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.
Jonathan Stock, a volunteer for CASA, an organization that works to improve the lives of neglected children, said that Levers’ case should been done within months. Josee’s heart condition and special needs makes this case a more pressing issue, but Stock said that ACS has been antagonistic when it comes to reuniting the family.
“Anybody who calls in with any concern, you get a deviant, crappy attitude from them,” Stock said. “They’re not doing it for the right reasons.”
In addition to having several lawyers on the case, Levers has been motivated to try activism. She founded the group Falsely Accused Moms for other mothers trying to be reunited with their children after losing them under controversial circumstances. The group’s Twitter page had been badgering James to take action before the lawsuit was announced. Levers has also spearheaded the hashtag “BringJoseeHome” to raise awareness.
“She’s being horribly, unfairly treated,” Levers said. “Her life and childhood are being stolen.”
Kambo Martin, a 67-year-old bus driver, is another parent whose child isn’t represented. However, he was still present at James’ announcement, perhaps hoping the victory the plaintiffs were seeking would help vindicate his own trials.
Martin lost his son, 7-year-old Gilbert, after a separation from his wife. He says his wife attempted to quit the workforce and go on welfare. However, Gilbert was taken into foster care partly because the mother neglected to send him to school. Martin only found out he’d lost his son when his wife returned to deliver the news. It’s been a struggle for him ever since.
“There are days they would just cancel my visit with my son for no reason,” Martin said, panic shaking through his Ghanian accent. “It’s just total abuse. It’s very, very sad.