Thursday marked a raucous day of hearings in New York City, with parents protesting outside city and state chambers on the overreach of the child welfare system, and lawmakers pledging to make some of their proposed reforms.
At issue was a package of bills to preserve parents’ rights, which is moving sluggishly through local and state legislative bodies. The key proposal is a Miranda-style bill that would require child protection workers to inform parents of their right to legal counsel at the start of an investigation for possible abuse or neglect.
Of the roughly 7,300 children in New York City foster care, more than 80% are Black or Latino, according to city and state data.
“I’m married, I have three degrees, but I’m still a Black woman, with Black children that no one cares about,” one mother, Shalonda Curtis-Hackett, testified at a state Assembly hearing. Curtis-Hackett told lawmakers she will be homeschooling her children, due to her fear of teachers reporting her family for child maltreatment. “If this happens to me, what happens to the parents who feel they can’t speak up?” she asked.
Responding to the often painful testimony, Andrew Hevesi, a Democratic Queens Assemblymember, called the overrepresentation of Black children in foster care “outrageous,” and pledged that he and his colleagues will seek to “close off the avenues where government traumatizes kids.”
David Hansell, commissioner of New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), said his agency has a responsibility to become “anti-racist.”
He pointed to the administration’s efforts to correct injustices of the past, including an “equity action plan,” increased investment in services to prevent foster care — such as family therapy and substance abuse treatment — and the city’s network of “family enrichment centers” that offer community-based support for struggling parents.
Hansell said when schools went online during the pandemic, his agency also worked with the Department of Education to discourage teachers from calling the child maltreatment hotline for “educational neglect” when families may simply lack access to technology needed for remote learning.
Parents’ rights activists — emboldened by last year’s global protests over racism in policing — were unsatisfied. Led by Joyce McMillan, founder of JMacForFamilies and the Parent Legislative Action Network, numerous speakers at Thursday’s public hearings demanded greater accountability in a system they describe as so broken it has to be scrapped.
Before the day’s meetings began at both the state and city chambers, more than a dozen protesters gathered outside a state office building, chanting the names of elected officials who they say have failed to act, and waving signs reading “ABOLISH ACS” and “Do Not Open Your Door For ACS.”
Shekar Krishnan, a civil rights lawyer from Queens who is vying for a seat on the New York City Council, said his family was investigated when he was in high school.
“It is crucial at the beginning of child welfare investigations parents know their rights. I know that because it would have helped my family in our situation,” said Krishnan, who is the son of immigrants from South India. “It would help so many immigrant families in my district who also are trapped in these investigations and because of language inaccessibilities have no idea how to fight ACS.”
The state Legislature and New York City Council are both considering stalled bills that would expand due process protections for parents whose homes are investigated by child welfare workers, following reports of suspected abuse or neglect. Both bills could require child protective specialists to tell parents about their right to an attorney, as well as their right to decline entry without a court order. Another city bill would require a written pamphlet in 10 languages.
The proposals have prompted debate between lawmakers and local administrators, and a newly energized parent defense movement. Parent activists call foster care “a family regulation system” that is racist and casts far too wide a net over vulnerable communities, surveilling families over flimsy child “neglect” charges that conflate poverty with abuse. The activists say this criminalization of the poor ravages families and communities, and leads to generational trauma.
According to city data, each year more than 50,000 New York City families have been investigated for child maltreatment — mostly for the broadly defined category of neglect, not physical or sexual abuse.
That number plummeted during the pandemic last year, with children not present in schools where teachers are among the most regular reporters of suspected child abuse and neglect.
Now with school back in session, the numbers of investigations and removals into foster care are slightly higher this year compared to last year. But both numbers remain below pre-pandemic levels in 2018 and 2019.
The Administration for Children’s Services has objected to the legislation requiring child protection investigators to read parents their rights during an initial home visit, similar to the Miranda rights police must inform people of when they’re arrested. City leaders have also objected to telling parents they have the right to refuse investigators entry into their homes without a court order, arguing that state social service law requires agencies to first confirm a child’s safety, before providing parents information about their rights.
McMillan blasted the inaction, saying city workers are exceeding their legal authority.
“Either we’re going to follow the law and have ACS get court orders unless there’s emergency circumstances, or we change the law so they can just trample in people’s houses and never tell them their rights,” she said. “Because right now as it stands, there’s nothing that says parents shouldn’t know their rights. But there is something that says ACS should have a court order to enter a home.”
The state did not act on a similar proposal before this legislative session ended in the spring, but it could be reintroduced in 2022. The version of the law now stalled in the New York City Council may resurface for a vote sooner.
Assemblymember Hevesi — who wields significant influence over child welfare legislation as the chair of the Standing Committee on Children and Families — said he’s having trouble deciding his positions, particularly on the Miranda bill.
“This is where two things I care deeply about conflict. The first is, I’ll spend the rest of my life fighting for children’s safety,“ he said Thursday. “But on the other hand, I will also spend the rest of my life making sure parents and kids don’t get ripped away from each other, because that’s a trauma for kids that has societal consequences.”
Nearly two dozen people testified at the heated and often emotional public hearing, including parents, attorneys, foster care service providers and advocates for caregivers.
Hevesi — who is sponsoring another bill that would bar reports to the state’s child maltreatment hotline by anonymous callers — suggested he’d seek compromise on the Miranda rights issue.
“We’re going to figure out a way to get parents to know their rights. I don’t know what that looks like though,” he said.