Our families. Our children. Our city. It's time for change.
CHILD WELFARE ORGANIZING PROJECT
We have written the case histories below based on accounts from two reports issued by the New York City Public Advocate. We have given the parents fictitious names. [i] The Advocate’s Child Welfare Project assisted families caught up in the child welfare system.
Karen, a single mother of three, was too poor to get private counseling to help her children cope with the trauma of September 11.
She and one of her sons were struggling with depression, and she was having difficulty enrolling him in school. She was advised to call ACS.
Instead of providing help, ACS began an investigation. ACS workers showed up unannounced and threatened removal in front of her children. During the months of the investigation, the children learned to fear ACS.
Karen’s children would hide each time the caseworker visited the apartment. Karen never was offered help and never understood why strangers kept showing up at her door to investigate her. As time dragged on, Karen felt she had to tell ACS how desperate she was becoming.
ACS responded by taking the children away. Three months later they were returned, much the worse for the experience.
Karen’s daughter still clings to her and has difficulty separating from her. In speaking about her feelings about her ACS experience, Karen says: “They make you feel so bad about yourself, you start to question yourself, thinking maybe I can’t do this.”
Jane’s children had been suffering from the trauma of September 11 and a trauma closer to home – the break-up of their mother and father. The children missed a lot of school, and had health problems not fully diagnosed by May, 2002.
But instead of help, ACS offered only harassment. Instead of supporting the mother’s effort to obtain appropriate services and communicating with the health care professionals involved with the family, ACS was threatening her with the removal of her children.
Jane says ACS even asked the children if they would like to go live with their father, even though he was abusive and an order of protection had been taken out against him.
Indeed, things had reached the point where ACS had gone to court seeking to take the children away.
But the children’s doctor confirmed Jane’s account. He verified that the children were sick and that ACS was harassing the mother, whom he described as a loving parent who provided more than adequate care for her children.
Under pressure from the Public Advocate’s office, ACS ultimately backed off and actually provided help to the family. But Jane and her children continued to fear the inspection visits on which ACS insisted – all because she had sought the agency’s help.
Jennifer had an 18-month-old child with severe pulmonary disease. Jennifer was never accused of neglecting the child. On the contrary, the pulmonary specialist treating the child repeatedly commented on the mother’s amazing understanding of the child’s disorder and her diligence in providing treatment.
But the mother did have a substance abuse problem – and she wanted help getting clean. So she confided in a caseworker. The child was placed in foster care.
The child was in five foster homes over two-and-a-half years. None of the foster parents knew how to care for the child the way the birth mother did – because none received any specialized training. In the last foster home, the foster mother was told the child needed specialized care and medication, but she gave him only the same over-the-counter medication she gave her asthmatic adopted daughter.
Finally, after Jennifer was clean for two years, the child was returned.
This is the story of Sara and her daughter, whom we are calling Laura, as told by Sara to the Public Advocate’s office:
“One day I received a call from the babysitter who took care of my daughter during the day, who told me that she was crying and in pain when she went to the bathroom. I immediately rushed over to see her and although she seemed fine, I took her to the doctor. A few days later, on a follow-up visit, the doctor diagnosed the girl with a sexually transmitted disease. This diagnosis turned out to be false but because of it, a call was made to ACS and the police.
“Because my daughter was not in my care 24 hours a day, I asked the police to talk to my daughter to find out what happened. Instead, they interrogated me for 7-and-a-half hours until I was permitted to contact my daughter’s Godfather, who is also a police officer and they decided to talk with Laura. After that interview, the police told me that they were closing the case.
“ACS, however, had other ideas. I was summoned to the ACS office with Laura where the ACS worker immediately took her away from me. They told me I couldn’t stay with her or visit with her. Instead they gave Laura to my Godmother. After a day or two the doctor notified ACS that the diagnosis that Laura had a sexually transmitted disease was false, ACS still refused to let me have Laura. When my Godmother took ill, they moved Laura to her own Godmother’s and instructed her to not let me see Laura. …
[ACS] never filed any papers against me in court. … Instead, ACS instructed Laura’s Godmother to go to court and file a petition for custody against me. In court, the judge asked why she was asking for custody and why I was giving up custody of Laura. When we told him that ACS instructed us to do this, he fully ordered ACS to explain the situation to him and Laura was returned to me.
ACS never told me what I should do to get my daughter back. They never offered me any services or counseling or anything. They did not return my phone calls and refused to listen to the voice of my child who was calling, I want mommy.”
[i] “Jennifer’s” case is from Office of the Public Advocate, Comments on the Five Year Anniversary of the Administration for Children’s Services , May 2001, the others are from Office of the Public Advocate , Families at Risk: A Report on New York City’s Child Welfare Services , December 9, 2002.