Monday, August 22, 2011

Foster care in New York City: Reefer madness at ACS!

In case anyone still is wondering why caseworkers at the New York City Administration for Children’s Services sometimes don’t have time to do thorough investigations of cases where children are in real danger, an explanation turned up on the front page of The New York Times last week.

According to the Times:

Hundreds of New Yorkers who have been caught with small amounts of marijuana, or who have simply admitted to using it, have become ensnared in civil child neglect cases in recent years, though they did not face even the least of criminal charges, according to city records and defense lawyers. A small number of parents in these cases have even lost custody of their children.

For these parents, the child welfare system has become an alternate system of justice, with legal standards on marijuana that appear to be tougher than those of criminal courts or, to some extent, of society at large. In interviews, lawyers from the three legal services groups that the city hires to defend parents said they saw hundreds of marijuana cases each year, most involving recreational users.

A spokesman for ACS, Michael Fagan offered up a sleazy response that lumps together use of marijuana with cocaine and heroin. (I’ll bet he was really proud of that.)  Fagan argues, in effect, that marijuana use is a gateway allegation.  According to the Times:

“Drug use itself is not child abuse or neglect, but it can put children in danger of neglect or abuse,” Mr. Fagan said. “We think the argument that use of cocaine, heroin or marijuana by a parent of young children should not be looked into or should simply be ignored is just plain wrong.”…

But lawyers for parents countered that the agency often brought neglect charges based solely on recreational marijuana use, then searched later for other grounds to bolster cases.

The handling of these cases in New York City also is one more example of the racial bias that permeates child welfare.  From the Times story:

Over all, the rate of marijuana use among whites is twice as high as among blacks and Hispanics in the city, the data show, but defense lawyers said these cases were rarely if ever filed against white parents.

And it contrasts with other jurisdictions.  Again from the Times story:

California, where the medical marijuana movement has flourished, now requires that child welfare officials demonstrate actual harm to a child from marijuana use in order to bring neglect cases, and defense lawyers there say the authorities are now bringing fewer of them.

 The harm should be obvious: Children traumatized by needless investigations, courts overloaded with ridiculous cases and, in some cases, children even forced into foster care.  There’s also the time, money and effort wasted on these cases that is stolen from finding children in real danger.


The reefer madness at ACS is just the latest example to come to light of the unfortunate legacy of  John Mattingly, the ACS commissioner who presided over huge increases in children taken from their homes and opposed one progressive initiative after another.

Ironies abound.

For one thing, one of the organizations making a point of calling attention to the story and, in particular, to a highly-critical commentary about the ACS policy on a Time Magazine blog, is Casey Family Services -  the direct service arm of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, where Mattingly worked before becoming ACS Commissioner (and where he recommended funding NCCPR) and where Mattingly now has returned.

For another, this story might never have come to light if not for one reform on which Mattingly did not renege – his support for strong institutional providers of legal representation for families caught in the ACS net.  Much of the information in the Times story comes from those providers, The Center for Family Representation, The Bronx Defenders and the Brooklyn Family Defense Project.

The story illustrates not only the enormous value of such high-quality legal assistance, but also why it’s important for these organizations to speak out publicly about the families they represent.

And finally, this story is the first test for the new ACS Commissioner Robert Richter. A change in the ACS pot policy would send a good signal to the frontlines at ACS, and spare a lot of children a lot of grief.