Diane Savino is the rare kind of politician: she’s known for her impassioned, sometimes salty candor, and for her granular knowledge of the foster care system. The Democratic New York State Senator for Staten Island spent five years in the early 1990s working for the city, knocking on the doors of parents accused of abusing or neglecting their children. For 14 years after that, Savino sharpened her elbows fighting over policy for child welfare caseworkers with the Social Services Employees Union.
This year, with her party fully in control of New York’s Senate, Assembly and Governor’s Office, she helped champion several major child welfare reform bills that passed the legislature and now await Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature. One bill creates opportunities for contact between parents and children whose relationship has been legally severed by a judge. The other eliminates employer access to decades-old child neglect allegation records for job-seeking parents. The latter bill also raises the standard of evidence required for caseworkers to escalate a child maltreatment investigation.
Each proposal passed with some bipartisan support, though supporters agree their efforts benefited from the newly progressive state legislature. They’re also hoping the child welfare system will feel less punitive to families as a result. For Savino, the reforms were pragmatic, necessary fixes to a machine whose gears she knows intimately. It’s not the first time she’s used her expertise and enduring clout to help pass — or block — changes to the state’s more than $2 billion child welfare system.
We met in her office on Staten Island’s waterfront this month to discuss her experience in the field, and why Cuomo should sign she and her colleagues’ child welfare bills.
The interview has been lightly edited for space and clarity
To start, tell me about your unique background in child welfare. There are few politicians in this country with your kind of firsthand experience.
I started out as a caseworker, walking through the door of [New York City’s] Human Resources Administration in September of 1990, before it was chopped up into other little agencies, including [eventually] the Administration for Children’s Services.
New York City is now the safest big city in the world, but it was one of the most dangerous back then — 2,200 or 2,300 murders in one year, and we were in the midst of the crack epidemic. While the opioid abuse crisis is devastating across the country today, it might have been worse with the crack epidemic: The opioid crisis started for many people in a doctor’s office or a pharmacy, crack was on the street.
We also had a horrible abuse case. It was so explosive that it drove policy in the agency, so much so that they changed the name from Special Services for Children to Child Welfare Administration. These were two professionals who had adopted a little girl in an off-the-books adoption, and one of them beat her to death. It became a national call for reform in child welfare issues.
At the end of the 1980s, I believe 100 to 200 kids per night were being removed from home, the foster youth population tripled [according to a study by then-mayor David Dinkins’ office]. What did that look like?
Back then, most formal foster care cases were overseen by private service agencies, some of them in business for over 100 years — Catholic Charities, New York Foundling — with them providing services for children placed in foster care. They didn’t handle a lot of children who didn’t share their faith or didn’t look like them. You had a lot of black and brown children who were not being placed and overseen by those traditional agencies — they were being dumped onto relatives by CPS.
If the kid didn’t fit the profile for these agencies, which was a lot of them unfortunately, the first order to CPS was: “go find a relative.” You’d knock on some old lady’s door and say “your granddaughter was born with a positive toxicity, your daughter’s a drug addict, are you willing to take these kids?”
Who is going to say no to your grandkids? CPS caseworkers would provide some information about how to get resources to help kids, but then walk away, with no services, backup or due process for the mother who had just lost her kids.
These cases never made it to court — no formal intervention. Just, “You’ll take the kid, goodbye!”
What drew you to this line of work?
When I first graduated, the economy was in bad shape. I wanted to work with children and this was the only thing open. I went down — this is how desperate the city was — I went down to the hiring, and there had to be like 200 people in the room. They interviewed us in blocks of six, because there were so many of us. Six of us in a room and they’d ask a bunch of questions, and they basically hired everyone on the spot. If you had a pulse, you were getting hired.
They hired me, and sent me to training in Jamaica [in Queens]. They brought us in 50 at a time and gave us two weeks of training. It was mostly how to use social work terms [laughs].
Sounds like you didn’t know what you were getting into!
No, nobody knows that before you get into it. They taught you how to fill out forms — because in order for child welfare agencies to really work well you have to be able to capture state and federal money and that’s all in the paperwork.
When I think back on some of these things we did! Under New York State law, if you remove a child from parents, it has to be because they are at imminent risk to life or health, or you’ve attempted to work with them and they’ve failed to comply. But in order to retain legal custody over these kids, you have to refile in court every year. We had dozens of cases where legal status had lapsed, where we no longer had custody, but the kids were still in foster care. It was crazy.
Wow. Did you like the work?
I loved it. It was great. They paid you to go to people’s homes and talk about their personal lives. It was very challenging though. A lot of these kids had serious problems. At the time, we were just beginning to grapple with the effects of cocaine use in utero, and its effect on children. You had grandparents who had their own kids and grandkids now dealing with an infant who scream when you pick them up because they are sensitive to touch. The normal things you do with kids in distress — you couldn’t. [Ed. Note: The symptoms observed in so-called crack babies that were widely discussed at the time are now thought by scientists to have been caused by alcohol and tobacco use, premature birth, and other general byproducts of poverty.]
It was much harder then than it is now. But it’s always been hard. I loved it. I would have probably stayed forever if I hadn’t gone to the union. That took me in a different direction: How do you develop public policy to help?
I’ve said this a million times — bad headlines make bad legislation. Whether it was the [the murder of 6-year-old Elisa Izquierdo in Manhattan], or [the beating death of 7-year-old Nixzmary Brown in Brooklyn] about 10 years later, or just people in Washington asking “Why are these children remaining in foster care so long?” They think we have to incentivize systems to get them out.
But it’s not that easy. Even when you have parents who are engaged and willing to work, it’s not that simple. You can’t always get the parents into the support program they need to go into. You can’t do it all within this set timeline.
What is the goal of child welfare? Is it to protect children, is it to reunite families, is it to rehabilitate them? I don’t think anybody really knows. And, truthfully, if you look at the laws in New York State, they weren’t originally written to protect children. They were written to protect parental rights. Because the government shouldn’t really interfere in that relationship unless children are at imminent risk. But that’s a judgment. Even though everyone is supposed to understand it clearly, they don’t.
For a lot of family court judges it’s much easier to order the removal or continue the separation than to take the risk of reunifying family. I’ve known a lot of really good family court judges over the years, and most of them are compassionate. But because they sit here and don’t actually visit families, it’s hard for them.
Are they allowed to do that?
You were a sponsor on the Preserving Family Bonds Act, which would allow judges to let parents stay in their kids’ lives after their parental rights are terminated. Do you think it will become law?
I’m a little concerned about the Preserving Family Bonds Act, because there’s a lot of opposition to it. I don’t think people understand it. It’s really important for adolescents, kids who have been left hanging. When you have sibling sets, it’s hard to keep these families together. Everyone wants a baby, more than the adolescents. But, especially in the kinship cases, where kids stay bonded to their parents, whether we like it or not, whether parent is good or bad — that’s the mother. We force them into the termination of parental rights because of this arbitrary deadline that was created by the Adoption and Safe Families Act [a controversial, landmark Federal reform passed in 1997. mandating termination of parents’ rights if their child remains in foster care for 15 of the most recent 22 months], and now you have kids who would benefit from retaining that relationship with their parent. That’s it.
Not all of them! Some of them should never see their mothers again. And we all know that. A judge will have that discretion. For years, judges would do this from the bench, at termination, allowing parent contact under certain circumstances. [Current] law is very clear you don’t have the authority to do so, though.
So the Preserving Family Bonds Act gives judges the authority in statute to do something they’d been doing in practice for years. And by the way — it’s the child that makes the determination, not the mother’s wish. The mother may say they want to continue relationships, and the judge can say no.
So why all these nonprofit agencies are coming out and saying that they don’t think this is a good idea, I’m completely baffled by it. I’ve yet to have a clear, coherent explanation of their objection. Unless they think they will be saddled with cost. Beyond that I don’t understand it.
Opponents argue that it violates the rights of adoptive parents. They are just supposed to be the parent, like any other, and this diminishes that, and maybe diminishes the appeal or recruitment of being an adoptive parent, those groups have argued.
But these are kinship cases!
But it’s doesn’t just apply to kinship cases.
But it will overwhelmingly be those cases.
Have you talked to Governor Andrew Cuomo about this? He has yet to sign it.
Not yet. Not until it goes to him.
But then you would make your views known?
This was originally brought to me by the defender groups, and it was like 20 pages long. I said don’t make it so complicated. Keep it simple. You are just leaving it up to a judge to say this 13-year-old would benefit from continued visitation with their biological parent, and here’s the order for them to do so.
It’s not really that difficult. It’s not as if these relationships are going to end overnight anyway, in all cases. It would give some certitude to child and parent if they wanted it.
What’s the legislation you are most proud of since being in the Senate, in terms of child welfare?
Repealing the incest loophole.
When district attorneys would look at sex abuses cases, and if they were able to show a link such as a sexually transmitted disease appearing in the child, or if they had witnesses, someone who could reliably tell what happened, they were easier to prosecute. Otherwise, they would prosecute them as incest, because it was easier to get a conviction under the incest statute than it was to prosecute child sexual assault. This was because of the limitations of a child’s ability to be a consistent witness. Small children make very bad witnesses. It’s hard to get them to tell the same story more than once. Especially when they are under 5.
You could only get three years in jail for incest. You’d have someone raping a 3-year-old and that same 3-year-old then gets dragged through the child welfare system, because there’s endangering the welfare of the child against the parent, even if the parent didn’t do anything. Maybe a boyfriend did it, and the parent didn’t do anything to prevent it.
I had a horrible case where a woman’s brother raped his 3-year-old niece. He did three years on Riker’s. She wound up on probation for endangering the welfare of the child. Her daughter wound up in foster care for eight years, and the mom wound up in jail for five years because she violated her probation.
She did five years, her brother did three years. It was outrageous. So I said, I’m gonna close the loophole in these cases if it’s the last thing I do. That was the first major piece of legislation I worked on in child welfare.
What other changes would you like to see?
I believe we need to repeal the permanency hearing requirement in court. [Under the Adoption and Safe Families Act, these hearings are required every 12 months a child is in foster care, to decide whether the goal for that child will be options like reunification with their birth family, or adoption]. And we’ve had this discussion numerous times — this is one that really should go. It serves no purpose. It does nothing but create congestion. It’s just busy work for workers.
And I think in my newfound role as chair of internet and technology committee, to see whether or not the [case management] systems we’re using are helpful, or do they need to be updated. To help workers, free up their time to work with clients directly. You aren’t supposed to be sitting at a desk with case records up to here.