Every year, the Administration for Children’s Services visits families in New York City tens of thousands of times.

Typically, those investigations start with a knock on the door as staff members of the child welfare agency try to assess reports of abuse or neglect by a parent or other family member.

That first moment is often stressful and traumatic, say advocates and attorneys for families, and always crucial in shaping the future of the investigation.

“We have seen circumstances in which things the parent reveals during that initial interaction shows up in the Family Court petition against them,” said Miriam Mack, policy director at the Family Defense Practice for the Bronx Defenders. “A parent might start to open up about the way that they struggle with intimate partner violence, and that has been used against them. Or there’s not enough food in the home — that shows up in the petition.”

ACS caseworkers together handle tens of thousands of investigations a year, many resulting from calls by so-called mandated reporters — professionals who come into contact with kids, including teachers, social workers, day care workers and doctors, who are required by law to report any signs of suspected child abuse or maltreatment.

Those accounts combined with anonymous reports to a state hotline result in a mountain of  leads: ACS began 43,782 investigations in the past fiscal year, the agency said. Of those, 28% were substantiated and 8% resulted in a court filing. In that same year, with Family Court oversight, ACS placed 2,441 children into foster care.

The agency’s cases affect primarily Black and Hispanic families. They comprise 87% of ACS cases while accounting for just over half of the city’s population.

New Yorkers contacted by ACS have rights they can assert, but few know what they are, or how to use them.

That was the case with Aaliya Ingram, a mom who lived with her then-5-year-old daughter in Queens in 2017 when ACS came to their apartment after the child’s school principal reported her for missing school. The worker, Ingram said, told her that if she cooperated and spoke transparently, the case would be cleared up quickly. In a two-hour-long visit, Ingram “overshared” that she occasionally smoked marijuana; a drug test a few days later confirmed it.

“I didn’t know that she was building a case against me,” she said. “It’s a level of betrayal, right? Like, this high level of betrayal.”

Her daughter was later removed from the home and Ingram contended with a six-year ACS case that finally closed last month. Her daughter now lives with relatives outside the city.

“I wish I just would have known what they were capable of, right? Just, what my rights were. It was so traumatic after the fact,” she said.

Advocates say the knowledge of rights should be a primary part of the process.

“We don’t want parents to be first learning about their rights when they’re in a scary situation,” said Sarah Duggan, manager of communications at the advocacy group JMAC for Families.

As advocates push for better rights notification, ACS is readying a pilot program in parts of Brooklyn and The Bronx to hand out know-your-rights cards to families it visits for an investigation, as first reported last month by The Imprint. 

In a statement to THE CITY, ACS commissioner Jess Dannhauser said the pilot program will be in place by the end of October and said that for the past year and a half, the agency has provided families “with important information including the contact information for parent defense counsel during the first contact with a family.”

“ACS seeks to protect children and protect the rights of families, and we firmly believe both can be accomplished together,” he said.

The effort comes on the heels of proposed city and state bills that would require any person under investigation by ACS to be notified of their rights, much as police must read so-called Miranda warnings to people under arrest.

Every situation with ACS is different, and there is no blanket response when the agency comes to the door. But here are the basics to remember, according to experts who advise clients every day:

You can refuse to admit ACS into your home — unless they have a court order.

Families can bar agency representatives from coming into their households without permission from a Family Court judge, and it’s very rare for child welfare agents to get that permission. According to a 2022 investigation by ProPublica and NBC News, ACS agents had an entry order for a search only 0.2% of the time.

Demanding proof of a court order, however, may be exceedingly hard to do, especially if you are inclined to cooperate out of fear of repercussions.

In extreme cases, ACS has the legal right to make an “emergency removal,” Mack said, where they take a child or children from a home and later seek a judge’s permission.

“ACS does have the power under the law to call the emergency removal power,” she said, if caseworkers feel “the circumstances are so dire that they do not have time, even an hour, to get that court order — and they have to go into the home and simply remove the child.”

In the first half of this year, of the 1,198 children newly placed in foster care by ACS, just over half, or 629, were deemed emergencies.

The threat of that situation is always in the minds of clients, Mack said.

“It’s hard for me to even express how fearful families are of ACS. And I think folks know that it’s like, if I don’t comply, or if I resist, it’s going to make things even worse for me,” she said.

You do not have to speak with ACS or let them speak with your children without a court order.

Similarly, without a court order, you’re not legally required to speak with ACS staff when they first come to the door, and you don’t have to allow them to question or speak with your children.

“I don’t think people should feel compelled to answer them immediately,” said Jean Padilla, a parent advocate at Bronx Defenders. “It’s like, okay, hold on, right? Before I answer any of these questions, I want to listen to what you’re saying, and I want to speak to a lawyer and then I can get back to you.”

Mack said parents can also deny searches of a child’s body. In the past, her clients’ children have been strip-searched for signs of harm.

“You have the right to not allow ACS to, to interview or speak with your child, much less strip search your child,” she said.

Nevertheless, if you assess the situation and think that showing your children to agents with the hope of assuring them the child is physically safe and well — for example, bringing them to the door — will “turn the volume down” during a visit, Mack said, that may be the right call and buy some time.

“How a person decides to engage with the government is not cookie-cutter,” she emphasized.

You can speak with a lawyer or legal advocate before answering questions.

Experts stressed that it’s very important to get in touch with an attorney or to get competent legal advice as early in the process of an ACS investigation as possible. Many legal advocacy groups staff “early defense” units that handle inquiries from potential clients even before a child welfare case opens. Padilla, at Bronx Defenders, says his unit monitors a legal hotline in shifts 24 hours a day.

If you need help, this website created in collaboration with those legal groups lists which offices can help clients in Manhattan, The Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn. (Families in Staten Island can call the offices in other boroughs for guidance.)

Some parents, like Ingram, knew that it’s pretty common knowledge to ask for a lawyer when law enforcement is involved, but didn’t know that similar rules exist with ACS. 

“At least with police, you can see them coming, they’re in uniform, they have a badge,” she said. “ACS is dangerous because again they are in plain clothing, they could be a neighbor. They’re regular civilians but their power is immense.”

You don’t have to reveal private information, especially if it doesn’t relate to the allegations.

You have the right to know about the allegations being made against you and, if you want to speak to ACS, try to only answer questions that are directly related to those allegations. 

People visited by ACS are asked frequently about their immigration status, mental health, romantic relationships and medical history. For many people, none of that information should be relevant to the case. (If you are a victim of intimate partner violence that is also potentially affecting children in your household, contact one of the legal organizations who work with families or call the city’s 24-hour domestic violence hotline at 800-621-HOPE.)

But the bottom line is that you don’t have to answer personal questions on the spot or without legal counsel.

Advocates often hear of ACS agents asking clients to sign documents waiving patients’ rights to health privacy, known as HIPAA waivers, giving the agency a blank check to go through a person’s medical records. Mack says the practice violates the law and should be questioned.

“Our clients get asked to sign blank HIPAAs, which is illegal,” she said.

“If ACS is asking to sign a HIPAA form, ask more specifically what they need,” Padilla advised.

You don’t have to use the services ACS offers.

Common asks from the agency, according to experts, include requests to take drug tests, or go through a mental health screening. Sometimes workers from ACS will frame those services as helpful or a way to make an investigation easier. Advocates advise parents to stay wary.

“It is not social work. It is an investigation. One hundred percent, when ACS knocks at the door, they’re there to gather information about the allegations that they have on the family,” Mack said.

Results from screenings and tests are often used in future Family Court cases, Mack said, and could make a case harder to win for parents.

If you need help — whether it’s with counseling, finding housing, getting drug treatment or something else — it’s a good bet to ask for assistance from the same legal services organizations who have family defense practices. Often, they have the resources to connect families with those types of services, run independently of those offered by ACS. 

What else should parents know when faced with an ACS case? What else should THE CITY add to this article? Email the reporter at rsmith@thecity.nyc with the subject line “ACS guide.”