New York Child Welfare Legislation Fares Poorly – The Imprint

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Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi at the New York State Capitol in Albany, pictured in February 2023, is among the lawmakers who’ve repeatedly backed child welfare reform bills. Photo by Hans Pennink

New York’s legislative season ended this weekend with a disappointing finale for family advocates, lawmakers and policy experts hoping for systemic change in the child welfare system.

Despite optimism earlier this year, bills that would have curbed anonymous reporting to the child protection hotline, provided Miranda-style warnings to parents under investigation and barred nonconsensual testing of birthing moms all failed to pass. Collectively, the legislation would have dialed back CPS intervention in the lives of Empire State families, who are disproportionately people of color.

“Part of the frustration and anger around these bills not getting passed is that people are dealing with the consequences every day,” said Crystal Charles, a senior policy analyst at Schuyler Center for Analysis and Advocacy, a child welfare research organization. “Some of these practices lead to families being investigated unnecessarily and especially Black and Latino families being separated more often.”

Charles referenced the years of activism in New York that resulted in the legislation. “It’s really frustrating as an advocate to fight so hard year after year, and get so close, and then to know that this is something people are going to have to keep dealing with until we can try again.”

As the session drew to a close, lawmakers and Gov. Kathy Hochul were in heated dispute over issues far from child welfare laws, with particular focus on New York City’s commuter congestion pricing. But two pieces of child welfare legislation did meet legislators’ approval, and will be decided upon by the governor before year’s end.

They include a bill focusing on “broken” adoptions and the Safe Landings Act. That latter allows family courts to order assistance for youth transitioning out of the child welfare system at age 21. If signed into law by Gov. Hochul, the extra help would provide for independent living, education and employment.

“​The agencies overseeing the foster care and well-being of these youth should not be absolved of the duty to comply with these orders simply because the youth has been discharged from or aged out of care,” the legislation reads. “Both as a matter of fundamental fairness and to further public policies aimed at preventing homelessness,” it continues, “this must be changed.”

Last month, the New York City Bar Association, whose members represent foster children in the family courts, published a statement in support of the bill. 

“Enactment of this legislation is critically important to these young adults, who are venturing out on their own for the first time after spending years in foster care without having had the benefits and advantages of family support and stability,” it read.

One of the most eagerly anticipated pieces of legislation that failed this session was the Anti-harassment in Reporting bill, first introduced in 2021. The bill would have abolished anonymous reporting to the Statewide Central Register of Child Abuse and Maltreatment, a practice often abused by vengeful exes and frustrated neighbors who can trigger terrifying home visits by child protective services. 

Anonymous reports are far less likely to pan out as legitimate concerns, state data show. The legislation, sponsored by state Sen. Jabari Brisport, would have required hotline callers to provide their identities and contacts, information that would be kept confidential.

In an interview with The Imprint before the legislation met its demise, Albany Law School professor Dale Margolin Cecka — who has spent more than a decade advocating to end anonymous reporting — expressed her excitement that the bill had passed the state Senate. She pointed to similar laws that have been passed in California and Texas, which Cecka called “a step in the right direction of public accountability.” 

Despite growing attention to the issue, New York’s anti-harassment bill did not receive enough votes in the state Assembly. 

There were earlier signs of dissent at a public hearing in New York City last year where Suzanne Miles-Gustave, former acting commissioner of the state’s Office of Children and Family Services, expressed reservations about scaling back who can call CPS hotlines. Critics say removing the option of anonymous calls could deter reports of abuse and jeopardize children’s safety.

Cecka and others pushed back against such arguments, saying that added layers of protection in the bill would ensure that callers’ names would be kept confidential, unless ordered by a judge. She said the growing support for the anti-harassment bill reveals how the field is shifting to focus on family preservation over heavy surveillance, with child welfare agencies increasingly called upon to be more transparent about who calls hotlines and to better train call center staff.

Sen. Brisport lashed out at his colleagues’ inability to change current practice by the Administration for Children’s Services in New York City and similar agencies statewide. 

“After years of advocacy, the Assembly has the votes to pass a major bill to protect families from harassment via ACS/CPS — but they’re about to go home without voting on it,” Brisport wrote on X shortly before the session closed Saturday morning. “They have no excuse to avoid passing this.” 

State Sen. Jabari Brisport
State Sen. Jabari Brisport

Brisport’s popular Preserving Family Bonds Act was vetoed by Gov. Hochul late last year, legislation that would have given biological parents greater opportunity to communicate with their children who’ve been adopted. Similar legislation has been vetoed three times by two governors.

A second bill that failed to pass this session was also backed by Brisport and advocates for children and families. Known as the Family Miranda Rights bill, the legislation would have required CPS workers to inform parents of their right to consult a lawyer and to refuse entry into their homes at the beginning of an investigation into abuse or neglect. The bill failed to pass in both houses. 

A closely watched informed consent bill that would have barred non-consensual drug testing in hospitals was also among those that petered out this year. The legislation, first introduced in 2019, would have required medical providers to obtain written and verbal consent from pregnant patients before conducting drug tests on them or their newborns, an attempt to curb early entry into the foster care system at a critical stage of bonding. Under the proposed law, clinicians would also have had to inform parents that positive drug tests could be reported to CPS. 

Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal of Manhattan told The Imprint in an email she is “deeply disappointed that the Legislature did not pass my bill to protect parents from the harms of secret drug testing before the end of the session, a practice that disproportionately impacts people of color.” Rosenthal said the practice “has failed to make children safer, it has only torn families apart while eroding the trust that pregnant people should have with their medical providers.”

She also vowed to take the bill up again in the next legislative session. “By not passing this bill into law, state-sanctioned discrimination against pregnant people of color and those deemed suspicious will continue,” she said.

Advocates for perinatal patients have been fighting for greater protection from drug testing for years, an issue also being fought in the courts through several lawsuits. Among the plaintiffs are women who ingested legal marijuana or who ate poppy seed bagels before giving birth and later tested positive for opiates. Positive tests taken without their consent jeopardized contact with their newborn babies.

Laura Kuzdale is a mother currently suing a Buffalo children’s hospital for discriminating against her on the basis of sex and pregnancy.

In an email, she said she was “beyond disappointed that the Informed Consent Bill did not pass.”

The legislation is needed, she wrote, “because the hospitals will continue these discriminatory practices and maintain an attitude of indifference towards the harm they cause pregnant women and their families.”

Nila Natarajan, associate director of policy and family defense at Brooklyn Defender Services, said in an email that the failed legislation would have served to “empower and protect the rights of families and seek to minimize the harms of family policing.” 

Yet another parents’ rights bill met a similar fate this year: A bill that would have made it harder for child welfare agencies to charge parents for the cost of their children’s foster care, a little-known practice nationwide that can delay family reunification.

Noting the set of bills that failed to pass this year, lawyer Natarajan added that legal advocates and activists will not give up.

“We look forward to returning to Albany next year to enact the Anti-Harassment in Reporting, Informed Consent, Family Miranda, and Preserving Family Bonds Acts and continue the work to ensure families are supported not surveilled.”

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