New York’s Child Welfare Laws Will Advance Justice

Two bills, awaiting Governor Andrew Cuomo’s signature, would help reduce the punitive impact of the child welfare system on kids and their families, including formerly incarcerated parents.

by Nora McCarthy
The Appeal

Excerpts:

When D’Juan Collins was incarcerated for drug possession in 2007, he was the sole parent to his son, Isaiah, who was just 10 months old. During his sentence, he and his son visited at Fishkill Correctional Facility. When he was released after serving six years, D’Juan lost the fight to reunite with his son.

The foster parent who planned to adopt Isaiah did not want D’Juan to continue contact with him. And at a trial to terminate D’Juan’s parental rights, a judge could not legally order post-adoption contact, even though he noted the pair’s strong bond. “If he loses, he loses everything,” the judge said of D’Juan. Isaiah, of course, lost too.

I met D’Juan when he joined a writing group I ran at a foster care agency. I still have a picture of D’Juan and Isaiah peering out of a teepee they put together in the agency visiting room. As D’Juan wrote: “He held up the rods while I attached the pieces. While we worked, I gave him a little history lesson about Native Americans. Then he opened the zippers, and we stood inside and took a picture together.” D’Juan and Isaiah are both grinning at the camera and holding up two fingers. They didn’t know it would be the last time they’d ever spend together.

In poor communities of color, a knock on the door from child protective investigators is as common—and unjustifiable—as a call from a holding cell. As public attitudes toward criminal justice have begun to evolve, child welfare laws have not.

The New York state legislature took steps toward changing this, passing two bills in June that advance racial and economic justice in the child welfare system. It is critical that Governor Andrew Cuomo sign these bills—and that the public recognize child welfare as a justice issue and advance legislation nationwide to protect families.

One bill, the State Central Register Reform Bill, seeks to protect families by raising the state’s unusually low standard of evidence for listing parents on a state abuse and neglect registry, and reducing the economic impact of being listed. In 2018, more than 47,000 cases were added to the database, which is visible to potential employers.

Parents are often listed even if no court action has been taken against them and remain on the registry—regardless of the severity of the accusation against them—until their child reaches age 28.

The bill would require a “preponderance of evidence,” not “some credible evidence,” to list parents, a standard in line with most other states. It would seal parents’ records on the registry after eight years, in most cases, and make it easier for parents to challenge their records before that.

The other bill, the Preserving Family Bonds Act, would allow children adopted from foster care to continue to have contact with their parents if a judge agrees that it’s in the child’s best interest. Termination of parental rights has been called a “civil death penalty,” but this bill would protect family bonds by ensuring open adoption, even when it’s not possible for a child to return home.

Taken together, these bills represent an important effort to reduce the punitive effect of the child welfare system. Too often, the system punishes and permanently separates poor families—especially Black and Native families—as the U.S. has done through law and through economic inequity for its entire history.

The federal Adoption and Safe Families Act, passed in 1997, remains especially damaging and reflects the time’s hysteria about Black families, when media images of “super-predators,” “welfare queens,” and “crack babies” demonized Black mothers and children. The law cut the length of time parents have to reunite with their children and provided financial incentives to states to prioritize adoption. The federal government also provides nearly unlimited funds for foster care but almost none for supports that enable families to keep children safe at home.

The bad science and policy related to crack have been discredited, but the child welfare system they set into law remains in effect. Black children are disproportionately represented in the foster care population: They are only 14 percent of the under-18 population, but they account for 23 percent of the foster care population.

Black children are also more likely to enter foster care and less likely to return home than white children. Children are often removed from home even when basic supports like a housing voucher or childcare could resolve safety issues. In some states, parents have no right to an attorney in family court proceedings.

Read the Full Article at The Appeal

Senator Montgomery and Assemblywoman Jaffee urge the Governor’s immediate consideration of their legislation to reform the State Central Register (S6427A/A8060)

New York State Senate News

State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, Chair of the Senate Children and Families Committee and Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee, Chair of the Assembly Standing Committee on Children and Families wrote to Governor Andrew Cuomo request his immediate consideration of their State Central Register (SCR) bill to increase the standard of proof for unfounded and indicated reports of neglect and the admissibility of reports of cases on neglect.

In their joint letter, the Senator and Assemblywoman note:

This legislation makes a differentiation between child neglect and child abuse. It also increases the standard regarding evidence for child neglect, which will ultimately relieve individuals from the prospect of being persecuted for the “crime” of being poor.

Our bill would ultimately reduce the harsh and disproportionate consequences of having an indicated case on the New York’s Statewide Central Register of Child Abuse and Maltreatment. A shocking number of parents — over 47,000 thousand — are added to the SCR every year for child neglect. Most of these parents remain on this list for up to 28 years, are barred from numerous jobs as well as participating in activities attheir children’s schools. The vast majority of the jobs that affect parents on the SCR are jobs most often performed by women, often-single heads of households, and people of color.

According to The New York Times in their story headlined, The Child Abuse Charge Was Dismissed. But It Can Still Cost You a Job, “In New York, it is especially easy to get on the database and arduous to be removed, amounting to a blacklist for many jobs, lawyers and parents said.” Additionally, WNYC reported on June 12, 2019, “There is widespread agreement that a system meant to help children is actually hurting some families by blocking job opportunities.”

This bill has support from the Legislature, passing in both houses overwhelmingly.

Additionally, thousands of constituents included those effected by the current State Central Register statute have contacted our offices in support of this legislation across the state. This bill also has a groundswell of support from advocacy groups and attorneys across the state including:

  • New York State Defenders Association, Inc.
  • New York City Bar
  • Abbott House
  • Adoptive and Family Foster Coalition of New York
  • Arab-American Family Support center
  • Bronx Defenders
  • Brooklyn Defender Services
  • Center for Family Representation
  • Children’s Aid
  • Children’s Defense Fund-New York
  • Children’s Law Center
  • Children’s Village
  • Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York, Inc.
  • Coalition for Homeless Youth
  • Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies
  • Court Appointed Special Advocates of NYC
  • Families Together in New York State
  • Good Shepherd Services
  • Graham Windham
  • Harlem Dowling
  • JCCA
  • MercyFirst
  • Neighborhood Defender Service
  • NYS Citizen Review Panels for Child Protective Services
  • NYS Kinship Navigator
  • Northern Rivers Family of Services
  • NYU Family Defense Clinic Washington Square Legal Services, Inc.
  • RISE
  • Rising Ground
  • Schuyler Center for Analysis and Advocacy
  • The Children’s Agenda
  • The Jewish Board of Family & Children’s Services
  • The Legal Aid Society
  • Westchester Children’s Association

To read the full letter, download the PDF.

Why Hasn’t Governor Cuomo Signed These Two Bills Yet?

Contact Governor Andrew M. Cuomo here. 1-518-474-8390

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