Improving the “front end” of the child welfare system has long been a battle for activists and legal advocates in New York, and two key pieces of legislation have yet again failed to pass the state Legislature.
Documents obtained by The Imprint show some of what they have been up against.
In proposed amendments sent to state lawmakers, New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services sought changes that advocates say essentially gutted a bill requiring that parents under investigation for child maltreatment be informed of their due process rights, and a second piece of legislation requiring callers to the child protection hotline to identify themselves. Both bills were authored in the senate by state Sen. Jabari Brisport, a Brooklyn Democrat.
According to a document the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) sent privately to lawmakers, the child welfare agency did not want city workers to be required to notify parents that they have the “right” to decline an interview and to decline allowing their children to be interviewed or physically examined. The city also did not want caseworkers to be required to tell parents they can refuse a drug test or mental health evaluation when a court order has not been presented.
Child welfare agency officials also proposed a more narrow version of what caseworkers should be compelled to tell parents. They wanted the wording of the bill changed so that city workers would be required to provide “information,” but requested that the word “rights” be removed.
The investigative news outlet ProPublica first reported the administration’s behind-the-scenes efforts to alter the language in Senate Bill S901, citing information from “eight lawmakers, staffers and lobbyists involved in the negotiations.” The article concluded that “accepting ACS’ version would have been the same as passing nothing at all.”
“They didn’t want to call it ‘rights’, they wanted to call it something else,” said Joyce McMillan, whose advocacy group JMacForFamilies pushed for the bills. But “this is the Constitution,” she added, “and no one else has to negotiate the Constitution, and we’re not either.”
Responding to questions this week about the proposed amendments, a city spokesperson noted that the agency routinely provides lawmakers with feedback on pending legislation focusing on child welfare, child care and juvenile justice. She stated general support for the legislation’s intent, but detailed further concerns.
“ACS is committed to informing parents of their rights, and has been supportive of legislation that would require child protective specialists to provide oral and written information to parents, about their rights, at the initial point of contact,” the spokesperson said.
But she added that legislation must account “for the need for parents to have information about their rights and the need for child welfare agencies to assess the safety of children who have been reported as possibly abused or neglected.”
The agency also outlined concerns about comparisons with Miranda rights, which involve people in custody, not parents being investigated by CPS who — only on rare occasions — end up in the civil family courts.
“We have concerns that CPS issuing Miranda-style warnings about discussions with CPS being potentially used in Court may scare parents into believing they are under arrest and/or unintentionally suggest to parents that we are already planning to go to court and/or remove their children,” the spokesperson stated.
The child welfare agency is not the only opponent of this type of reform. The state Senate’s powerful Democratic majority leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins reportedly blocked the original proposal, and the union for frontline CPS investigators opposed a similar bill in New York City.
Changes the city agency sought to a second failed child welfare bill also revealed how officials sought to weaken proposed reforms of the system.
Senate Bill S902 would have eliminated anonymous reports to the Statewide Central Register of Child Abuse and Maltreatment, requiring callers to leave their name and contact information. To protect callers’ identities, the legislation would have prohibited the state’s Office of Children and Family Services from releasing their names.
The state’s central register receives calls of suspected child maltreatment from mandated reporters including teachers, social workers and doctors, as well as members of the public. But false reports are also often called in, and used as a form of harassment by vindictive former partners, landlords and other disgruntled people — baseless allegations that can be traumatizing for the entire family.
Weighing in on this bill, the city’s child welfare agency proposed three exceptions to a proposed law requiring all callers to provide their identities. Officials wanted to retain anonymity for callers who are under 18, and for reports that involve children at “imminent risk of harm.” Anonymous reporting should also be allowed if there had been a prior substantiated report of child abuse or neglect in the past three years, the agency amendments stated.
The agency spokesperson confirmed these positions as well, stating that “ACS sought to balance the need to eliminate unnecessary anonymous reports with our data showing some anonymous reports are for very serious child safety issues.”
“This is the Constitution, and no one else has to negotiate the Constitution.”— Joyce McMillan, JMacForFamilies
Child welfare investigations can be terrifying for parents and children alike, and they disproportionately involve communities of color. Based on a single hotline call, at times made anonymously to the child protection hotline, city workers can show up unannounced at families’ homes at all hours, and conduct searches of refrigerators, cabinets and bedrooms. Household members are interviewed, and children’s bodies searched for signs of harm.
Yet in New York City, just 7% of such reports result in court intervention, according to city data.
In an interview with The Imprint last year, a woman who asked to be identified as Naashia B. to protect her safety said she was wrongfully investigated for harming her 6-year-old.
“False and malicious reports are a tactic of abuse. Because you can’t physically see harassment and you can’t feel harassment, it goes unheard,” she said. “Harassment and stalking is minimized, and it’s not seen as a threat.”
Kids can be hurt by an investigation too. In a 2021 study, the Children’s Law Center in New York City reported that children involved in a child abuse or neglect investigation often don’t understand what’s happening, which, the study noted, “can be particularly traumatic because children are taught from a young age not to talk to strangers, and not to let strangers touch their bodies; and these are strangers.”
Legislation to remedy these problems has repeatedly failed in New York, despite support from public interest lawyers, foster care and adoption agencies and activists. The “Miranda” bill was also backed by the National Association of Social Workers’ New York chapter and the New York Civil Liberties Union.
“I’m quite frustrated,” McMillan said. “It is our Fourth Amendment right not to have government officials barge into our homes, do home invasions, strip search our children and search our premises, dig into our private information and then utilize it against us, without us knowing our rights.”
Brisport’s office did not respond to several requests for comment by press time, but earlier this month, he told The Imprint that the legislation was an attempt to “level the playing field and allow all families to know their rights, because some families don’t, and some families do.”
As a result, he added: “You end up with wealthier families knowing the rights and exercising them, and poor, Black families or families of color, not knowing their rights and not exercising them.”
In contrast to the stalled parents’ rights bills in New York, the far more conservative state of Texas has recently approved legislation to bolster the rights of parents under investigation for child maltreatment.
House Bill 730, signed into law June 9 by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, requires child protection workers to inform parents of their rights at the beginning of an investigation. Under the new law, taking effect in September, upon first contact with parents or caregivers, caseworkers must provide a written summary of the allegations against them and describe the process the state Department of Family and Protective Services will use to investigate the maltreatment claims. Parents will also be advised of their rights to confer with an attorney and to decline child welfare workers access to their homes when they do not have a court order.
As with the failed legislation in New York, the new law in Texas also requires caseworkers to notify parents that they can decline to share medical records or submit to drug tests, and that they have the right to confer with an attorney.
The new law also raises the legal standard for the state’s Department of Family and Protective to receive a court order to enter a home if a parent has refused access. Texas now requires caseworkers to demonstrate “probable cause” that child abuse or neglect has occurred, a step up from the former standard of “good cause.”
Cindy Dyar, director of the Family Defense Project at Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid stated the need for more transparency with parents under investigation in cases like these.
“Parents in this state do have rights, both under law and the Constitution, but are often not at all aware of what those rights are at this stage,” Dyar told the Texas Tribune. “That’s why so much happens at that stage that is unchecked — completely unchecked — and the things that happen are highly concerning.”