New York’s highest court has weighed in on an agreement between all 50 states governing the safe placement of foster children, finding that it should not be used to deny or delay custody to parents who happen to live in another state.
Chris Gottlieb, a family attorney and director of the New York University Family Defense Clinic praised the ruling in favor of her client Davlin Laland.
“This is a huge decision for families,” she said, “not only in New York, but as part of a growing trend around the country for courts to say children can’t be unnecessarily kept from parents.”
The New York Court of Appeals case centered on Laland of North Carolina, who said in an interview with The Imprint this week he has spent nearly a decade in quiet agony hoping to reunite with his daughter, placed hundreds of miles away in a New York foster home.
In 2013, a New York judge found Laland’s infant had been neglected by her mother. But after Laland made the roughly 600-mile trip to retrieve her, child welfare authorities in Long Island’s Suffolk County opposed granting him custody. They cited a little-known law governing out-of-state foster care placements, stating that it required their counterparts in North Carolina to decide on his fitness as a parent — even without an allegation he had ever mistreated a child.
Laland, a 34-year-old traffic controller, said that decision left him in a bureaucratic limbo for years, and with the inability to gain custody of his daughter. But he visited New York to visit his daughter in foster care as often as he could. And he let her know of his dedication.
“I always let her know that I love her, and I’m always here for her and fighting for her,” he said. “I wanted her to know that I’m her dad.”
But still, he missed out on being able to care for his daughter on a daily basis, as well as sharing in her milestones — when she started to crawl, or spoke her first words.
“I just missed the experience of her being able to grow with me,” Laland said.
In the ruling issued Tuesday, New York’s highest court unanimously agreed with Laland: Suffolk County was wrong to deny placing his daughter with her father at the onset of the child welfare case based on rules set by the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children (ICPC). The interstate compact is a statutory agreement between all 50 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands that governs the placement of foster children across state lines, establishing certain requirements to ensure safety and suitability of a home.
New York’s Court of Appeals ruled non-custodial parents should not be subjected to the compact’s provisions, which grant broad authority for low-level government officials to approve or deny a child’s placement out of state. The rare child welfare ruling from the state’s highest court also settled disagreement on the matter between lower courts.
Legal experts and some child welfare administrators describe the interstate compact’s labyrinthine process for evaluating and approving out-of-state foster homes as badly outdated, time consuming, arbitrary and antagonizing, routinely taking months or even years while children wait in foster care limbo. A rare study of the issue published by the American Bar Association in 2014 found that there are more than 40,000 child welfare agency requests annually for kids to be placed out of state under the interstate compact. A sample of cases from 11 states found roughly half involved parents or relatives who — more often than not — are denied custody without an opportunity for appeal.
The Suffolk County Department of Social Services did not respond to emails and phone calls for comment Tuesday. But in the agency’s brief to the Court of Appeals, county attorneys argued the interstate compact should apply in all out-of-state custody applications for children in foster care, “including those brought by parents,” since that status quo was “the safest and most sure method of ensuring that the health and well-being of children will be protected.”
The opinion released Tuesday by Acting Chief Judge Anthony Cannataro states that the plain language of the compact “unambiguously limits its applicability to cases of placement for foster care or adoption,” and not to placements with biological parents such as Laland.
“In short, as many courts in other states have concluded, there is nothing in the statutory language to indicate that the ICPC was intended to apply to out-of-state parents seeking custody of their children,” wrote Cannataro, with the unanimous approval of the appeals court’s six other judges.
Legal advocates for children filed an amicus brief supporting the father’s argument, noting parents are routinely and unfairly subjected to the interstate compact’s lengthy delays before they are permitted to take in children who have entered foster care in another state. Additionally, advocates said prior practice in the state was often punishing both child and parent.
The nonprofit Lawyers for Children hailed the highest court’s decision, saying that it removed “bureaucratic impediments” to quickly and safely reuniting children with family instead of extended stays in foster care.
In a statement, founder and executive director Karen Freedman said the Court of Appeals decision “marks a critical step in the process of recalibrating government intrusion into the lives of children and their families.”
Gottlieb, who represented Laland pro bono along with the corporate law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, said her client was unfairly treated after Suffolk County denied placing his daughter with him. Although he sought visits, he was never told of his legal right to seek custody.
She added that this case is another example of how parents’ legal rights are “not made meaningful,” and ultimately families being harmed are “disempowered.”
The closely watched case gained attention in the field. One of the largest local child welfare agencies in the country, New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services, said in a brief filed in the case that it “regularly encounters children whose parents live out of state,” and that the court’s decision “will likely have widespread implications.”
In an email statement after the Tuesday ruling, an administration spokesperson added: “Eliminating this barrier will help expedite children and parents being together, when parents are living outside of New York.”
The attorney for Laland’s daughter, Domenik Veraldi, Jr. of Long Island, had argued for requiring the interstate compact evaluations in the case, but said in an interview the ruling was “probably sound.”
Still, although the Tuesday ruling set a precedent that will apply to future cases, it will not help Laland gain custody of his daughter, who remains in her foster home under a settlement her father reached with Suffolk County’s social services agency, years after the initial refusal to place his daughter in his home. Laland said he nonetheless pursued the litigation long after it became moot in his case, to protect other families from missing out on their children’s lives.
“I fought so hard and for so long,” he said, “and just to know that this decision is going to help a lot of families and not railroad them is huge.”
And now that the case has been settled, he said his daughter can visit, and he’s looking forward to making up for lost time. The two have been talking on the phone about school, her friends and even boys. Laland said he can’t wait to send her off to prom, college, and be there for other milestones. He added that his daughter told him the first thing that she wants to do in North Carolina is go shopping and have a daddy-daughter day.
He hopes the ruling will help people not only prevent the grueling process of getting custody of their children, but also allow parents to be parents.
“I missed so much,” he said, “and I wouldn’t want anyone to go through this process.”