The Limits of Protection: Fighting the Fear of ACS

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ACS Commissioner Carríon says her agency is trying to figure out how to have a more positive presence in the communities that have the highest rates of CPS investigations.

Adi Talwar

ACS Commissioner Carríon says her agency is trying to figure out how to have a more positive presence in the communities that have the highest rates of CPS investigations.

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A spate of child deaths in the media has called attention, once again, to perennial problems with child protective investigations. In the third part of this three-part series, we look at the fear child-welfare investigations trigger in families and neighborhoods. Is that an unavoidable byproduct of keeping children safe?
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It is hard for middle-class parents in middle-class neighborhoods to imagine the level of fear that poor parents in poor neighborhoods feel after they’ve been the subject of a child-protective investigation or have had their children removed from them and then returned.

They don’t just describe feeling afraid that someone will find out that they have relapsed on drugs, or are experiencing depression, or have lost control and beat their child—though they are afraid of that.

They also tell you they are afraid to let their children play outside, in case they get hurt and someone assumes the injuries are the result of abuse. They say that when their children do get hurt, they are afraid to send them to school in case someone assumes the injuries were inflicted intentionally. When their children hit their teen years and begin to act up, they are afraid to ask for help in case that help comes with judgment.

Piazadora Footman, whose son was in care as a baby, said that when her son, now 9, asked her if he could help her cook, she told him no. She didn’t want him to go to school and tell a teacher about it, she explained, in case that teacher decided that cooking was not a safe activity for a 9-year-old and reported her. When she and her son watched Masterchef Junior on TV and he complained that it wasn’t fair that other children his age were allowed to cook, she told him the answer was still no. When he asked her why he couldn’t cook like the kids on TV, she gave him the most honest answer she had: “Because we’re not like them.”

The fear of child-welfare authorities is compounded by the fact many of the parents who come to the attention of the child welfare system were touched by the system themselves when they were children. A quarter of the clients served by the Center for Family Representation, which represents parents charged with abuse and neglect in Manhattan and Queens Family Court, are under the age of 25, and a third of those clients themselves lived, or live, in foster care.

Nor is it only fear parents say they feel, but also shame, which translates most often into one overriding belief: “In this community, we don’t air our dirty laundry.”

That fear and shame pervade entire neighborhoods, as well. While there were 89 Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) investigations in the Greenwich Village/Soho area of New York City in 2013, eight out of 13 neighborhoods in the Bronx had over 2,000 investigations, and in the East New York/Starrett City neighborhoods of Brooklyn, there were 3,598 investigations.

“Make no mistake,” says Sandra Killett, executive director of the Child Welfare Organizing Project, an advocacy organization of parents affected by the child welfare system, “ACS has a reputation that generates fear.”

Hiding from ‘help’

Children, too, learn to hide their family’s problems.

Kamilah, 19, is a college student who says she has been hiding painful truths much of her life.

When she was 11, her mother separated from her stepfather, and lost custody for over a year of Kamilah’s two half siblings. Kamilah says that during the custody battle, her mother tested positive for cocaine and was charged with neglect. But Kamilah remembers her mother back then as a strong woman, who was patient and at the same time “no-nonsense-taking.” Whatever emotional problems her mother had, Kamilah says, as a child she wasn’t aware of them.

After her mother lost custody of her children, however, and began running back and forth to family court, Kamilah says her mom became withdrawn. “My mother was always telling me sad stories about her relationship with her own mother, who didn’t raise her. I think that’s one of the reasons it hurt her so much when she lost custody of her children. She felt like she was being painted as a bad mom, and there was no one to listen to her truth. That’s when I started noticing bottles of vodka around the house.”

Over time, Kamilah says, her mother’s drinking problem escalated, and physical abuse followed. “I started doubting myself,” says Kamilah. “I’d ask myself, ‘What am I doing wrong? Am I really that bad?'”

Still, for years, Kamilah says, she kept everything in her home a secret from almost everyone she came in contact with, and from ACS in particular. “My perception of ACS was that if you tell them anything is wrong in your house, you will get automatically removed, so you should try to make your family look as good as possible. I heard that in my neighborhood, from my mom, in school, I couldn’t help but hear those things,” she says. Yes, she wanted help. “But when I was 13 and ACS came to investigate and asked me: ‘Is this going on, is that going on?’ my response to the T was, ‘There’s nothing really going on here. I’m fine. Everything is perfect.'”

Research on what protects children from maltreatment shows that for families at risk of neglecting or abusing their children, it’s crucial that they feel safe enough to open up to people who will empower them to manage the crises and heal their families. For several decades, child welfare systems around the country have struggled to address the fact that instead, child protective investigations lead many parents and children to hide.

They have asked themselves how they can both investigate families and support them, whether they can be both trusted and feared.

“It’s a difficult issue,” notes one former NYC CPS worker. “When we walk into a house, people are afraid of us. The truth is that sometimes that fear can be a catalyst for change. I recall one immigrant family where the father had been drinking too much, and he’d hit his wife. The wife kept denying it. But the fact that we came into his life and he had to fight for a little while to get his family back shook him to his core. He loved his family, and our presence forced him to make a positive change.”

“But for some families, it pushes them in the opposite direction,” the worker continues. “Especially with families that have been in and out of the system for generations, often our presence just makes them more oppositional.”

Coming to the table

One attempt at a solution, implemented in New York City under then-ACS Commissioner John Mattingly, are child safety conferences. Within a sea of adversity, child safety conferences are supposed to be an island of support where families can feel respected and engaged as partners in keeping their families safe after a child protective investigation has begun. Child safety conferences occur within 72 hours after an initial investigation, in cases where children are found to be at imminent risk, and parents are supposed to come to these conferences with anyone who is part of their support network as well as an advocate provided by the city.

The hope is that a mediator can facilitate a conversation between all the participants and ACS, outside the courtroom, as partners rather than as adversaries, and shift the power dynamics, even if slightly, by engaging families in taking responsibility for their own safety.

Advocates for children say such meetings have the potential to help families and ACS come up with collaborative solutions. But too often, they say, the adversarial relationship between parents and child protection overwhelms the possibility for collaboration.

“They all start the same, talking about the parent’s strengths,” says Dawn Post of the Children’s Law Center. “But sometimes ACS is figuring out where to place the child while the conference is still in progress. We’re not getting to the real issues in a collaborative way, and the same cookie-cutter services are thrown out there again and again.”

Advocates for parents say that frequently, child safety conferences turn into fishing expeditions, where a parents’ honesty is used against them. “Some of the facilitators can be very strength-based and respectful,” says Allison Brown, who as a social worker in Queens Family Court attended child safety conferences with parents who were already clients with her agency. “But many of them are very harsh and accusatory. A lot of times parents didn’t even know what all the allegations against them were, and they were often pressured to give information that might hurt their case.”

Before the phone call

Others say that the city needs to be looking at ways to reach out to parents long before they come to the attention of child protection—and that it has to address the fear and shame in these communities directly. They say that when the media and politicians focus solely on child deaths, it sends the message that parents who come to the attention of the child-welfare system are monsters, and, by extension, that the communities they come from are monstrous too. That message, they say, also needs to change.

Jeremy Kohomban is the executive director of Children’s Village, which contracts with the city to provide foster care and preventive services to many of the families in the child welfare system. He believes there will always be a need for child protective investigations: “As a society that cares about people, and that cares about a democracy, we have a responsibility to protect those among us who are the weakest, and certainly children fall into that category.”

“The bigger challenge for us under a progressive mayor,” says Kohomban, “is to begin to address issues of historic separation of some communities from others. It’s a small number of communities that make up the vast majority of child protective investigations, and these communities have the worst of all social indicators, whether it’s crime, or housing stock, or lack of employment, or failing schools, the list goes on and on. How do we begin to implement a progressive agenda for these communities that feel excluded form everything and the first to be blamed for everything?”

Kohomban says he knows that the mayor and commissioner understand the origins of these problems, and he is very hopeful that they will begin to heal these wounds.

ACS Commissioner Carríon, for her part, says she wants to make sure that communities do know about the array of support services the city has to offer. She says she has been looking at a model of Family Success Centers in New Jersey that is run by the child-welfare system there but is not associated with child welfare in the minds of the people who use it. It allows residents to more easily understand and access the support services that are available to them. “I don’t want to be glib and say, ‘We’ll call it something different and people will come,’” but, says Carríon, her administration is in the process of figuring out how to have a more positive presence in the communities that have the highest rates of CPS investigations.

But Sandra Killett, executive director of the Child Welfare Organizing Project, an advocacy organization of parents involved in the child-welfare system, says that the administration’s calls for more investigations undermines this message. She says that until the mayor and commissioner make clear that they see parents as the first line of defense in protecting their children, and child protective investigations as only the second, the deep distrust between families and the child welfare system will not change.

In the new year, the administration plans to run a public service campaign that reaches out to overwhelmed parents and encourages them to call 311, which will connect them to a confidential parenting referral service run by Prevent Child Abuse New York. “Before you reach your breaking point, reach out for help” the posters will read.

Killett says this is a step in the right direction, but that a campaign reaching out to parents should have been the first the city ran, not the last. “We want families to be walking through that door or making that call themselves, not someone calling after the fact, or after three of four things have gotten someone’s attention,” says Killett. “I will tell you that that’s way too late.”

Others say there are models being used around the country that can replace the fear and shame pervasive in poor neighborhoods with an excitement about talking about child rearing.

“If you look at the research on what parents need to keep kids safe,” says Susan Notkin, associate director at the Center for the Study of Social Policy, “they need to understand why children act the way they do, and what they as parents can do to help their children to thrive. They need to build up their own ability to manage stress and adversity. They need support and connections. And they need an array of services and support in times of crisis. “

Some cities offer “community cafes” where parents can learn to identify their needs, find out about services to help them and meet other families in similar struggles.

“In Chicago,” Notkin says, “they’re coming out to these events in thousands.”

A good mom

For her part, Kamilah says she wishes that the first time ACS entered her life, they had asked, “What does this family need?” rather than “What has this parent done wrong?” If they had, she says, maybe her family could have been helped before the problems grew bigger.

At 16, Kamilah says, she felt more urgently that she needed help. When she finally told ACS workers the truth about how her mother was hurting her—at a child safety conference—they did try to find ways to support them. Her mother was required to go to counseling to address her alcoholism and to therapy, and life at home improved for a while.

But the support proved too little too late, and after about a year, her mother hit hard times, was faced with eviction as had often happened in the past, and the cycle of drinking and abuse resumed. Kamilah says she felt relieved when she finally was removed from her mother’s home and placed with her older sister. Still, she says, she wishes things could have been different.

“I still believe my mom is a good mom,” says Kamilah. “She still calls to check on me. When I went through a breakup she helped me. She stayed up late talking to me. She comforted me. I just wish she would acknowledge the hurt she did to us, but she denies it. I think it goes back to the question of ‘Am I a good mother?’ that she had to deal with the first time ACS took her children.”

Reporting supported by the Ira W. DeCamp Foundation.

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