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City, Union Push Back on Informing Parents of Rights in Child-Welfare Probes

The city’s Administration For Children’s Services headquarters in lower Manhattan.
The Administration For Children’s Services headquarters in lower Manhattan.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

A so-called Parental Rights package of legislation is scheduled to be voted on by the City Council on Thursday, seeking to “empower families in the [child welfare] system… to know their rights.”

But two key bills will be conspicuously absent from the vote.

Both would require city Administration for Children’s Services workers to advise parents and other caretakers of their rights at the start of a child-welfare investigation. One bill mandates a verbal notification, while the other would present a written form in the city’s 10 most-spoken languages.

The bills are being left out of the vote this week after city officials and the ACS staffers’ union pushed back on them during meetings with Council members, including Speaker Corey Johnson (D-Manhattan), family justice advocates and other Council members told THE CITY.

Multiple requests for comment from Johnson, who, as speaker, is responsible for “aging,” or shepherding, bills to a vote, went unanswered.

“Parents have rights. They’re on the books,” said Joyce McMillan, a staunch parental rights advocate who called the bills’ goal of awareness of rights the “bare minimum.”

Child-welfare advocate Joyce McMillan says ACS pressured a nonprofit to fire her for being outspoken. Feb. 5, 2021.
Child-welfare advocate Joyce McMillan
Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

Her own decades-long struggle with ACS as a mother of three spurred her to help lead a growing movement against what she calls unnecessarily invasive and racially biased child-welfare investigations.

“We’re not asking to change [parental rights]. We are not asking to expand them. We are not asking to negotiate them. We are asking we be advised what they are,” she said.

The “City Council is now rubber stamping and signing off on parents’ rights being trampled upon,” she added. “Who doesn’t want someone to know what their rights are?”

The two bills, sponsored by Councilmembers Margaret Chin and Carlina Rivera, both Manhattan Democrats, stemmed from an upswell of support for advocates seeking to address the racial and economic inequities within the city’s child welfare system.

A Flawed System

Child welfare investigations have long been shown to disproportionately affect Black and Latino families. In 2019, nearly 45% of families investigated by ACS were Latino, and 41% were Black, according to Commissioner David Hansell.

Yet 65% of New York City’s child welfare investigations ultimately deemed the allegation of abuse or neglect unfounded, according to records from 2020.

“This is a system that often goes overlooked, even though it is a system with a great amount of power,” said Zachary Ahmad, senior policy counsel at the New York Civil Liberties Union. “We’re talking about an agency that has the power to remove children from a parent’s care.”

Ahmad told THE CITY that, for the NYCLU and the parent-rights groups it works with, it’s important to “recognize the harm that that system has, in many circumstances, caused for families across New York.”

“Particularly with respect to bills like this, I think it’s important to look at the lack of information that parents often have,” he noted, contrasting ACS investigations with the criminal justice system where most people know about the Miranda rights to remain silent and have an attorney.

Councilmember Stephen Levin at a rally and news conference on the steps of City Hall about helping the homeless, Jan. 30, 2020.
Councilmember Stephen Levin (D-Brooklyn)
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Allowing an investigator into a home can have wide-ranging consequences, from a child being immediately taken away, to lengthy and disruptive family court cases and years on a damning child-welfare registry, child welfare advocates say.

“There’s a power dynamic when [the city] is knocking on the door, and they have the legal power, as a potential scenario, to remove your child from your home,” said Councilmember Stephen Levin (D-Brooklyn), who spearheaded the package of bills as the chair of the General Welfare Committee.

“As a parent that is the scariest thing in the world,” he said. “It’s hard in the moment, I think, to be able to assert any rights that you might have or to inquire into what your rights are.”

Making Sure Children Are Safe

Following requests for comments by THE CITY, ACS officials did not deny allegations that they were trying to quash the bills in talks with Council leaders.

But the agency said it was already doing enough by following New York State law by informing parents of their rights after an investigator inspects their home and children.

“ACS supports providing parents with information about both their rights and about ACS’s obligations, as required by state law,” said Christopher Rucas, an ACS spokesperson.

Anthony Wells, president of Social Service Employees Union Local 371 speaks at the Essential Workers Union Rally in Foley Sq. Sept 3, 2020
Anthony Wells, president of Social Service Employees Union Local 371 speaks at the Essential Workers Union Rally in Foley Sq. Sept 3, 2020
Jason Scott Jones/THE CITY

The City Council bills being left out would require that parents and guardians are told their rights at the initiation of an investigation — when a parent can still act upon some key points such as their right to access a lawyer or deny entry into the home.

Anthony Wells, head of the union which represents child welfare workers, SSEU Local 371, told THE CITY that his members are most concerned about the kids in question, and want access to them at the very beginning of any investigation.

“State law requires us to ascertain the safety of the child,” said Wells.

But he said he hopes that all sides can come to an eventual agreement that “makes sure people’ rights are protected, but make sure we’re able to assist in the safety of children.”

The same state law cited by ACS does allow that, if a parent refuses entry to a home and there’s “cause to believe a child or children’s life or health may be in danger,” the city may seek an immediate court order to gain entry.

“As the child welfare agency, ACS has a moral and statutory responsibility to assess the safety of children,” said Rucas.

Attorney Chris Gottlieb, who runs the family defense clinic at New York University, called ACS’s citation of state law “a distraction.”

“I can tell you I have spoken with hundreds of families who’ve been investigated and I’ve never met a family who was told their rights,” she said. “Nothing in that law prevents them from telling people their rights, but they don’t … and they very often mislead people about what their legal authority is.”

Searching for a Solution

Chin, one of the bill sponsors, told THE CITY she believes that notifying parents of their rights — and in various languages — is crucial to the immigrant communities she serves, after being involved in what she called an especially “tragic” case of an immigrant mother whose child was removed.

According to Chin, the woman did not know of her legal rights when ACS workers arrived at her door and she later passed away before she could be reunited with her child.

Rivera told THE CITY in a statement that “unfortunately, the administration was not willing to meet us where we needed to be on this bill.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson shake over the 2020 budget at City Hall, June 14, 2019.
Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson at City Hall, June 14, 2019.
Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

Both Council members remained hopeful that negotiations will restart and the bills will eventually be brought for a vote and passed.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

“This remains a critical piece of legislation in our efforts toward justice for children and families in New York City, and I look forward to continuing to work with our advocacy partners to get this passed in the future,” said Rivera.

“Why can’t you spend a couple of minutes getting out the information orally, or written?” asked Levin, who also pledged to continue pushing for a solution.

One of the five other child-welfare bills that are expected to be voted on Friday would require that ACS notify parents of their right to request a hearing where they can appeal the findings of any investigation — but only after they are found guilty of abuse or neglect.

The remaining four would require more detailed reporting of data from every step of a child welfare investigation, from demographics to emergency removals and their outcomes.

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