'Momentous' report highlights bias against black families in child welfare

A federal civil rights committee has released a first-of-its-kind report describing persistent discriminatory treatment of Black families in New York state’s child welfare system. It calls for the president and Congress to recognize “a new paradigm of child welfare,” one that emphasizes family preservation over “reporting, investigating, surveillance, and family separation.”

Of note in the 137-page report produced by the volunteer panel advising the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights: A number of the group’s eight recommendations focus on shifting away from the longstanding, nationwide practice of “mandated reporting.” Advocates and parents who testified at public hearings over the past two years say that system has produced a flood of baseless abuse and neglect allegations phoned in to authorities, with terrified families left in the wake of visits from child protective services.

The report cites decades of research highlighting the “racial disproportionality and disparities” at every stage of the system — from initial CPS investigations to placement changes and the terminations of parental rights.

“Once in foster care, Black children receive fewer and poorer quality services, are separated from their families for longer periods, are less likely to be reunified, and are significantly less likely to be adopted when reunification is unlikely,” it states.

The report also quotes a joint statement from four of New York City’s leading family legal defense organizations, who described a harmful and self-perpetuating dynamic evident in CPS investigations: “Black parents are not given the benefit of the doubt and are rarely believed by the caseworkers, their supervisors, social service providers and court-system prosecutors that purportedly represent the interests of the family but who actually treat these cases more like criminal prosecutions.”

To combat systemic discrimination, in addition to changing mandated reporting laws, the committee called for the nation’s leaders to revise or repeal strict federal timelines for permanently severing parents’ rights to their children, and to prioritize direct cash and housing assistance for families in need so that foster care removals can be avoided altogether.

Angela Burton, a former top advisor to the New York State court system, called the report “momentous.”

“This is a very significant and important milestone in the movement to address and redress the harms of the system that have been imposed on Black families and all families that have been involved for so many generations,” Burton said in an interview.

She also said she hopes the recommendations will increase support for bills that have been stalled in the Legislature for years and remain pending in the 2024 session ending next week.

Current reform bills would: require parents to be informed of their rights at the onset of a CPS investigation; ensure that hospitals receive written consent from birthing moms before they and their newborns are drug-tested in hospitals; and allow parents whose children have been adopted to contact their children with a judge’s permission.

Years of tension

The New York advisory committee is overseen by the United States Commission on Civil Rights, a bipartisan Washington, D.C. agency that examines discrimination in areas such as voting rights and police brutality. The federal commissioners appoint volunteers to each of its state committees who advise on civil rights issues affecting their communities.

Ultimately, the state groups presents their findings to the federal commission, which can produce its own national reports that will be delivered to Congress and the president. New York’s committee took up discrimination against Black people in the child welfare system in 2022, a topic of choice now under review in at least two other states, staff members from the D.C. office told The Imprint.

Its final report announced Wednesday was produced after years of at-times tense and emotional public meetings. The hearings included testimony by child welfare scholars, advocates for children and low-income families, parents and former foster youth, and city and state officials.

Because the U.S. Commission’s regulations require local advisors to be ideologically diverse — including liberals, moderates or conservatives — meetings are expected to involve rigorous debate. But as the New York hearings dragged on and the final report began to circulate, the local committee’s internal strife grew more contentious. When first launched two years ago it had more than a dozen members. Seven signed the final report.

Bryanne Hamill, a former family court judge who had championed the child welfare inquiry as committee chair, abruptly resigned in January, citing attacks by some members of the public and another committee member.
The New York civil rights committee in 2017, before the resignation of chair Bryanne Hamill, pictured at left. Provided photo.

In April, two conservative members resigned in protest, rejecting the investigation’s premise that racial bias is driving disparities in the New York child welfare system. They warned that the committee’s proposed reforms could harm children.

Other members critiqued proposals to end mandated reporting of child abuse and neglect and curb non-consensual drug testing of birthing moms and babies, citing fears that such changes could cause more harm than good.

Though he acknowledged that the current system has caused significant trauma and requires reform, former committee member Rafael Mangual — a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute think tank —  dismissed the majority of his former committee’s recommendations. He said they would leave children “vulnerable and exposed.”

Mangual described his peers’ “pathological obsession with racial disparity” in an essay published by The Free Press. In an interview with The Imprint he pointed to some of the personal testimony the panel received from accused Black mothers.

“I don’t think that the handful of stories that we heard justify the radical nature of the recommendations being made,” he said. “The report is really built around concerns about parental rights and not concerns for child welfare, which is kind of the fundamental distinction that drove a wedge between certain members of the committee and others.”

Progress noted

The report notes some progress in New York and nationwide to combat discrimination in the child welfare system. It described acknowledgement of racial disproportionality by leaders of the state’s Office of Children and Family Services,  and their efforts to address it.

In a statement submitted to the panel, Acting Commissioner Miles-Gustave wrote, “the research presented before this Committee details the long and painful history of the child welfare system built on racist principles, and their continuing negative impact on Black communities.”

She also touted the agency’s “race-blind” removal process to determine whether children should be taken from their homes, and the required implicit bias training for child welfare workers statewide. Another sign of dramatic change: The number of children in foster care in New York City has plummeted from more than 55,000 in the 1990’s to fewer than 7,000 last year.

Eric Brettschneider, who held top positions in city and state agencies over a more than 50-year career, said the report would resonate with legislators. He acknowledged that his views on mandated reporting have evolved.

“I’ve been in the field for a long time and had not reached the point where I thought these recommendations were necessary,” he said. But now, as professionals in a growing number of fields are required to report any suspected abuse or neglect, he added, “We need to find new ways to protect children without thinking there’s something magical about adding new mandated reporters.”

The civil rights advisory panel’s report joins a slew of recent reports taking a critical look at the child welfare system and mandated reporting, including those produced by a United Nations subcommittee and the New York State and American Bar Associations, which identified significant problems with racism in the foster care courts.

The data highlighted by the New York civil rights group illustrated the concerns: In 2019, 22% of New York’s City children were Black, but they made up 41% of children involved in CPS investigations and more than 53% of children in foster care a year later.

The children are growing up in communities that have suffered generations of poverty, the report noted, with parents who face “lack of stable and adequate housing or income, lack of access to medical or child care, a substance use disorder, or a mental health condition.”

Redefining ‘neglect’

The civil rights committee highlighted another concerning set of statistics: In health care settings, Black children with fractures are more likely to be suspected of being physically abused by parents than white children with similar injuries. “Educational neglect” reports about Black children are phoned in to the state hotline from educators at higher rates than calls about white children who miss school.

Committee member Iris Chen, who spent decades working as an educator and K-12 charter school board member, told The Imprint she was shocked by the high percentage of children affected by the child welfare system, many of whom she may have taught in her classroom.

“How can I have been so ignorant?” she said. “I’m interacting with these very same families. What about people who aren’t even involved with K-12 kids? People have no idea of the magnitude and reach of the system.”

Parents shared firsthand accounts with the committee of their traumatic experiences with CPS.

Kmea Jones, a parent and former foster youth, told the committee the flawed system of supervised visits causes generational harm.

“I love my children and I want to see them, but the foster care agencies often take away my in-person visits,” Jones said. “How would you feel if someone was limiting the amount of time you got to see your children? It makes parents like myself feel less than a human. It makes children feel like they can’t trust their parent.”

Another parent, Ericka Brewington, testified before the committee about agencies ignoring significant cultural differences between Black and white families, and prioritizing wealth over biological connection.

“According to this system, if you have money, that means you’re a better parent,” Brewington said. “Everything I do is for the betterment of my children. But if you’re Black or brown, once ACS knocks on your door, you are already guilty.”

From The Imprint Youth and Family News