CHILD WELFARE ORGANIZING PROJECT

Our families.  Our children.  Our city.  It's time for change.


HOW THE SYSTEM REALLY WORKS


For Andrea Brown, it began when the babysitter was late.

Brown had just landed a job as a toll collector on the Triboro Bridge and she was desperate to keep it.   With the sitter assuring her she’d be there in a few minutes, she left four children, the oldest 11 and ten, at home.[i]

For a parent we call PRT it began with the death of her father.   The death left PRT’s young son confused and angry.

He kept getting in trouble in school.  ”I was running to the school so often that I had to quit my job.   I felt so frustrated, I didn’t know what to do to improve my son’s behavior.”  When the teacher called to say her son had cursed in class, PRT spanked him with a belt.[ii]

For Teresa Smalls, it began when she asked the Administration for Children’s Services for help.

She wanted counseling and treatment for three young sons who were “biting and pummeling one another and having other behavioral problems.”[iii]

For Rose Mary Grant, it began when her ten-year-old boy, Issa, would fly into rages and endanger himself, and his mother.[iv]

In every one of these cases, some basic help would have been enough to solve the problem

– or keep it from happening in the first place.   Some therapy, some medicine, some day care, some home health care – things that middle-class families buy for their children when those children have problems.

But in every case, ACS provided none of that help.

ACS must have thought Andrea Brown was a good mother – the agency had placed two foster children with her.   But after the sitter called, the foster children and Brown’s birth children were taken from her.   It took two years for Brown to get her children back.   PRT was forced to jump through hoop after hoop while her children went first to strangers and then to a grandmother.   Teresa Smalls’ children were in three different foster homes over two years.   The two oldest boys said foster parents beat them with a belt and hit them in the face.   And Issa?   He wound up confined to a “Residential Treatment Center” And for a year and a half, this is what his mother had to do to visit:

“Starting from her brick apartment tower, Rose walks a block to Gun Hill Road, takes the 28 bus to the subway station, catches the 5 train to Harlem, makes her way down 125th Street, boards the Metro-North train to Dobbs Ferry, and rides a shuttle …   At each step, she places two metal crutches ahead of her and swings forward on two prosthetic legs.” [v]

The cost to taxpayers for keeping children like Issa in a Residential Treatment Center is at least $86,000 per year.   The cost to children like Issa and their parents is incalculable.

The words “child abuse” generally prompt people to think of parents who beat, torture, rape and kill their children.   The words  may be associated with particularly horrifying cases, like the death of Elisa Izquierdo in 1995.   But such cases are as rare as they are horrifying.   Indeed, the overwhelming majority of cases investigated by ACS don’t involve an allegation of abuse at all, they involve “neglect.”  The parents who lose children to foster care are far more likely to be like Andrea Brown, PRT, Teresa Smalls, and Rose Mary Grant.   Some, like PRT, made mistakes, for which their children were forced to pay, through needless foster care placement.   Others did nothing wrong at all.

And all the time, money and effort wasted tearing apart families that could stay together only diverts scarce resources from finding those few children in real danger who really must be taken from their homes.   Indeed, Elisa Izquierdo herself died after a worker trying to help the family warned she was in danger – but her child protection worker said he was too busy with other cases to rescue her. [vi] Indeed, when ACS was more prone to remove children than it is today, deaths of children “known to the system” increased by 50 percent. (See The Price of Panic ).

Who loses children to foster care?

They may be the children of forgotten fathers, like Hardaway H.   Beaten and taunted at a group home, his son longed for his father to rescue him.   But a caseworker told him “Don’t think your father is going to come and rescue you, because your father is dead.”  But the father was living in Queens – with a listed telephone number.   And he had spent years searching for his son, even driving slowly through city streets looking for children who resembled him. [i] (See Forgotten Fathers …)

They may be battered mothers, like April Rodriquez.   When the father of her children hit her, for the first time in a five-year relationship, she immediately took the children and went to live with relatives.   But a federal judge would later rule that ACS coerced her into surrendering custody — to the abuser.   Then ACS changed its mind, but still wouldn’t give Rodriguez back her children, solely because she now lacked adequate housing.   And then ACS charged Rodriquez with neglect, describing her being hit as “engag[ing] in serious domestic violence” in front of the children.

When she finally got the children back from foster care, they were filthy, seriously ill, and one child had a “festering facial infection.”  Ruling in a class-action lawsuit, the judge found that such behavior by ACS was commonplace. [ii] ( See … And Battered Mothers ).

But almost always they are poor.   Either the children are taken because of the parents’ poverty, the poverty causes other problems, or the poverty makes it impossible to cure other problems.

In too many of our clients’ communities, the path to a successful family life runs through a minefield of challenges – lack of access to decent, affordable housing, living wage employment, quality public education, day care, or health care, to a degree which strains the coping skills of even the most devoted, resourceful parents.

Some say that the removals must be justified, because they’re approved by family court judges.

But several of those judges admitted to a national advisory panel that they routinely approve removals even when they don’t think ACS has made a good case – because they’re afraid to do anything else. (See The Myth of Due Process ).   Indeed, when one battered mother told her ACS worker she was sure the judge would understand she was innocent, the ACS worker replied: “The judge is always on ACS’ side.”[iii]

Even as ACS and the scores of private agencies with which it contracts insist children never are in foster care because of poverty alone, and newspapers duly report it, The New York Times runs stories each year appealing to readers to donate to its Neediest Cases Fund, in order to prevent children from being placed in foster care because of poverty alone (see Remember the Neediest! – or They Could Wind Up in Foster Care ).

When the Neediest Cases Fund doesn’t come through, ACS still routinely keeps children in foster care, separated from the parents they love, solely because the parents’ apartments aren’t considered large enough.   The headline on a New York Times story said it all: “Want Children Back? Get a Bigger Apartment.” [iv]

But what about drugs?   Aren’t these the “druggie moms” the tabloids love to hate?   In fact, you can be clean and sober and still lose your children.   But even when substance abuse is the problem, drug treatment for the parent is almost always a better, safer option than foster care for the children.   (See Who is in The System ).

And when so much damage is done to individual families in the same neighborhoods, the damage compounds itself, harming entire poor minority communities.   (See Child Welfare and Race ).

This is not, of course, the New York City child welfare system people have been hearing about lately.   Much recent news coverage has focused on improvements in the city’s child welfare system in recent years.   In fact, there have been significant improvements.   That makes the story of child welfare complicated.

It’s easier to simply condemn a dreadful system or praise a reformed one.   But ACS is neither: It is a work in progress, much better than it was, but far from where it needs to be.

ACS still takes away, proportionately,   more children than Cook County, Illinois, which includes Chicago, even when the relative poverty of the two communities is factored in.   Foster care placements in Illinois have plummeted even as child safety has improved, largely as a result of changing financial incentives for private agencies in that state.[v]

After all, the first Commissioner of the City’s Administration for Children’s Services, the man credited with much of the improvement, Nicholas Scoppetta was nearing the end of his tenure when he said it himself:   “I’m absolutely convinced we have too many children in foster care.”

[i] Liz Cho, Eyewitness News Extra: The Struggle for Parents Who Must Leave Children Home Alone to go to Work , WABC-TV website, Oct. 22, 2003.

[ii] For PRT’s full story, see CWOP’s Newsletter, For Parents, By Parents , Issue 7, Spring/Summer 2002.

[iii] LynNell Hancock, “Families in the Balance,” The New York Times , Sept. 10, 2000.

[iv] Leah Rae and Shawn Cohen: “Issa’s Story: A Mother’s Love Isn’t Enough” Westchester County, NY Journal-News Oct. 28, 2002.   Available online at http://www.nyjournalnews.com/rtc/28rtc_01.html

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Nina Bernstein, “She Suffered in Plain Sight But Alarms Were Ignored,” The New York Times , Dec.24, 1995, p.1.

[i] Nina Bernstein, “When the Foster Care System Forgets Fathers,” The New York Times , May 4, 2000, p.A1.

[ii] Judge Jack B. Weinstein, Memorandum, Findings of Fact and Law, and Order , Nicholson v. Williams , 00-cv-6885, United States District Court Eastern District of New York, March 1, 2002, available online at at http://news.findlaw.com hdocs/docs/nyc/nchlsnwllms030102drft.pdf

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Leslie Kaufman: “Want Children Back? Get a Bigger Apartment,” The New York Times , Jan. 20, 2004, p.B1.

[v] In FY 2002, Cook County took away 2,441 children, there are 264,187 impoverished children in the county, so Cook County removed 9.2 children for every 1,000 impoverished children. (Illinois Department of Children and Families , Executive Statistical Summary , available online at http://www.state.il.us/dcfs/pro3.pdf During that same time period, ACS took at least 11.9 children for every 1,000 poor children. (Administration for Children’s Services, ACS Update Annual Report 2002 , available online at http://www.ci.nyc.ny.us/html/acs/pdf/update_5year.pdf )

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