ALBANY – Outraged parents are calling on state lawmakers to do something about New York City targeting their families without informing them of their rights during child welfare investigations.
Current law mandates the city Administration for Children’s Services visit homes to check allegations of abuse or neglect.
But critics say they go about it completely the wrong way – especially when it comes to dealing with black and Hispanic families.
“They purposely withhold your rights from you and scare you with the threat of taking your children,” Tanesha Grant, a black mother of three in Washington Heights, said of her past run-ins with the city agency that never substantiated any of 20 accusations against her.
“They always tried to coerce me and make me afraid that I would somehow lose my children if I didn’t [obey] them.”
That can mean letting caseworkers inside to investigate, participating in drug tests or psychological exams, or letting them speak to children unprepared for the legal consequences a stray comment might bring to their own parents.
Proposed state legislation would require child welfare officials statewide to inform families of their legal rights before pressuring them to cooperate in the investigative process, but it remains unclear whether Albany Democrats will approve the idea before the 2023 legislative session ends on June 8.
The bill is modeled on the “Miranda rights” police must tell criminal defendants upon arrest following a landmark 1966 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Under the Fourth Amendment, government workers are required to obtain a court order to search a home,” Assemblywoman Latrice Walker (D-Brooklyn) said of the bill she is sponsoring with state Sen. Jabari Brisport (D-Brooklyn).
A 2019 study by the Center for New York City Affairs found seven times more child welfare investigations in neighborhoods with relatively high percentages of black residents, like Mott Haven in the Bronx, compared to whiter and more affluent areas like Greenwich Village in Manhattan.
“Current policy exploits and exacerbates inequities within the system. Black, brown, and low-income families are not only targeted by caseworkers at the highest rates, but are also less likely to have access to legal advice or counsel when child protective services workers knock on their door,” Walker said.
ACS caseworkers can only seek a court order after they try to get parents or guardians to voluntarily respond to allegations of neglect or abuse – a move they pursue in just .2% of the tens of thousands of cases each year, ProPublica reported in October.
“They claim that the other 99.8% of homes are entered with “voluntary consent,” but this often includes threats of calling the police and other methods of coercion. Most parents are not aware of their right to deny entry,” Walker added.
ACS data shows 59,001 allegations in 2022 and 55,345 in 2021 referred by the state, with 29.2% and 33.9% of those cases respectively substantiated by investigators.
Fewer than 10% of cases result in the courts getting involved.
An ACS spokesperson expressed support for the legislation without directly endorsing the proposal as written.
“ACS supports legislation that would require child protective specialists to provide oral and written information to parents, about their rights, at the initial point of contact. We look forward to legislation that balances both the need for parents to have information about their rights with the need for child welfare agencies to assess the safety of children who have been reported as possibly abused or neglected.”
The agency is currently pursuing a pilot program where it is trying out the idea of informing parents of their rights before seeking information that can be used against them.
If passed by the state Senate and Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Kathy Hochul, caseworkers would have to provide in the family’s “preferred language” that they can refuse to cooperate with them absent a court order.
A similar proposal passed the Texas state Legislature earlier this year and awaits approval by Gov. Greg Abbot.
“I can’t fathom how Texas of all places can beat New York to something on this,” Brisport said. “Texas is not considered a bastion of racial equality.”