After an internal New York City Administration of Children’s Services (ACS) audit was conducted and consequently buried in 2020, suspicions of racial biased practices that disrupt Black, brown and low-income families were confirmed. In the meantime, elected officials have been rallying for systemic change and the Family Miranda law to properly inform parents of their rights.
Councilmembers Sandra Ung and Carlina Rivera have been primary legislators behind ending ACS’s racist enforcement on the city level. Rivera has been working on passing the Family Miranda law, which would require ACS caseworkers to provide families with their rights verbally and in writing before answering questions, conducting a home search, or removing a child. Ung introduced Int. 294, which would require ACS to provide a multilingual disclosure form to parents or guardians during a child protective investigation.
“A visit from an ACS case worker is a terrifying experience for any parent or caretaker, and the initial shock and confusion makes thinking clearly and rationally understandably difficult,” said Ung in a statement. “They may unknowingly consent to a search or sign a legal document without fully understanding the implications of their actions.”
Ung said that a parent or caretaker should know they have options including seeking legal counsel. The simplest way to administer that knowledge in multiple languages would be through a Family Miranda warning as soon as an ACS caseworker visits, she said.
Several groups within the Parent Legislative Action Network (PLAN) have been pivotal in pushing to end ACS’s treatment of Black and brown families, like founder JMacforFamilies, the Bronx Defenders, Brooklyn Defender Services, Neighborhood Defender Services and the Center for Family Representation. Members of these various groups said that ACS has made very little visible progress towards improving their practices or adapting recommendations from community groups.
Joyce McMillan, founder and executive director of JMACForFamilies, is an impacted parent advocate who led the rally held at City Hall on Dec 21. McMillan, a Harlem native, has been a community organizer on this issue for 23 years. It took her two and a half years to get her children back after they were removed from her home. She said the child welfare and foster system in the city is a traumatic place, where children are vulnerable to being molested, abused, neglected, stabbed, beaten and overmedicated.
“What frustrates me is that we’ve been talking about Miranda for some time and no one was interested in Black and brown families being protected against unlawful intrusions into their homes, snatching their children out,” said McMillan, “until the report from ACS that said they were racially biased when everything spoke to that already.”
Zainab Akbar, managing attorney of the Family Defense Practice at the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, said that ACS has essentially built a myth of benevolence that is simply not true or equitable. She asserts that ACS parallels the NYPD in that it doesn’t represent safety for low-income Black and brown communities since ACS decisions often result in some sort of punishment, surveillance or prosecution.
“We live in a white supremacist society where the structure of Black and brown families have been undermined from the beginning and it’s been naked in our culture so it’s very easy to go from this family doesn’t have the resources they need to this parent is harming their children,” said Akbar.
After a racial reckoning inspired by George Floyd’s murder and the massive Black Lives Matter movement in summer 2020, the ACS in good faith vowed to be an “anti-racist organization.” ACS commissioned National Innovation Service (NIS) to do an internal audit for the agency in December 2020. They didn’t necessarily make the results confirming racist practices public, which led the Bronx Defenders organization to file a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request.
In the report, NIS found that “safety” is a “privilege of race” or a construct of class. ACS’s standards for what constitutes an appropriate level of childcare is set by what white middle class families with more economic resources can have. Overall poverty and racial bias are bigger factors in a child being removed from a home than actual safety concerns or abuse, and fear often incentivizes ACS staff to protect themselves rather than families they survey, said NIS.
Akbar said there’s no real definition of safety but there is a legal definition for neglect and abuse. Families are technically required to provide the minimum degree of care and that is colored by what a worker determines a “family” should look like and what they think parenting is. CFR Social Work Supervisor & Co-Director of CFR’s Queens Family Defense Practice Ari Chiarella, as well as many others, have however commended frontline Child Protection Specialists (CPS) workers for usually trying to work with families. Unfortunately, case workers and even CPS don’t have the final say.
“The conflict between what workers are feeling in terms of this idea of protecting themselves and then what makes a family safe. How those assessments might not be in line,” said Chiarella. “So fearing making the wrong call and erring on the side of removal because of this idea that if you make the wrong call, you’ll be penalized.”
Chiarella denounced higher-up administrators for defaulting to a removal of a child from a home when it comes to Black and brown families despite input from on-the-ground staff in many cases.
Teyora Graves-Ferrell, parent advocate supervisor for Center for Family Representation, was one of the people interviewed in the report. She said it’s jarring for their client families when they make a plan with a case worker, who may be of color, and then have the plan overruled in a predominantly white-run courtroom. Graves-Ferrell said ACS is contradictory in that they are not coming to help the family with supportive services or subsidies for struggling parents as they assess safety, it’s always an investigation and removal.
“As a person who’s gone through this process myself as an impacted parent, there’s this false sense of we’re coming together as a team to make a decision for your family,” said Graves-Ferrell. “It feels like a decision has been made before you even step in the room. The way ACS interacts is to gather information against them and that’s what we tell clients. It’s punitive. You’re not coming to the table to create a plan for the child to stay.”
Graves-Ferrell said that ACS also shoots down Black and brown familial supports, like a stable grandmother or aunt that can keep a child within the family, creating generational trauma.
ACS leadership opposes Family Miranda legislation. ACS Commissioner Jess Dannhauser recently published an op-ed on Dec. 15 attempting to address the rallying cries from case workers, parents and advocates. To summarize, he wrote that the debate in child welfare had become “polarized,” and above all, ACS must protect children who face abuse and chronic neglect while addressing current systemic racial disparities.
“Some say, if you care about child safety, then you are perpetuating our country’s history of racism and oppression; others say, if you care about parents’ rights and the integrity of families, then you are oblivious to the horrors some children face,” wrote Dannhauser. “There is truth on both sides—and this is the moment to hold these truths together.”
Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about politics for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting: https://bit.ly/amnews1