Over the past pandemic year, national headlines have warned of a hidden crisis unfolding in American households — a surge in child abuse among financially strained and psychologically stressed families locked-in together, far from the watchful gaze of schoolteachers and social service providers.
Reports of child maltreatment in New York City dropped by one half after the coronavirus struck, and have not yet returned to previous levels, according to the Administration for Children’s Services.
At a Monday City Council meeting to discuss COVID-19’s impact on the child welfare system, a city leader disputed the notion there’s been a scourge of child abuse this past year.
“I’m happy to say we really haven’t seen any indicators” of an increase in undetected child abuse, Commissioner of the Administration for Children’s Services David Hansell told the City Council. As evidence, he cited the lack of any “significant changes” in emergency room usage citywide, which “you might think would happen if there were more children suffering any kind of serious physical abuse.”
Hansell added that the rate of substantiation in child abuse and neglect investigations has also stayed largely the same throughout the pandemic.
Thus, it was just as likely that the pandemic was “a very positive thing” for children, who were able to spend more time at home with their parents, Hansell concluded.
During the crisis, the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) mobilized its vast network of nonprofit service providers to boost support to at-risk families, providing food, clothing, diapers and transportation, and helping parents enroll in benefits. The city-affiliated organization New Yorkers for Children also helped raise $1.7 million in emergency funds for youth, families and foster parents.
According to a legal expert who testified Monday, there are other signs that fears of growing child abuse during the pandemic have not come to pass: Reported child fatalities were down 25% in early 2020, compared to the same period in 2019. Reports of serious physical abuse over several months last spring were down 60%, with an even higher percentage deemed “unfounded.”
What’s more, since schools began to reopen last fall, there has been no flood of delayed reports that have been substantiated by child welfare authorities, Anna Arons, an acting assistant professor at the New York University School of Law, told the City Council.
“In light of these findings, we cannot say that ACS’s ‘normal’ model is necessary for child safety,” said Arons, citing research from her forthcoming paper in the Columbia Journal of Race and Law.
Historically, she argued, there have been too many unfounded calls to child protection hotlines, and they have disproportionately harmed Black and brown families. “The last year serves as a model of a more humane, more equitable path forward,” she said, “showing us that we need not destroy families and destroy communities in order to keep children safe.”
City Council member Stephen Levin opened Monday’s meeting with a reflection on the early pandemic days: “The thought of a child being maltreated for an extended period of time with no access to the outside world — I certainly lost some sleep over that thought,” the chair of the general welfare committee said.
But later in the meeting he asked Hansell whether the time had come “to challenge the assumptions we’ve had for a few generations now,” — the assumptions that at the first suspicion of child maltreatment, a hotline call must be made.
“Is there an over reliance?” he asked.
Hansell’s response: “Yes.”
He said his agency has worked with schools and hospitals to “differentiate what is truly a child safety issue, from what is another kind of concern” that does not need reporting to the Statewide Central Register of Child Abuse and Maltreatment. The overwhelming majority of hotline calls center on allegations of neglect, which are often linked with poverty.
Anna Blondell, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society’s juvenile rights practice — which represents New York City’s foster children in family court — agreed the dip in child abuse reporting and emergency removals into foster care during the pandemic, “does not appear to have resulted in increased harm to children.”
Blondell said other crises warranted more attention, namely the steady increase in foster care placements as the pandemic abates, coinciding with a simultaneous decline in available foster homes.
“This increase in removals should stop,” she said, “particularly because ACS lacks sufficient foster homes for the children it removes, subjecting them to additional harm.”
As a result, she said children have been “languishing” at the city’s intake shelters: At least 153 children were housed for more than 20 days in one Manhattan facility designed for short-term stays of a day or less. One 8-year-old waited in the temporary intake center for eight months.
According to state and city data provided to The Imprint by the Administration for Children’s Services on Tuesday, after years of increasing recruitment success, there was a roughly 25% drop in the number of new foster homes certified in the 2020 fiscal year compared to the prior year — from 651 to 486 homes. The current total number of New York City foster homes is now nearly 5,000. The city could not provide previous years’ data by press time Tuesday night.
A city spokesman, responding to the foster care capacity concerns, emphasized that the intake shelter’s overall census has declined during the pandemic and length of stay hasn’t increased, on average. Further, the city had built up record capacity prior to the pandemic, with foster home recruitment up 50% between 2017 and 2019, after years of declines.
It is widely accepted that children fare better in family foster homes than in group facilities, and state and federal laws encourage those less-restrictive placements. On Tuesday, the city’s child welfare agency conceded that the coronavirus contagion had slowed foster parent recruitment that allowed children to live in family homes rather than institutions.
But spokesperson Christopher Rucas stated after the meeting in an email: “New York City has set the bar nationally for reducing the number of children in foster care and making sure those children are placed in safe and loving homes, often with relatives or someone they know, which reduces trauma.”
Rucas also reported that the agency has increased the proportion of children placed with relatives.
Almost 7,900 New York City children lived in foster care as of March, 87% who are Black or Latino, according to state data.
And for parents organized by the family defense groups JMacForFamilies and Rise Magazine testifying before the City Council Monday, the crisis facing the child welfare system is fundamental. They described themselves as “survivors” of a punitive “family regulation system” that should be abolished and demanded greater due process protections for parents under investigation for child abuse and neglect — including the right to remain silent granted to people who are arrested.
Parent activists also want to see the billions of dollars allocated to the child welfare agency be provided directly to struggling families.
“I wish I had known my rights. I wish I had been ‘Mirandized’,” Desseray Wright said at Monday’s virtual City Council meeting. The New York City mother said city workers with the Administration for Children’s Services arrived at her home at 1:30 a.m. after her adult son had an argument with her boyfriend.*
“They have traumatized my whole family,” she said.
Council member Levin pledged action, saying that he anticipates the city council will pass a law by the end of the year, guaranteeing Miranda-style rights to parents in child welfare investigations.
Rucas with Children’s Services said his agency “strongly agrees” that parents should have “full information about the process.” But he noted any legislation needs to balance “our need and legal mandate to promptly assess child safety.”
*This sentence has been updated to reflect that the argument was between Desseray's son and her boyfriend