Taking Liberties

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Emergency Children’s Services is an inconspicuous, dingy building at the southern edge of Soho. About 30 to 40 kids come here each night, after they are taken away from their parents and while they’re waiting for a foster home to take them in. When they get here, they cry, fight or sit silently on a stained couch, eyes glazed over. As an investigator for the New York City Administration for Children’s Services, I spent many nights here.

When children first arrive at ECS they are taken through a metal detector by security. Some carry garbage bags containing their clothes; others tightly clutch just the one item they brought from home. Each is accompanied by an ACS child protective caseworker, who is given a number and waits to be called to check the kids in. On a busy night, of which there are many, this can take hours.

In the waiting room, some tattered old books and the odd toy lie about. A green banner hangs year round saying, “Seasons Greetings From Pre-Placement” and does little to conceal the cracking paint. The children hungrily eye a vending machine in the corner and beg their caseworkers for candy. And the caseworkers say, No way.

Some of these kids, who range from newborn babies to 17-year-olds, have been rescued from seriously abusive or neglectful parents. Others are here for reasons that are ambiguous, unjustified, even arbitrary. But they all come to the same dim room on Laight Street. And because the city’s Administration for Children’s Services has identified them as children in danger, this is the first of many unfamiliar places they’ll be seeing as they journey through the city’s foster care system.

Like me, the other caseworkers here are exhausted. Most of them are on the phone or stare up at the television hung from the wall. It is not part of the job to comfort the children just plucked from their homes. They are irritated and want to get home.

When I first started coming to ECS, I tried to reach out to all the children who were crying or sitting alone, shocked and terrified. It was easier with the little ones, because I could hug them and they would immediately respond. But the older ones were different. I asked them, “Do you know why you are here?” Chances were that they had only a vague idea; ACS investigators often do not tell the children they are removing exactly what is going on. Most of the time the kids shrugged and said, “I don’t know.” Or they knew pieces, like, “Because mommy didn’t clean the house.” Often it was, “Because mommy got arrested.”

The more I ended up at ECS, the harder it became to comfort these children. When you had no idea where a child was going to end up that night, it was impossible to assure them of anything. When a child asks, “Am I going to get split up from my little brother?” you can’t say no. Although all efforts are supposed to be made to place siblings together, there are countless exceptions. Instead you have to say, “Let’s hope not, okay?”

One night I was at ECS with a 3-year-old named Christopher, whom I had picked up from a precinct in East Harlem. His mother was arrested that day on drug charges. He had been living in a crack house, according to the police who took him, and his arms and legs were caked with dirt. All he had with him was a pacifier and a scarf. I pulled the pacifier out of his mouth and asked him, “Are you going to talk to me?” He looked at me and said, “Fuck off.” Other than this, he didn’t speak.

In the waiting room he pulled a chair out from under a girl his age as she went to sit down. After she fell, crying, he jumped up and down, pointing and laughing at her. I tried to engage him, to keep Christopher from terrorizing the other children. Then another caseworker came in. He lifted him by one arm and shouted in his face, “Listen, you brat. You better sit down and SHUT UP.” He tossed Christopher onto the couch and he bounced, landing on his head. The caseworker warned, “Don’t even think about moving. I’m watching you.” Christopher did not move or even cry. He looked at me for help.

The caseworker explained to me defensively, “That’s the only way these kids listen. That’s how they are treated at home, so that’s the only way to get through to them.” And I wondered, silently: If we aren’t treating these children any better than they were treated in their homes, then what are we doing?

To the manager at ACS who makes the fateful decision to remove a child, and to the judge who approves it, a child exists on a piece of paper, alongside a list of disturbing circumstances. They don’t see a child having a panic attack at 3 a.m. because he is suddenly alone in the world. Or slamming his head against a wall out of protest and desperation. The good intentions that go into the decision to remove a child often have little to do with the sometimes brutal outcomes of that choice. And the problem is not simply caseworkers who do not know how to talk to children. The whole system does not treat children with dignity and respect.

Usually, the kids fell asleep in my lap during the car rides to their new foster homes. But Christopher stayed awake all the way to his new home in Staten Island, until 3 a.m. He stared out the car window and watched Manhattan recede in the distance. He seemed to know exactly what was happening, like an adult trapped in a little body that couldn’t speak. But when I finally had to leave him, he did what any 3-year-old would do in the face of abandonment. He clung for his life to my leg.

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When I graduated from college two years ago, I decided to become a caseworker for ACS. I wanted to learn how child welfare policy affects children and their families–not from reports and data, but on the front lines.

It may seem hard to imagine now, but in many ways I loved my job and had no plans to do anything else. As a caseworker, I was in a unique position to advocate for children and parents when they most needed help. Many of the parents and children I encountered made deep impressions on me, and I established close connections with some of them. I also enjoyed the investigative aspect of the job, the thrill of constantly going into unknown situations. At first, I saw it as a daily adventure.

But it did not take long for me to see that there was no adventure here. Many of these families were harassed, their rights systematically violated by ACS. Their children were being swallowed up by an agency that too often operated on virtually unchecked authority, wielded arbitrarily. And I represented that agency.

More and more, I felt that I could not do the job I believed I needed to do with an ACS badge around my neck. I resigned from the agency in October 1999, after working there for just over a year. After all that I had experienced, I felt, like many of my clients, crippled by feelings of powerlessness. At the time, the only thing I could do was write it all down.

In the year I worked there, the Administration for Children’s Services investigated more than 50,000 reports of child abuse and neglect. I handled about 50 of them in my job as a child protective caseworker in the Manhattan field office. I went all over the city investigating cases–to housing projects, family shelters and, once, to an apartment where a father had made a robot for his kids out of old Metrocards. But except for the time I visited a family on the Upper West Side–who hired their own doctors to disprove ACS’s allegations of child abuse–my work took me to low-income neighborhoods. The reality is that families who are likely to be reported to ACS are poor.

When I first started the job, my supervisor explained to me that bad caseworkers sympathize with the parents. “Being sentimental,” he said, “is the worst way to be.” If you relate to the parent, the wisdom goes, you cannot conduct an objective investigation.

The entire investigation process relies on the assumption that parents do not know their rights, starting with the moment they allow caseworkers to come into their homes. A lot of these families are so conditioned to caseworkers knocking on their doors that the presence of a city worker in their homes is just another part of life. Nearly half a million New York City children have been the subjects of ACS investigations. If you are poor and if you have had problems with the law, if you have ever been involved in a domestic violence dispute, if you took your child to the emergency room after an accident, if you have ever used drugs, if your children have problems in school, if you have ever been homeless, ACS has been a part of your life.

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Child protective specialists get about two to three new cases each week, sent to them by their supervisors. Those supervisors have their own supervisors, called managers. It’s managers who sign off on the big decisions: whether a case is worth pursuing and, most critically, when to put children into foster care.

For a caseworker, each case represents a heavy set of tasks and responsibilities. First, unless the call was anonymous, she must contact the source of the report. Many calls come from professionals required by law to report suspected abuse or neglect, such as teachers, guidance counselors and hospital social workers. Other people call in reports, too, especially neighbors and family members. But many of these reports turn out to be false, and some of them are made purely for revenge.

Within 24 hours of a report, the caseworker has to visit the family at home. Caseworkers must interview each child and examine them all for marks and bruises. They must also interview every other member of the household, check every room for safety, check refrigerators and cabinets for food. Immunization records, birth certificates and proof of income must be verified. Next, caseworkers contact the children’s schools and doctors. And in cases that involve drug allegations, the caseworker must accompany the parent to a drug test.

At any point during the investigation, a manager can order children to be removed from their homes if it is determined that their lives are at risk. But under state law and ACS policy, removals are supposed to be a last resort. As an alternative, the agency offers a menu of services to help families deal with problems; counseling, parenting classes, drug treatment and housekeeping services are the most typical.

These investigations and interventions save children’s lives and protect their well-being all the time. Caseworkers are trained to look beneath the surface, to not trust a parent’s statement without evidence and to compile as much information about a family as possible. Caseworkers and their supervisors are accountable for each case; the days when cases piled up on desks without anyone contacting a family are long over.

But accountability, at ACS, is a one-way street. A manager or supervisor has no one to answer to if a child who shouldn’t be in foster care is removed from home anyway. There is no penalty for the wrongful taking of a child. And the pressures to remove are intense. I was trained to do removals in cases that did not necessarily qualify as abuse or neglect because, as one of my supervisors reminded me, “prevention is better than a cure.” When I was resistant to doing a removal on a case, that same supervisor’s advice was, “It’s better to be safe than sorry.” And at moments of uncertainty, the mantra was “Cover your ass”–a phrase heard often around the office. It was backed up by a pervasive fear–among caseworkers, supervisors, managers and attorneys–of seeing our photograph in the Daily News as the person who made an error that was literally fatal.

Caseworkers, usually the only people who have had direct contact with a family, don’t have much to say in the decision-making process. Managers generally think of them as being incapable of giving meaningful recommendations. One week after the investigation begins, caseworkers have to file an electronic report. The computer offers two options: “safe” and “unsafe.” But my manager accepted only one. Any time I determined a child to be “safe,” my manager rejected it and returned it to me. The first step to protect yourself, I quickly discovered, is to determine that a child is “unsafe” from the outset of an investigation.

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In my division, if the allegations were bad enough–and especially if they came from a teacher, doctor, or other professional required by law to report suspected abuse or neglect–our manager considered them to be absolute truth. Virtually every time, if a caseworker could not find evidence to prove that the allegations were unfounded, the manager would refuse to sign off on a case, clearing it from our ever-growing caseloads, until we marked it “indicated” in the computer system. Indicated means that ACS has found credible evidence that abuse or neglect has taken place.

Our manager indicated a case in which an 18-year-old mother was mistakenly picked up in a drug sweep and immediately released. The same woman had been indicated in an earlier investigation, after hot tea spilled on her child at a family shelter, even though the social worker whose tea it was witnessed that it was an accident. Still, the manager decided that this previous incident–along with a robbery conviction and marijuana use before the child was born–was reason enough to indicate the new case.

Throughout ACS, the proportion of cases that end up labeled indicated has jumped from 26 percent in 1994 to nearly 40 percent in 1998. From a manager’s point of view, indicating cases gives them the legal leverage they need to order a removal at any given time. For a parent, it also means something else: Having an indicated case on her record means that she cannot adopt a child, become a foster parent or work with children in any capacity.

From there, the decision to remove is entirely up to the manager. By law, children are supposed to be removed only if their physical or emotional health has been harmed or they are in immediate danger or being hurt as a result of a parent’s failure to “exercise a minimum degree of care.” In practice, that can mean anything from a parent failing to show up for parenting classes to sending her child to the hospital with a broken limb. But sometimes children are removed for reasons the caseworkers themselves cannot fathom.

On the night I met a client I’ll call Louise at the homeless shelter where she lived, she told me her 11-day-old son, Kevin, was born without drugs in his body. That she prayed to God and he gave her another chance. And that she got clean on her own, without any program. I asked her about her other children and she told me what I already knew: She had given birth to five children who were all taken away from her while she was still in the hospital because each time she tested positive for crack.

Back at the office, my manager ordered me to remove Kevin. My manager, like most of her colleagues, did not go for the “life transformation” stuff. It did not matter that all of Louise’s drug tests had been clean for the past two years. The manager called it a straight case of neglect, since the woman’s other children had all been taken from her. Besides, my manager reminded me, Louise is taking heavy psychotropic medication.

Before going to court, we received a letter written by Louise’s psychiatrist, whom she had seen regularly for the past year. He wrote:

    I remember thinking in her case no medication and certainly no therapy had been able to have the effect on her that her new child has had on her….The effect of the role of motherhood on her has defined her and given her grounding. It is our social and moral responsibility to support [Louise] in functioning as a mother. It is clear that [Louise] is ill. However, it is my assessment, in accord with all other senior clinicians [here], that [Louise] poses no immediate threat to her child.

My manager didn’t see things the same way, and she made me file the case in court. “If we can’t get a neglect finding on this mother, I might as well go work for the Parks Department,” she told me. When ACS’s attorneys initially wouldn’t accept the case, she emailed the head of the legal division. And while I was away at a three-day training, she finally managed to get Kevin into foster care. Louise had stayed overnight with Kevin’s father that week after she missed curfew at her shelter, and my manager had found an old order of protection against him–evidence of domestic violence. Louise was nailed with “failure to protect” Kevin from this potentially dangerous man.

(Only later did Louise tell me that she did not really have a history of domestic violence; she made it up a few years ago since she knew it was the only way she could qualify for emergency housing. I explained to her that it was the only reason ACS was able to take Kevin. “Well, what would you have done?” she asked me.)

In Family Court, Louise spoke up for herself, because her attorney did not. She argued her case herself and, with the help of testimony from her psychiatric nurse, won the judge over. Louise got Kevin back on the condition that she secure housing, submit to drug tests, continue to see her psychiatrist and comply with ACS supervision.

The ability to return a child to his or her parent is one of the few rewards of a caseworker’s job. After picking up Kevin from his foster care agency in Queens, I sat with him in the Emergency Assistance Unit, the city’s dispatch center for homeless families, waiting for his mother to arrive. The waiting room was filled with mothers and crying kids. A little girl came in the waiting area and asked the lady behind the counter for a piece of paper. “No paper,” was the curt reply. I told the girl to come over to where I was sitting. My hands were full because I was feeding Kevin, but I told her that she could rip some pages out of my notebook. She stood there and tore out about 30 pages, one at a time. Every few moments she looked up at me waiting for me to say no. I just smiled at her. “That your baby?” she asked me.

“No,” I told her.

“You homeless?”

I shook my head.

“You took that baby, didn’t you?” she asked.

“I’m giving him back.”

“Yeah, you better,” she warned.

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In my year at ACS, I was lucky to see only a few children who were severely abused and neglected. I did see bruises, belt marks and burns on kids. I saw dirty and hungry children. I saw a baby with cockroaches crawling in her crib. There were kids who had never been to school.

I had to ask a kindergartner if her father put his penis in her mouth. I sat in the back of an ambulance with a 9-year-old boy lying on a stretcher who had been beaten up by his mother with a baseball bat. He clutched his HIP card, his only possession now, in his swollen hand. I had a 3-year-old child whose mother forced him to stay awake for four days and three nights because she thought he was possessed by a ghost and would die if he fell asleep.

And I met some parents who were dangerous not just to their children, but to me. I had to get an order of protection for myself against one, and was warned by another that I was going to be killed by the Bloods outside Family Court.

But all this is what I expected from the job. In a strange way, these really horrible cases turned out to be the easy ones. It was the cases that weren’t so clear-cut that kept me up at night. I saw removals occur when parents were accused of failing to follow up with a preventive service program or counseling. Breaking rules at shelters. Using or selling marijuana, or not sending their children to school. Failure-to-protect cases were common. One time, I removed a child from a mother accused of neglecting her infant son when she was hospitalized after a suicide attempt. It turned out the child was not yet even born when the suicide attempt occurred.

I worried about what I would do if my manager ordered me to remove. I worried about making mistakes myself.

_______

Two nights before Christmas 1998, I removed two children who I still believe should not have been taken from their home. I had been a caseworker at ACS for two months.

At the last minute, my supervisor instructed me to accompany an even greener coworker on a case I knew nothing about. On the way up the FDR, in the back of the city car, my colleague, Theresa, described the case to me. The children were to be removed because their 82-year-old great-grandmother, Ms. Ruth Jackson, was too old to care for them. Owen, 5, and Carla, 14, were in Ms. Jackson’s legal custody, because their mother and grandmother were both absent, allegedly because of drug use.

According to the allegations from an after-school program she attended, Carla had recently slashed a girl in the face with a pocketknife at school and was beyond the great-grandmother’s control. Theresa told me Ms. Jackson had medical problems, including high blood pressure, diabetes and glaucoma. Due to her “failing health,” our supervisor believed that she was not an appropriate caretaker for the children.

The supervisor instructed Theresa to ask the great-grandmother to sign a form that would voluntarily place the children in ACS’s custody. Theresa told me that she was instructed to call the police and remove the children only if the woman refused to sign the form. Our supervisor had informed Theresa that a refusal to sign would constitute neglect, because Ms. Jackson would not be complying with the best interests of the children.

“I don’t believe that this is the right thing,” Theresa complained to me. “The great-grandmother hasn’t done anything wrong, and her health seems fine.” I was furious at her for not telling me any of this before we left. I knew the options a family could be offered in a time of stress. A removal was to be done only in an emergency.

When we arrived, Ms. Jackson looked at us suspiciously and seemed reluctant to let us in. Decorated for Christmas, the apartment smelled like greasy chicken. It was 9 at night.

She instructed the children to go to their rooms. She sat on the sagging couch and asked, “What can I do for you ladies tonight?” She looked a little frail but seemed strong-willed.

I sat in the corner by the Christmas tree while Theresa tried to explain about the voluntary form. “You are old and you have so many health problems,” she told Ms. Jackson unconvincingly. “Who will take care of the children if something should happen to you?”

Ms. Jackson said, “Ain’t nothing happening to me. What if something happens to you?”

Theresa tried again. “It’s not safe for the children to be living with you because you are too old to care for them properly and look after them.” She looked at the floor as she said this, her voice shaking.

“What’re you saying, miss? These children are not going anywhere. Nobody in this house is too old. I raised them kids since they were babies. The court gave me these children and nobody’s going to take them away from me.”

“My supervisor said that…”

“What?”

“My supervisor”

“Your what?”

“My supervisor. He wants you to sign this voluntary form so that the children will be safe.” She placed the blank form on the coffee table.

“I don’t know much about your supervisor, but nobody’s signing these kids to them foster people. It’s Christmas. Did you know that, dear?”

After about 15 minutes of this, Theresa signaled me to call the police. Out in the hallway I called 911, then went back into the apartment to wait for the cops.

Ms. Jackson had no idea they were coming. “Who would want to take these children?” she asked us. “It’s Christmas. These children are happy. I take these children to school every day. I make sure they have everything they need to get along fine.”

The cops banged on the door. “Who’s that?” asked Ms. Jackson. “That your supervisor?”

I answered the door. Two cops stood around and did not say much. Theresa started crying, and everything fell into my hands. I explained to Ms. Jackson that the children were coming with us tonight and that she would have to come to court tomorrow to get them back. I had packed kids up quickly once before, so I braced myself to do it again.

The kids were watching The Brady Bunch, lying with their feet up on their great-grandmother’s bed. I introduced myself and told Carla to pack up some clothes for herself and her brother. She looked at me as if the prospect of leaving might be exciting for a second. Owen wanted to know if “grandma” was coming. I told him no, and said some things about how everything was going to be okay. Ms. Jackson came in and put clean underwear on Owen, put his pajamas back on, and packed some clothes in a backpack for him.

As we continued to pack, Ms. Jackson stood in the bedroom doorway with her mouth half-open, no sound coming out. Carla ran down the stairs and waited for us in front of the police car.

In the back of the car on our way to ECS, Owen saw his big sister crying. He sat on my lap and started crying into my shirt.

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Almost all removals take place at night. Caseworkers are too busy during the day, and a family is also more likely to be home after dark. But some workers deliberately wait till after hours, for the time-and-a-half overtime. Doing a removal, staying out all night at ECS, and then taking the child to a foster home can mean more than doubling a day’s pay. With caseworkers’ salaries starting at under $32,000, overtime makes a big difference.

The caseworkers who want nothing to do with removals can rely on other caseworkers who volunteer for the money. When supervisors are desperate to find someone to do a removal, they often encourage caseworkers by reminding them, “You could use the extra cash.” The consequence is caseworkers arriving at ECS with no idea why they just removed the kids who are with them. When the ECS intake worker or an ACS lawyer asks them why the children were removed, “I don’t know, it’s not my case” is a standard response. Or simply, “Because my supervisor told me to.”

Any caseworker can tell you that they have done removals that they did not personally agree with. But they rarely complain to management, since they will never get in trouble for removing a child under supervisors’ orders. Caseworkers are also quiet about unnecessary removals because doing a removal and then transferring a case to foster care takes them a lot less time than keeping it and trying to work with a family. Keeping a case obligates a worker to do regular home visits and follow-ups to make sure a family is getting preventive services. It also means dealing with anything that may go wrong and continuing to be responsible for the children’s safety.

To become a child protective caseworker, you do not need to have any experience working with children, or demonstrate that you actually want to work with children. No one even asks if you like children. You must simply have a bachelor’s degree in a social science field and pass a two-part exam. For the oral part we were asked to think of five questions we would ask a parent, based on a short case scenario. A “powerful rotting odor” is supposed to prompt test-takers to ask, “What is that smell?” For the written test, we listened to a series of voice mail recordings and wrote down phone numbers and other details. This was not a test of common sense, or even listening skills. It seemed to be a test to see if we were alive.

Once hired, caseworkers have six weeks of training, where they are taught how to conduct interviews, identify abuse and neglect, and carry out a removal. Legal issues, child development, domestic violence, sensitivity to cultural issues and handling angry clients were also part of the curriculum. Through it all, caseworkers are taught, it is essential to treat clients respectfully and professionally.

But the social work lingo of the training, where we spent two days discussing the need to “leave your baggage at the door,” is far removed from the harsh reality of a field office. For new caseworkers, the obsessive concern with liability at the field offices quickly overshadows the reasonable criteria they have been taught for identifying abuse and neglect. Most quickly learn to abandon their training and to do what it takes to survive.

ACS has been making strides cutting down heavy caseloads, but it’s still a stressful and at times tedious job–each case, no matter how trivial, calls for the same 15-page report. A contradiction at the heart of it all makes the work even more difficult. Caseworkers are trained to be service providers and advocates for families. To work together with families to uncover and solve problems in the home, caseworkers must establish an intimate rapport with their clients. Yet at the very same time they are engaged in an act of betrayal: as they write down parents’ statements and survey their homes and behavior, caseworkers are building a potential court case against them. At no point are they able to tell their clients that everything they say can be used against them in court. The relationship of caseworker and client becomes one of manipulation, characterized by a deep lack of trust on both sides.

Although many of the best caseworkers get fed up and leave the agency, there are good workers who have been at ACS for years. They have survived because they have learned how to manipulate the system to make it work for themselves and their clients. They purposely omit or obscure facts about families in their case records and in their discussions with their supervisors to save clients from unnecessary court action. The most fortunate have supervisors who share their commitment to respecting families’ rights. I was one of them: One of my supervisors was a mentor to me, and I considered her directives highly valuable.

Several months before I left the agency, an Emergency Children’s Services supervisor who was resigning after more than 10 years blanketed the agency with a stunning email. He began by saying that he is not leaving the agency any better than when he started. He blamed this lack of improvement on ACS Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta, whom he accused of being more preoccupied with making the agency look good in the media than with making substantial changes that help clients. “ACS cares more about statistics than they do about children, forgetting that those statistics represent real children,” he wrote. The supervisor had equally harsh words for protective caseworkers: “ACS workers cannot absolve themselves of responsibility for doing wrong removals by blaming them on their supervisors or managers or on agency policy.” He compared the level of obedience and complacency at the agency to Nazi soldiers who killed 11 million civilians during World War II because “they too were just carrying out orders.” Nobody around me talked about the email, not even to disagree.

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Carla and Owen were placed in foster care that night. The next day, Theresa went to court. The judge, who happened to be in his seventies himself, ordered that Owen be returned home immediately. The judge stated the obvious: Old age is not grounds for neglect. Carla, however, was to remain in foster care because of her behavior problems. When the judge asked Theresa if she felt the children were in imminent danger, she answered that in her opinion they were not.

Soon after, Theresa was stripped of he