Op-Ed | NYC can protect children without devastating families

Affectionate and loving mixed race family sitting together. Happy family with two daughters hugging their mother and bonding at home. Two little girls enjoying a happy childhood with mom and dad
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Imagine a family sound asleep in the south Bronx in the middle of the night. Suddenly, they are awakened by a knock at the front door.

The unexpected and unscheduled visitors are representatives of New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), the local child welfare agency. Without permission from the parents, the investigators enter the home, search the premises, and rouse the children.  

The experience is nothing short of traumatizing for the children and families involved — a disproportionate number of whom are Black or Latinx and living in low-income neighborhoods.

We believe these practices are not only terrifying but a violation of families’ civil rights.

As advocates’ repeated attempts to negotiate an end to these harmful practices have proven unsuccessful, The New York Community Trust, our region’s community foundation, is providing financial support for a federal class-action lawsuit filed Tuesday by the Family Justice Law Center, a nonprofit that uses strategic litigation to challenge potentially unconstitutional practices by child welfare agencies.

The Center seeks financial remedies for families who have been harmed as well as system-wide policy changes that will protect all New Yorkers from the specter of unconstitutional searches.

We are confident that the case The Center has built is a strong one.

According to the nonprofit The Bronx Defenders, a never-released racial equity audit conducted by ACS in 2020 revealed “that ACS’s own leadership encourages employees to target Black and brown families, reflexively use family separation, and rely on damaging racial stereotypes without telling parents their rights.”

Further, the Family Justice Law Center alleges that investigators conducting these late-night visits incorrectly tell families they have the right to enter the family home, inspect the premises, and unclothe and search the children for physical harm–all without a warrant and in non-emergency situations. In instances in which families hesitate to invite them in, investigators threaten to return with the police or to remove the children on the spot. 

Tragic deaths of children by their caregivers demand our attention. However, the majority of investigations do not involve any allegations of physical mistreatment, and the government must balance the risk of harm from maltreatment with the very real harm caused to children and families when they are unnecessarily threatened with separation. We decided to fund this lawsuit after it became apparent that litigation was necessary to bring about systemic change to respect parents’ rights. 

The unreleased audit obtained by The Bronx Defenders surveyed child protective workers who overwhelmingly stated that Black and Latinx families are subject to more scrutiny than white families.

The report concluded that “white parents are presumed to be innocent and are repeatedly given opportunities to fail and try again, while Black and brown parents are treated at every juncture as if they are not capable of providing acceptable care to their children.” 

The City has defended these inspections by describing them as voluntary, but consent provided in the face of threats and misinformation can hardly be characterized as voluntary. 

We believe that ACS can fulfill its mission to protect children from maltreatment without violating parents’ rights. The remedy is clear: ACS should comply with existing laws by obtaining a judicial warrant or consent that is not coerced to search parents’ homes, except in the rare instances where ACS has sufficient evidence that children are being harmed and that there is no time to request a warrant. 

Eve Stotland is a senior program officer at The New York Community Trust.