credible calls raising legitimate concerns result in an in-person visit.
But in New York City, recent data from the city’s agency revealed that only around 27% of investigations were “indicated,” or substantiated as child abuse or neglect.
On the whole, three-fourths of CPS cases involve the legal definition of “neglect” which unlike abuse is more closely associated with lives of poverty.
“If the perpetrator says ‘I’m not going to talk to you, I’m not going to let you in the house,’ what do we do? What’s the answer to that? A neglect case can also turn into a tragedy.”— Anthony Wells, president of SSEU Local 371
The Administration for Children’s Services’ new pilot is the latest move signaling a growing focus on parents’ rights in New York, where advocates have been demanding greater due process for parents facing maltreatment allegations, and more attention to the harmful impacts of unwarranted and invasive CPS visits.
At a rally scheduled for Wednesday morning, youth and family advocates, attorneys and parents who have experienced CPS investigations will gather to call for an end to “harmful mandatory reporting.” Groups promoting the event say “rather than fulfilling its stated purpose to detect child abuse,” current mandatory reporting practice “serves to surveil, criminalize, and punish disproportionately Black, Latine, Indigenous, and low-income families. “
The rally will be followed by a state Assembly hearing being held “to examine the child welfare system and the mandatory reporting of child abuse or maltreatment, including its effectiveness and potential biases within the system, and how the system may be reformed.”
The new pilot program represents what could be a significant change for the mostly low-income and disproportionately Black and brown parents who receive unannounced investigative visits from CPS.
“Many families feel obligated to cooperate with whatever is asked of them, and not consider getting a lawyer,” said William Weisberg, the executive director of Forestdale, a New York City child welfare agency.
“There are so many pieces that are missing. Nowhere in this palm card is the word ‘rights’ mentioned.”— Miriam Mack, Bronx Defenders
Much is at stake for communities of color. According to city data published last year, 44% of all Black children in New York City and 43% of all Latino kids experienced a CPS investigation in their households before they turned 18.
Weisberg called the palm card an important development, particularly for families who have experienced “a history of oppression and structural barriers.”
“Protective services are important,” Weisberg said. “And yet at the same time, families should have rights and should have a sense of agency and control over their own lives.”
But Miriam Mack, a supervising attorney at Bronx Defenders, the nonprofit firm that represents parents in child welfare cases in New York City, said the new notices represent measured progress.
“The government recognizing that parents should be getting more affirmative information — about the rights that are already provided to them under the law — is a step in the right direction,” Mack said. Still, Mack said there are “glaring” omissions in the information that will be given to parents in the new “palm card.”
“There are so many pieces that are missing,” Mack said. “Nowhere in this palm card is the word ‘rights’ mentioned.”
Mack said the parents she works with “live in fear” of accessing social services they need during difficult times — out of concern their children could be removed. The visits can be “harmful,” she added, with parents feeling coerced into submitting to drug tests or answering deeply personal questions about intimate partner violence and mental health issues. They also feel pressured to consent to having their children interviewed and their bodies searched for marks and bruises –– all investigatory practices they have the right to refuse if there is no court order.
To those who say kids may be placed in harm’s way when parents are informed of their rights, Mack noted the power of social workers. Even under Brisport’s proposed reform legislation, in “exigent circumstances,” where a worker believes there is an “imminent danger to the child’s life,” CPS would be able to enter the home and make an emergency removal of a child.
Diane DePanfilis, an expert in child maltreatment prevention and researcher at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College, CUNY, also supports an approach that provides more transparency and information to parents early on in the process.
“The tone of the approach will probably also make a difference in the parent’s trust level when somebody is coming into their space to ask them questions,” she said.
*An earlier version of this article stated new notifications for parents would begin Oct. 2, a date the Administration for Children’s Services has since revised to late October.