NYC parents facing child welfare investigations set to get rights notices – Gothamist

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The New York City agency that conducts child welfare investigations says it will soon start informing all parents under investigation about their legal rights, including calling a lawyer and denying case workers permission to enter their homes. Parents will be advised at the onset of an inquiry, according to the Administration for Children’s Services.

In October, as part of a 400-person pilot program, some Bronx and Brooklyn parents facing ACS inquiries into child abuse and neglect claims began receiving letters informing them of certain rights. The policy was recently expanded to parts of Queens and the agency says it is set to apply citywide by July.

“We are taking an important step towards the mayor’s vision of safety, equity and justice,” ACS Commissioner Jess Dannhauser said in a statement.

The move follows longstanding criticism from advocates who say ACS caseworkers’ lack of disclosure has deprived parents of important legal rights and protections.

But public defenders and other advocates for parents say the new disclosures are deficient and potentially misleading, and that they fall short of the protections outlined in a comprehensive “Miranda Rights for Families” bill that was introduced in the last three state legislative sessions but not enacted.

“You can’t provide someone a half of a right and think it’s going to make a difference in how they choose to protect themselves,” said parent advocate Joyce McMillan, founder and executive director of child welfare advocacy group JMAC for Families.

A disproportionate toll

Senate Bill S901, introduced in 2023, would require ACS caseworkers to verbally inform parents of allegations made against them and their right to refuse a drug or alcohol test or mental health evaluation in the absence of a court order. The measure would also require caseworkers to explain to parents that anything they say can be used against them in family court, mirroring Miranda Rights in criminal cases.

Those features were omitted from the written notices now being distributed to parents. Critics said information about key protections was buried toward the end of the letters and threateningly worded, concealing the full scope of parents’ rights.

“The way that this information is being provided is going to continue to coerce parents into cooperating,” said Jennifer Feinberg, litigation supervisor for policy and government affairs at the Center for Family Representation, a nonprofit that provides legal and social services to families and young people. “I say cooperation, but it’s not true cooperation because parents don’t understand that they have the choice.”

While ACS publicly supported the bill, it privately lobbied to weaken it, ProPublica reported in June. An earlier investigation by the news organization found that ACS caseworkers — acting without warrants — conducted more than 50,000 home searches annually across New York City.

The searches disproportionately affected Black, Hispanic and low-income families, according to the findings, “despite the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.”

“These government officers rifle through families’ refrigerators and medicine cabinets and inspect children’s unclothed bodies without informed consent,” the investigation found.

A legal obligation to assess

ACS’ Dannhauser has said he disagreed with some of the bill’s language.

“We have concern to say something like ‘anything can be used against you in a court of law’ track[s] so much to Miranda that we might increase fear,” he said at a state legislative hearing last fall.

Some parents and their advocates say the language is necessary because of longstanding racial disparities in the child welfare system and the trauma inflicted by investigations, which are frequently invasive and unsupported by evidence.

Only 28.2% of ACS investigations last fiscal year resulted in findings of child neglect or the less common offense of abuse, according to the latest Mayor’s Management Report. Black and Latino families make up over 80% of cases, despite those groups representing just over half of the city’s population, a recent study by the New York Civil Liberties Union found.

An unidentified mother filed a lawsuit late last year against the city after being subjected to several ACS probes, none of which faulted her parenting. She claimed the inquiries traumatized her young son — who often jumps out of bed in the middle of the night, afraid a caseworker is at the door — according to the complaint.

The new letters ACS is rolling out inform parents that the agency has received a report about their children and ACS “has a legal obligation to assess the safety of your child(ren) to complete an assessment of the concerns.”

The letters note that ACS requests permission to discuss the alleged concerns and “explain the process.” The document continues: “We want you to know that you have a right to not let ACS into your home.”

The letters go on to say that if parents deny ACS entry into their home, the agency is “required by law to determine how best to assess the safety of your child(ren),” including by requesting a judicial order from family court.

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