A statehouse hearing on child welfare last week began with Brooklyn Assembly member Latrice Walker (D) comparing the Trump administration’s family separation policies at the nation’s border to New York’s foster care practices.
“We were hearing an outcry from many members of our community, who had been asking us to look into keeping the families together right here within our cities and towns throughout New York,” said Walker, chair of the assembly’s Task Force on Women’s Issues, which co-hosted last Thursday’s discussion in Albany with advocates and government officials. “Over the summer, I went to a community fair and I was approached by at least four women in a one-block radius who said to me that their children were removed from their household [for foster care]. It was alarming.”
Hence the hearing’s stated topic: “the availability of supports and services to help keep families together.” Politicians, officials and advocates speaking throughout the day seemed to agree that more support is needed to safely keep families in crisis together. It was less clear if the powers that be were ready to embrace recent calls for more legal support for parents accused of child abuse or neglect.
Officials from the administrations of Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) instead emphasized social service programs designed to keep families together — how robust New York City’s efforts are, and how more funding flexibility is needed to reach parents earlier with such programs.
“I think the ultimate solution is more primary prevention services,” said Sheila Poole, the Cuomo-appointed commissioner of the Office of Children and Family Services, the state agency that oversees county- and New York City-run child welfare systems. “We have a lot to be proud of in New York that our [foster care] number has dropped from 55,000 [in 1995] to 16,000,” which she emphatically attributed to the state’s investment in prevention.
“But can it go lower? Yes. So how can we continue to expand prevention services?”
Foster care prevention programs range from anger management classes for parents to intensive behavioral therapies or home visiting programs for new moms. Poole testified that these programs served 46,000 New York families at a cost of $600 million last year, typically after a caretaker has been accused of some form of child neglect.
Another state official testifying last week encouraged lawmakers to consider a different tactic to preserve families: Improve legal representation for parents after they are accused, by increasing state funding.
“Inadequate representation, delays in access to representation, and the outright denial of representation are all too frequent,” said Angela Burton, who oversees the state Office of Indigent Legal Services’ efforts to improve the quality of representation parents receive.
Burton was quoting a recent statewide commission on parent’s legal representation, convened in 2018 by the state’s Chief Judge, Janet DiFiore. The commission released an interim report in February detailing “systemic problems,” and even a “crisis” in the “under-funded” county-based system for providing court-appointed attorneys to parents. The report recommended a “complete transformation … in New York’s publicly funded system of parental representation in child welfare matters.”
DiFiore endorsed the findings in her state of the judiciary this year.
Yet, officials from Mayor de Blasio’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) echoed Poole’s focus on prevention programs, emphasizing the city’s expansive, nationally recognized investments.
“New York City is one of the few jurisdictions where families have access to a comprehensive, holistic and fully funded continuum of services and supports to strengthen families and prevent entries into foster care,” testified Dr. Jacqueline Martin, deputy commissioner for preventive services at ACS, which manages one of the largest child welfare systems in the country.
Martin testified that her agency received 55,000 allegations last year, 37 percent of which were found to be credible, and provided 20,000 families with prevention services – a 4 percent increase from last year. 173 of ACS’ 3,712 foster care placements in 2018 took place in Assembly member Walker’s district, around the predominantly black and Hispanic Brownsville community of Brooklyn, according to agency data. It was the highest number of removals by ACS in any of the city’s 59 community districts.
Some advocates who spoke to lawmakers last week rejected the notion that prevention programs were a panacea, and argued that lawmakers should focus instead on improving legal representation for parents.
“We have to stop talking about preventive services,” testified Emma Ketteringham, a managing attorney for the legal aid group Bronx Defenders. “I’m not saying that’s not a good idea. But when you’re hungry, and you don’t know where you are going to sleep, and your children were taken in the middle of the night — therapy’s not going to fix the situation … We have to back up and really explore how we respond to families that struggle … because of poverty and because of structural racism.”
“Are there any specific actions — besides funding — that are already out there in some communities, but we may want to expand?” asked Assembly member Ellen Jaffee, whose Standing Committee on Children and Families oversees child welfare issues, including OCFS, and co-hosted the last Thursday’s hearing with Walker’s Task Force.
Tehra Coles, litigation supervisor with New York City’s Center for Family Representation, pointed Jaffee and Walker to a recent push by New York City Council to provide lawyers to parents “while they are being investigated by child protective services” — before ACS has filed a petition in family court against the parents. Parents currently are offered a court-appointed lawyer only after a local child welfare agency like ACS files a petition against them in Family Court.
“There’s been some pushback on our local level as far as what that would do for child safety,” among other concerns, Coles explained.
The bill, authored by Brooklyn Councilman Stephen Levin, was part of a package of 11 reform bills expanding protections for parents, recently introduced by the council’s progressive caucus.
“The involvement of an attorney at the beginning of an investigation … could create serious safety issues,” warned the de Blasio-appointed ACS Commissioner David Hansell, during an October council hearing on the bills.
Neither OCFS’ Poole nor ACS’ Martin mentioned improving legal representation for parents at the hearing. Poole acknowledged a need for more parent voice in the system, and the need to target prevention programs to reach families earlier before they are on the brink of losing their kids.
“The challenge is sometimes families just don’t know where to go to ask for help, or are fearful of asking for help, because there are perceptions the system is going to come down heavy on them,” said Poole. “I think there is an opportunity in our system for more family-driven types of peer advocates, navigators, that families would feel more comfortable … That’s some of the work I’m hoping we will be able to do in the year ahead.”
She added that early-stage, upstream prevention programs are difficult to fund under current state and federal laws. Figuring out how to work around that, she testified, would be a top priority for OCFS.
“You would be surprised how difficult it is to deliver the simplest low-cost service to a family,” she told Jaffee and Walker. “We’ve got to find a way to make that much easier and nimble for [counties].”