Going forward, the city says it hopes to reduce reports that lead to investigations by strengthening primary prevention. Other jurisdictions are also working to address the impact that investigations have on low-income communities of color. Indeed, Nassau County administrators were so alarmed by their racial disproportionality that they instituted a policy of blind removals through which a panel decides whether to take a child into foster care without knowing the family’s race, ethnicity or zip code. In 2011, before the protocol was instituted, 55 percent of children taken into foster care in the county were Black; in 2016, after the county had the opportunity to fine tune its process, that number dropped to 29 percent.
And yet, despite these efforts, no one seems to know how to respond to the fact that reports and investigations only continue to rise nationwide, and that during investigations the conditions that lead investigators to leave children in imminent danger—including the arguably impossible task they’re charged with of predicting future harm—are the same conditions that can lead to the violation of the right of children and parents to the sanctity of their families.
Those child deaths that crush everyone working in the system “are rare,” said Woods. “They’re rare, and we allow the fear of them to control us in a way that we ignore the real life-altering harm that is happening to most of the families involved in this system. I don’t want to get into the business of weighing the death of a child against all of that. But awful things happen. Having an aggressive child welfare system that doesn’t protect families is a false sense of security. All we’re really accomplishing is hurting more kids.”
Is it possible to protect parents and kids?
Whether anything will come of all the talk about strengthening legal rights for parents facing CPS investigations is unclear.
Since the City Council hearing, councilmembers have asked advocates for more information about why they believe access to counsel during in investigation is important, and what it might look like, and expressed interest in further exploring the possibilities.
New York State’s Commission on Parent Representation was charged with sending an interim report to the chief judge before the end of the year; she is expected to make her recommendations public sometime in January.
Angela Burton, director of Quality Enhancement for Parent Representation at the NYS Office of Indigent Legal Services and special adviser to the commission, said the commission has discussed a range of options, some of which fall short of full legal representation. “What the commission heard was that people don’t know what their rights are. They don’t understand the system. The only information they are getting is all from the agency investigating and prosecuting them. What we’re really talking about is access to information, advice and counsel so that people have a better understanding of what is happening to them and can make better decisions,” Burton said.
In the meantime, in some small pockets, parents in New York City are already accessing that legal advice.
Last year, The Bronx Defenders received a private grant for a lawyer, social worker and parent advocate to provide services to 200 walk-in clients a year under CPS investigation. In just the first quarter of the grant’s second year, Ketteringham told me, they’ve already served 200 clients.
And earlier this year, in the shadow of the elevated subway tracks in East New York, using a special grant from the state, Brooklyn Defender Services opened a walk-in center on the ground floor of a block-long building that stands out in the neighborhood for its clean, bright exterior. Approximately 30 percent of all CPS cases assigned to Brooklyn Defender Services from across the borough come from East New York and neighboring Brownsville, two of the poorest neighborhoods in the city.
Kaela Economos, a veteran social worker, runs the center where residents can get legal help for everything from housing to education, criminal and child welfare cases. For her the work is about justice. “People are very woke about getting on board with criminal justice reform,” Economos says, “but if you don’t pay attention to the historical trajectory of child welfare, especially as it relates to Black and Brown women, then you’re missing a huge part of the story.” It’s also about child well-being. “Just like people in certain communities are going to be hesitant to call the police even in situations where it’s warranted, it’s not a far leap to think parents are going to be hesitant to ask for help, because they’re afraid.”
Economos tells me that having help during an investigation can reduce the trauma to children.
Sometimes, she says, when parents are reassured that they have an ally, they’re less likely to fight CPS, and more willing to take steps to improve conditions for their children. Often, she says, a lawyer—or a legal team that includes a social worker and a parent advocate—do a social worker’s job, connecting families to appropriate services.
Other times, the job is as simple as helping parents provide clear information to a judge on day one if a case goes to court. She tells me about a young mother whose petition stated that she had knives in her shelter unit. But because she obtained help from the center—Economos went over the petition with her grandmother, who was caring for her great grandson on an emergency basis—she was able to show the judge her first day in court that the knives were kitchen knives, not the weapons the petition seemed to suggest, and her son came home.
Yet other times, parents need help communicating with investigators. Recently, a father called because his children were afraid to go to school. “The kids kept getting pulled out of class to talk to the investigator,” Economos explained. “The father asked, ‘Are [the investigators] allowed to come to the school whenever they want?’ The answer is yes. But I told him, ‘You can say, ‘I’m willing to make the kids available in our home or take them to the ACS office, but I don’t want you to go repeatedly to their school…You can let them know how it’s affecting the kids.”