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…

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