The lawyers who represent the New York City child welfare agency in Family Court have been known to complain about how much work they have to do. But some of them seem to have a lot of time on their hands.
The New York Times reports that three lawyers for the city’s Administration for Children’s Services and a fourth from the Legal Aid Society, which represents children in child welfare cases, took pictures of people in Family Court, probably parents and other adult family members, then posted the pictures on Facebook and exchanged crude, demeaning banter about the attire of those they photographed.
According to the Times:
State law … prohibits taking photographs inside a courthouse, including hallways, without permission of the chief administrator of courts. The photos, including one of an obese woman with an emoji superimposed over her face, appeared to have been taken surreptitiously.
ACS Commissioner David Hansell issued the customary denunciation of this behavior, telling the Times that it is “completely inconsistent with our agency culture and expectations…”
But is it?
On the one hand, there are a lot of lawyers working for ACS. There is no evidence that all, or even most of them think this way.
But what does it say about the culture at ACS that even some lawyers felt free to engage in this behavior – and post the results on Facebook? Apparently they did not fear discipline, or even censure from their peers.
● Anthropologist Tina Lee, who spent 14 months “embedded” with all key players in the New York City system wrote in her book, Catching a Case:
I often … witnessed disrespectful or callous comments made about parents and families by attorneys between cases or in hallways and elevators. … I heard attorneys and court officers openly make fun of parents and their problems between cases…
● Lee did her field work at ACS and Family Court in 2008. But Joyce McMillan, Director of Programming for New York’s Child Welfare Organizing Project says:
It has changed only a little. Parents still voice concerns about how they treated regularly. … I have great concern that the legal representatives in this article were so comfortable with their behavior they posted it on social media. This level of disrespect is indicative of a culture that is detrimental to preserving families.
● This story comes just weeks after the Times story about foster care as the new “Jane Crow” – documenting case after case of needless removal of children, rooted in biases against poor people, especially people of color.
● And, of course, Study after study documents both the racial bias and the class bias built into the American child welfare system.
Why should the lawyers be different?
Why should we expect ACS lawyers to be different from the “Blogger of the Year” for the so-called Chronicle of Social Change, an online child welfare trade journal, who, in criticizing the Times story, dredged up an odious racial stereotype.
As she reminds us in every column she writes, the “Blogger of the Year” was a social worker for the Washington, D.C. child welfare agency for five years. The editors of the Chronicle, the Fox News of child welfare, have not apologized or in any way distanced themselves from her hateful column.
And, once again, I hope the rest of America will keep in mind that most systems are worse than the one in New York City.
So the next time New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio or a member of the New York State Legislature whines about judges refusing to simply rubber-stamp ACS recommendations to tear apart families, keep in mind the baggage that some ACS caseworkers and some ACS lawyers are dragging into the courtroom with them.