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New York: The Besieged Children

Alejandra Villa/SalaamGarageNYC
Shirley, a former foster child and now a mother in Borough Park, Brooklyn, commented about foster care,‘I was just a puppet on a string; I was so used to being pulled wherever I was told.’ From the book Everybody Needs Someone: The Aging-Out of Foster Care Project, which collects the stories of fourteen former foster children and has just been published by SalaamGarageNYC. A companion exhibition will be on view at the Long Island Children’s Museum, June 16–September 2, 2012.

Nicole Goodwin grew up in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood during the 1980s and vividly remembers how rising rates of crack addiction changed the world around her. “Neighbors who used to be kind turned mean,” she told me. “People who were clean and well-dressed turned feral.” Nicole’s family avoided the drug, but her stepfather struggled with alcoholism and violent arguments frequently broke out in the crowded household of stepchildren and half siblings. Then, when Nicole was seven, her thirteen-year-old half brother raped her. When their stepfather confronted him in a drunken rage, the boy grabbed a kitchen knife and stabbed him in the chest. Nicole doesn’t remember much about that day except that the next thing she knew, her half brother was on a bus to South Carolina where his other relatives lived.

At City Hall, Mayor Ed Koch knew that deepening poverty and the crack epidemic were causing an enormous increase in child abuse and neglect that was straining the city’s child protection system. Since 1974, people who work with children—teachers, doctors, and social workers, for example (but not priests)—have been required under federal law to report parents whom they suspect of child abuse to a local government office, which in New York is now called the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS). Anyone who witnesses child abuse may also file a report voluntarily.

In response to each report, the ACS sends investigators to interview the parents, their neighbors, the child’s teachers and pediatrician, and others who may be informed about the case. If the investigators find credible evidence of abuse or neglect, they can order that the child be placed with foster parents; these are often poor single mothers with their own biological children, who receive monthly payments for each child they take in.1 In the mid-1980s, the number of child abuse reports in the city was rising every year, and this system was overwhelmed.2 Infants abandoned by crack-addicted mothers languished for months in hospital wards, teenagers bunked in city office buildings, and the child welfare commissioner’s office and his conference room had to be converted into nurseries.

At the time, about half of New York’s foster care placements were handled by Cardinal John O’Connor’s Catholic foster care agencies, which received millions of dollars in city contracts to oversee and pay foster families on a per child, per day basis. In desperation, Koch begged O’Connor to recruit more foster parents, but the cardinal refused. “We will not trade souls for city contracts,” he said. What the cardinal meant was that he would not expand Catholic foster care services unless Koch repealed his executive orders requiring agencies to hire gay and lesbian social workers and offer contraceptives to non-Catholic teenagers. The cardinal also wanted the city to stop penalizing foster care agencies if they failed annual performance audits. The audits had been introduced in 1979, after the city’s Board of Estimate discovered that large sums of money granted to the agencies were poorly spent and that many children who could have been either safely returned to their parents or adopted remained in foster care for years. Koch backed down on all of these issues, and the system expanded. By 1992, 50,000 New York children were in foster care and perhaps an equal number were at risk of removal from their families because their parents were under investigation for abuse or neglect.

That year, David Tobis was asked by a friend who had just inherited a fortune to help her give it away to organizations helping poor New York City children. Tobis had been working in child welfare for thirteen years—first as an assistant to City Council President Carol Bellamy, then as a researcher at Hunter College. He well knew what a mess New York’s bloated child protection system was. While working for Bellamy, he helped design the audits that the cardinal’s foster care agencies persuaded Koch to weaken. He had seen costs drop and children move out of foster care more rapidly when the audits were mandatory, and he had seen the system deteriorate again under the pressure of the crack epidemic and the standoff between the cardinal and the mayor.

In a book to be published next year, From the Other Side: How Parents and Their Allies Changed New York City’s Child Welfare System, 3 Tobis describes the child protection system’s many failings. Troubled families are found everywhere, but 95 percent of all children in foster care in the city are black or Hispanic.4 In 1996, over 10 percent of all black children in central Harlem were in foster care, a rate of child removal thirty-six times higher than in white neighborhoods, even though the most frequent reason for child removal—drug use—is similarly common among blacks and whites.5 (Crack cocaine, the use of which is subject to heavier criminal penalties than other drugs, is more widely used among blacks and Hispanics, however.)

The reasons for this racial disparity continue to be debated,6 but discrimination seems to be one factor. A national study conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services in 1994 found that black children were more likely to be taken from their homes than white children, even when the type and severity of the alleged abuse were the same. For example, among families in which a report of abuse or neglect turned out to have been unsubstantiated by a court, 43 percent of black children but only 15 percent of white children had been removed from their homes.7

Families receiving public assistance are also under greater surveillance than others. For example, hospitals routinely drug-test pregnant women on Medicaid, but not those with private insurance. All teachers are required by law to report suspected child abuse to the ACS, but teachers in expensive private schools may be more reluctant to report well-to-do parents than public school teachers whose students are poor.

The child protection system frequently misses troubled families like Nicole’s—which was never investigated—but as Tobis shows, it comes down hard on poor families with much less serious problems. Child protection investigators receive only five months of training, but they have enormous discretion over whether or not a child is removed. Each case is eventually adjudicated by a Family Court judge, and about one third of cases are thrown out, but because of the backlog, decisions may take six months to a year.

During this time, children are placed in foster homes, but there’s no guarantee that they are safer there. In a series of court cases during the 1990s, many biological parents testified that when their children were eventually returned to them, they were so sick—with black eyes and skin rashes, for example—that they had to go straight to the hospital. Tobis cites one recent study that found that the rate of physical abuse in foster care was four times higher than abuse by parents in the city’s toughest neighborhoods.8

Of the roughly 70 percent of cases in which a judge agrees that the original removal was justified, about 20 percent involve physical harm to the child. In the others the judges deem that the children were subject to what authorities characterize as “neglect,” meaning that the child was at risk of harm—usually because the mother was a victim of domestic violence or had a mental illness or habitually used drugs.9 Even if the original accusation turns out to be false, a child might remain in foster care if the investigator found something else; even marijuana in the house can be grounds for removal. If an anxious parent loses her temper with a rude child protection investigator, this too may lead to removal.10

Once children are in foster care, getting them back can be a nightmare for parents without money or powerful connections. Foster care placements are meant to be temporary, lasting a few months or at most a few years. If a parent can prove in Family Court that she has managed to deal with the original problem that led to her child’s removal—by, for example, remaining drug-free or taking classes to control anger—the judge will usually order the child to be returned to her. But if she fails to demonstrate this, her parental rights may be terminated and the child placed for adoption. Until recently, most parents were represented in Family Court by harassed public defenders, appointed the day of the hearing. It was only in 2007 that the city began funding nonprofit family law firms to defend many of these parents.

In his book, Tobis explains how he and the donor—who wanted to remain anonymous—spent seventeen years and about $17 million trying to address some of these problems. Before joining city government, Tobis had been an activist, organizing anti–Vietnam War demonstrations and registering black voters in the South. He believed in the power of collective action, and had seen how solutions to the toughest social problems sometimes came from the poor themselves. He knew that families in the child welfare system needed more than services; they also needed fairer treatment and a chance to participate in shaping the policies that affected them.

In 1992, he and the donor created the Child Welfare Fund (CWF), which, along with the Anne E. Casey Foundation, the Open Society Institute, and other foundations, supported lawyers, academics, and activists throughout the city. They funded three nonprofit law firms staffed by high-quality, sympathetic attorneys who now represent half of all families affected by the child protection system in New York’s Family Court. The CWF also created Child Welfare Watch, based at the New School, which conducts research to identify weaknesses in the child protection system and presents options for reform.

In addition, the CWF funded organizations such as People United for Children, run by Sharonne Salaam, mother of one of the young men falsely convicted in the Central Park jogger case. Along with campaigning for better conditions in juvenile detention, Salaam organized street protests against unscrupulous foster care agencies that placed children in dangerous foster homes where some even died, and publicized the plight of parents whose children had been removed from home without cause. The CWF also created the Child Welfare Organizing Project (CWOP), which trains “parent advocates”—women and men whose own children had once been in foster care and who now educate and counsel other parents trying to get their children back.

What effect did these organizations have? Roughly 14,000 New York City children were in foster care in 2011, 70 percent fewer than in 1992. The rate of physical and sexual abuse of children also declined during this period, suggesting that reducing foster care placements has not put children at greater risk. The CWF and the other foundations certainly made the system more humane, although the extent to which their programs helped reduce the number of foster children is impossible to know. The waning of the crack epidemic and improvements in the economy (until recently) also had an effect, as did the enlightened policies of ACS commissioners John Mattingly and William Bell, who expanded counseling, drug treatment, and other services to help struggling families stay together.

  1. 1

    Currently, payments vary from about $435 per month for a generally healthy child to several thousand dollars per month for one with physical or mental disabilities. 

  2. 2

    Peter Kerr, “Babies of Crack Users Fill Hospital Nurseries,” The New York Times, August 25, 1986. 

  3. 3

    To be published by Oxford University Press. 

  4. 4

    Race, Ethnicity and the Path through the Child Welfare System CY2007, New York City Administration for Children’s Services, Task Force on Racial Equity and Cultural Competence, Commissioner’s Advisory Board. 

  5. 5

    Dorothy Roberts, Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare (Basic, 2001). 

  6. 6

    Chapin Hall, University of Chicago Conference on Child Welfare, Race, and Disparity: New Findings, New Opportunities. February 9, 2012. 

  7. 7

    United States Department of Health and Human Services Children’s Bureau, “National Study of Protective, Preventive and Reunification Services Delivered to Children and Their Families,” GAO (1997). 

  8. 8

    New York City Administration for Children’s Services, Strategic Management Report, September 2009, p. 4. 

  9. 9

    Statistics provided to the author by the New York State Office of Children and Family Services. 

  10. 10

    Mosi Secret, “No Cause for Marijuana Case, but Enough for Child Neglect,” The New York Times, August 17, 2011. 

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