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New York: The Besieged Children

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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.

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Lisa Weatherbee/SalaamGarageNYC
Elijah, a former foster child who lives in Manhattan and was interviewed in Everybody Needs Someone, said of his experience, ‘It really felt like nobody loved me. No kid should have to feel like that.’

One person who benefited enormously from the Child Welfare Fund’s work is Nicole Goodwin. After her stepfather recovered from the stabbing, things seemed to settle down in Nicole’s household, but not in her mind. Formerly an obedient student, she became angry and defiant at school. Her teachers cared about social justice and, on one occasion, took the entire third grade to a demonstration against apartheid in South Africa, but they seemed oblivious to the abuses in their own students’ lives. Fortunately, Nicole liked reading, got good grades, and became one of only twenty-five students in her high school class of over two hundred to graduate on time. But at home the near-constant fighting continued. What angered Nicole most was that her mother, concerned with keeping up appearances, refused to acknowledge the abuse Nicole had suffered. “She made me feel as though I was crazy,” Nicole says now. “I felt so lonely.”

After graduation, Nicole enrolled briefly at John Jay College, but when living with her mother became intolerable, she dropped out and joined the army. It was 2001. Eighteen months later, while at a training camp in California, Nicole gave birth to a daughter, Shylah, the product of a brief affair with another soldier. When Shylah was a month old, Nicole placed her in the care of some friends and then shipped out to Iraq. The war had just begun, and reports of soldier deaths were beginning to come in. Nicole now had something to live for and she says she felt terrified.

In Iraq, Nicole was assigned to a unit that managed the ordnance supply chain. She avoided the most dangerous missions, got out alive, and was honorably discharged in 2004. She collected ten-month-old Shylah from her friends, but when she turned up with her at her mother’s house in New York, the two women began fighting almost immediately. Within a month Nicole and Shylah were homeless. Nicole spent the next six weeks begging for an apartment at the desolate Bronx office of the city’s Emergency Assistance Unit. Each day she was told she was ineligible because she could live with her mother, and each day she explained that her mother had thrown her out. While struggling to get out of this catch-22, Nicole and Shylah were relegated to the “emergency shelter system.” Each night a bus, stinking of urine, with a driver who was frequently exhausted and reckless, would take mother and daughter to a small room somewhere in the city provided by the Department of Homeless Services. Sometimes the bus wouldn’t arrive until four am, and by six, Nicole would be on her way back to petition the Emergency Assistance Unit for housing again. During this time, no city agency, including the Administration for Children’s Services, did anything to ensure that Shylah and the other homeless children were safe; there was no day care, no counseling, not even toys for the children.

Eventually, the Coalition for the Homeless, a nonprofit group, found an apartment for Nicole and Shylah, where they now live. Nicole enrolled at City College under the GI Bill, but memories of Iraq continued to haunt her. “It was a beautiful Hell,” she recalls now. She liked riding across the desert in a crane truck at twilight, but the things she saw and experienced—torture, rape, shootings, and the humiliations of occupation—amplified painful recollections from her childhood. Back in New York, her dreams were so scary that she sometimes awoke with a headache. By day, the ordinary routines of life—shopping, cooking—seemed absurd. As if still in the midst of a war, she began hoarding things—clothes, canned food, newspapers. She was, she later told me, acting like the Holocaust survivors she had read about in her college literature classes.

One night, when Shylah was six years old, Nicole was awakened at midnight by a loud banging on the front door. A pair of child protection investigators entered the apartment and, Nicole says, screamed at her for the next three hours. Three months earlier, Nicole had slapped Shylah after the girl decided she wanted bangs and cut her own hair with a pair of meat scissors. Shylah barely cried at the time, but that day she had mentioned the incident to a school guidance counselor who called the Administration for Children’s Services child abuse hotline right away. For reasons Nicole still does not know, the report was registered as an emergency, and when the investigators arrived that night and saw the clutter in Nicole’s apartment, they woke Shylah up and took her away.

Nicole was summoned to appear at the Administration for Children’s Services office on 125th Street the next morning. There three city officials berated her for beating her child and for being a sloppy housekeeper. Also at the conference was Sabra Jackson, a young woman who had temporarily lost her own children to foster care because of drug abuse. Sabra worked as a parent advocate for the Child Welfare Organizing Project, one of the community groups created by Tobis’s Child Welfare Fund. “All she did was hold my hand during that conference, but I don’t think I could have gone through it if she hadn’t been there,” Nicole recalls.

In order to get Shylah back, Nicole was required to undergo mental health treatment, which she did through the Veterans Administration. She was lucky. Civilian community mental health services are severely underfunded in New York State and about 20 percent of parents in the child welfare system lose their children because of poorly managed mental illnesses.11

After six months, Nicole’s case finally came up in Family Court, where she was represented by an able attorney from the Center for Family Representation, one of the organizations supported by the CWF’s partner foundations. A kindly judge threw out the case because of lack of evidence.

After Shylah came home, Nicole noticed a change. The little girl had always been somewhat hyperactive, but now she was furious all the time, and had hysterical tantrums that Nicole had never seen before. A social worker at Shylah’s school referred Nicole to a support group for families that had been reunited after foster care. The group was run by parent advocates from the Child Welfare Organizing Project. There Nicole met other parents trying to deal with the consequences of family separation.

Shylah’s experience in foster care was relatively benign because Nicole had managed to have her placed with close friends and, unlike most parents whose children are removed, she was allowed daily visits. But Nicole hadn’t realized how traumatized Shylah had been when she was first dragged out of bed in the middle of the night and taken away. At the time, the child protection officers did nothing to reassure the girl that she and her mother would be OK. It wasn’t what they did that troubled Nicole—she admits she needed help—it was their SWAT team tactics. “It really shook her world,” Nicole says now. “She was confused and frightened, and thought it was all her fault. She really thought I didn’t want her anymore.”

Nicole tried to calm Shylah down that night, but until she joined the CWOP support group, she didn’t know how deeply that experience had aroused Shylah’s fears of abandonment or how long they would persist. Even now, three years later, Shylah is often afraid to sleep alone. Finding the language to mend the emotional wounds of separation is difficult for many parents, but at present only the CWOP and a small number of other nonprofit groups offer them any help. The ACS itself provides little funding for these services.

The CWOP counselors helped Nicole to be more attentive and responsive to Shylah, and mother and daughter gradually began to trust each other again. Today Shylah is a bright third-grader, and recently stage-managed and codirected a school play about turtles. In 2011, Nicole graduated with a double major in anthropology and creative writing and now works as a volunteer at the CWOP and is thinking about doing a Ph.D.

This winter, I attended a dozen support groups at the Child Welfare Organizing Project, where I learned that Nicole’s case is not unique. I met a young woman who lost her child for a year after taking her to the hospital with a swollen eye, even though a series of MRI and CT scans found no evidence that the cause was anything other than an allergy. Another mother who was in a drug treatment program lost her child after a single relapse. For a while, mother and daughter were allowed to meet regularly at a desolate Bronx foster care agency beside a gravel yard where garbage blew around like tumbleweeds.

One day, when the child appeared with a black eye somehow acquired in her foster home, the mother became hysterical, and the police were called. The child was placed in a new foster home, but after that, mother and daughter spiraled into madness. While scrambling to assemble court documents, the mother managed to obtain the original report filed when her daughter was first taken away. This document, signed by the New York State commissioner for children and family services, states that the original allegation of neglect was “unfounded”—aside from the single drug relapse, the report said the child was well taken care of. Nevertheless, because of the mother’s angry outbursts, she lost her parental rights last February. Her daughter, now eight and taking four psychotropic medications to control her behavior—including one that can cause irreversible catatonia and drooling—is, the mother told me, up for adoption.

Some children, like Nicole herself, and Nixzmary Brown, the seven-year-old girl whose death from beating and starvation made headlines in 2006, are in immediate danger from their parents, but many—and perhaps most—of the children now in New York’s child protection system are not, and removing them from their homes may harm them even more than leaving them with their flawed parents—especially if the parents receive the supportive services they need to help them manage their problems.

This is the apparent conclusion of a 2009 study conducted by MIT economist Joseph Doyle. He compared thousands of young adults who had been in foster care to a group of adults who had been similarly abused but remained with their families.12 Compared to the stay-at-home group, members of the former foster care group were three times more likely to have been arrested, half as likely to have held a job for at least three months, and, if female, twice as likely to have become pregnant as teenagers. This finding may help explain why nearly a third of all New York foster children end up behind bars and more than half of children in juvenile detention in the state were previously in foster care.

Why might even troubled biological parents be better for children’s development than foster care? The answer is not known, but one of the earliest studies of juvenile delinquents was conducted in the 1930s by British psychiatrist John Bowlby. He noticed that rates of theft among thirteen-year-olds were extremely high—higher than for any other single-year age group—and he wondered whether stealing wasn’t a disease of childhood like rheumatic fever. For most children, this was just a passing phase but some continued along a criminal path, moving on to more serious offenses. Bowlby looked into the backgrounds of forty-four adolescents who had been convicted of theft and compared them to a group of children who were not thieves but had other mental health problems. The thieves were eight times more likely to have been separated from their mothers for months or years in early childhood, usually because of illness, death, or divorce.13

When Bowlby interviewed the thieves who had experienced separation, he noticed a strange quality of decreased affect—they had trouble empathizing with others, and seemed oddly indifferent to the consequences of their actions. The psychological roots of criminality are still obscure and obviously complicated. Most children who experience parental separation do not turn into juvenile delinquents and many who don’t, do. However, an eight-fold increase in risk is extremely high in epidemiological terms, and findings similar to Bowlby’s have been reported in more recent studies of young offenders.14

During the past twenty years, developmental psychologists have learned a great deal about the brain mechanisms that link the minds of small children to their mothers—or to the mind of whoever is primarily responsible for caring for them.15 Through the exchange of smiles, games, gestures, and cries in this crucial early relationship, children come to understand the feelings of other people, control their own emotions, and develop the confidence to explore, learn, and play. While it’s conceivable that a child might eventually bond equally well with a foster parent, such placements are often temporary, and relationships are often fraught.16

In other Western countries such as Germany and France, the primary goal of the child protection system is to help poor families care for their own children, not split them up.17 In France, for example, home visiting nurses offer advice and counseling to all mothers after the birth of each child, and those who need help with housing, drug problems, mental illness, or domestic violence receive services, sometimes for years. Children are removed from home only as a last resort. Unlike the US, these nations also guarantee paid family leave upon the birth of a child, free or inexpensive day care, nursery schools, and a system of public education that is, by and large, vastly superior to our own. In other words, these countries do what the Child Welfare Fund and like-minded organizations in this country have long advocated. But only the American government can make these investments on a scale that would have lasting impact.

Unfortunately, this is not a direction US policymakers are currently taking. Across the country poor families have suffered more than any other group from budget cuts in recent years. In New York alone, thousands of subsidized daycare, preschool, and after-school programs have been eliminated, along with treatment programs for parents with drug and mental health problems and emergency financial assistance to help struggling families.18 Meanwhile, welfare rolls have shrunk, even as poverty has risen.19 Although the GOP professes to support family values, congressional Republicans now propose—with Mitt Romney’s approval—to save $261 billion by cutting food stamps, school lunches, children’s health insurance, child abuse prevention, and other programs, while preserving defense spending and low taxes for high-income earners.20

America’s harsh treatment of poor families may help explain why we do so poorly compared to other developed nations on just about every measure—from school achievement to rates of high school dropout, juvenile delinquency, and mental illness.21 It’s not for sentimental reasons that other countries invest in children; they do it because their leaders know the future of their societies depends on it.

  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. 

  11. 11

    “Hard Choices: Caring for the Children of Mentally Ill Parents,” Child Welfare Watch, Winter 2009. 

  12. 12

    Joseph J. Doyle Jr., “Child Protection and Adult Crime: Using Investigator Assignment to Estimate Causal Effects of Foster Care,” Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 116, No. 4 (2008); Joseph J. Doyle Jr., “Child Protection and Child Outcomes: Measuring the Effects of Foster Care,” The American Economic Review, December 2007. 

  13. 13

    John Bowlby, “Forty-Four Juvenile Thieves: Their Characters and Home-Life,” International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, Vol. 25 (1944). 

  14. 14

    Heather Juby and David P. Farrington, “Disentangling the Link Between Disrupted Families and Delinquency,” British Journal of Criminology, Vol. 41 (2001). 

  15. 15

    Peter Fonagy et al., Affect Regulation, Mentalization, and the Development of the Self (Other Press, 2002); Edward Tronick, The Neurobehavioral and Social-Emotional Development of Infants and Children (Norton, 2007); From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development, edited by Jack Shonkoff and Deborah Phillips (National Academy Press, 2000). 

  16. 16

    Aaron T. Smyke and Angela S. Breidenstine, “Foster Care in Early Childhold,” in Handbook of Infant Mental Health, edited by Charles H. Zeanah, third edition (Guilford, 2009). 

  17. 17

    Sane Waldfogel, The Future of Child Protection (Harvard University Press, 1998). 

  18. 18

    Marina Marcou-O’Malley, “Early Childhood Education: Frozen Funding Leads to Cracks in the Foundation,” Public Policy and Education Fund/Alliance for Quality Education/Citizen Action of New York/Winning Beginning, New York, 2012; Andrew White, “The Dream of Reinvestment,” Child Welfare Watch, Winter 2011. 

  19. 19

    Jason DeParle, “Welfare Limits Left Poor Adrift as Recession Hit,” The New York Times, April 7, 2012. 

  20. 20

    Jonathan Weisman, “House Bill Offers Aid Cuts to Save Military Spending,” The New York Times, May 7, 2012. 

  21. 21

    Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger (Bloomsbury, 2010 ). 

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