New lawsuit addresses ‘irreparable’ harm in foster care system

Brian Josephs | 7/23/2015, 10:19 a.m.
Last Wednesday afternoon, Public Advocate Letitia James confirmed what many have been suspecting for years: Children are being abused and ...
Tish James

Last Wednesday afternoon, Public Advocate Letitia James confirmed what many have been suspecting for years: Children are being abused and neglected in the New York City’s foster care system.

With hopes of combating the issue, James announced she’s filling a class-action suit against the New York City Administration for Children’s Services and the New York State Office of Children and Family Services. James made the declaration in front of a small crowd of reporters, protesters and parents desperate to retrieve their children from the foster system’s grasp.

“These children do not vote. These children do not have high-paid lobbyists,” James said. “They do not have high-paid lawyers. They’re often left voiceless, defenseless against a bureaucracy that seems to have no will or incentive to help them.”

Although a concrete end goal was still nebulous by the end of the speech, what wasn’t was the scope of the trappings of the foster care system, especially in New York. Conclusions drawn from the firsthand accounts of a foster care hotline showed that 56 percent of respondents noted that a child was emotionally or psychologically harmed while in foster care, and 31 percent reported physical harm. New York also ranks No. 46 of 48 jurisdictions in the to rate of abuse and neglect of children in foster care, according to a report released by the public advocate’s office.

ACS, which represents more than 11,000 children, refuted the report, saying that it relies on only 77 interviews—a fraction of a percent of the total number of children in the system—and that the agency is investing in improving child welfare practices.

“The de Blasio administration is deeply invested in improving the lives of vulnerable children and working very closely with many partners to improve our foster care placement system,” said ACS Press Secretary Christopher McKniff in a response statement. “We are committed to working with our partners throughout the system—the courts, attorneys, advocates, providers, parents and children—to ensure we continue to improve outcomes for families who are involved in the child welfare system.”

The synecdochical nature of the suit also extends to the plaintiffs: James is listed alongside 10 children who are listed under pseudonyms to protect their identities. Among them is Ana-Maria R., a 4-year-old who watched as her sister Olivia was sexually abused. Tyrone M. was separated from his mother when he was just 12 days old, and as a result of neglect, he’s a 7-year-old who’s forced to sleep in his clothes every night because he was never taught to change into his pajamas.

A poster board listing some of the children stood beside James as she explained the stories. As if to bring a visceral resonance, the names and details were listed in red and white ink against a black background.

“Children who’re in foster care, all they know is foster care,” James said. “And all they know is harm and pain.”

The case will, in all likelihood, take months to resolve, and other parents beyond the 10 have lost their children to ACS’s practices. One of them is D.C. Levers, a journalist who’s been trying to get her daughter Josee back for three years. The two were originally separated when Josee was 3 because of a “messy home” complaint.