As a teen mom in foster care with a baby of her own, New Yorker RaiLei Girard resolved never to become “known.”
To be “known” meant possibly having her own child placed in foster care — to be accused of child neglect or abuse, then becoming “known” to a child welfare system that takes children from teen moms in foster care at an alarmingly high rate.
Girard, who entered foster care at age 3, avoided that outcome. But another challenge emerged raising her son in her foster parents’ home.
“I wasn’t afraid they would try to take him from me. I’d done research and knew my rights. I was afraid of my son not wanting me,” she wrote in a recent essay for a special Spring issue of the New York City-based RISE Magazine, which has published stories by parents under investigation for child abuse or neglect since 2005.
“I appreciated that I could depend on my foster parents to watch my son when I couldn’t,” wrote Girard. But, she worried, “I was afraid of him loving someone else and choosing them over me.”
The issue also shared some good news for mothers like Girard: A recent analysis by the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), the child welfare agency for New York City, found that the number of child removals from mothers in foster care fell from nearly 30 percent to just over 20 percent from 2012 to 2017.
While teen birth rates have plummeted nationwide in recent decades, the numbers remain stubbornly high for the approximately 120,000 teens in foster care. And several studies have demonstrated that teen mothers are at an especially high risk of getting investigated for mistreating their child: the RISE report cites an American Bar Association study finding that 77 percent of lawyers surveyed thought young mothers in foster care were separated from their kids over less serious allegations than other mothers.
The authors of the RISE report and an ACS spokesperson who e-mailed The Chronicle of Social Change attribute the drop in the city foster system to ACS’ Teen Specialist Unit, among other factors. The unit was established in 2014 with guidance and funding provided by the Center for the Study of Social Policy, an influential nonprofit public policy research and consultancy group that works closely with child welfare systems nationwide and is based in Washington, D.C. The unit’s aim is to reduce pregnancy among teen foster youth, and reduce removals from young mothers in or recently aged-out of foster care.
The RISE authors called for further policy and practice changes to improve the removal numbers for young mothers with foster care experience. In particular, the authors called for an emphasis on informing foster youth parents of their legal rights and responsibilities, peer education, and encouraging more communication between foster youth and their foster parents about sharing responsibility and budgeting for youth.
RISE is supported by the Fund for the City of New York, the Pinkerton Foundation, the Child Welfare Fund, and other foundations. Its magazine contributors and staff are frequent critics of ACS, though they have consulted with the agency to train its frontline staff on working with parents. Recently, the magazine hosted a panel featuring writers from national outlets Jezebel and the New Yorker. “How the Child Welfare System Criminalizes Black and Brown Motherhood,” reads Jezebel’s coverage of the event, echoing a widely discussed article in the New York Times from last summer about racial disparities in the city’s child welfare system.