Monday, May 7, 2012

Child welfare in New York: A poll worker’s rash mistake, and a foster care tragedy

This is not meant to minimize in any way what Andrew and Jessica Schiefer and their children have had to endure at the hands of the New York City Administration for Children’s Services.  But they got off easy.

Their five-year-old daughter was not taken away from the white, middle-class family in Queens.  The allegation against the parents almost certainly will be declared unfounded.  But they’ll never forget the trauma of the interrogation, or the fact that the process will drag on for 60 days, or the fact that the ACS worker will march all over their child’s school poking into the family’s life, or the fact that there will be a file on the family in New York’s Central Register of alleged “child abusers” forever.

Almost none of it was necessary.  But of course, ACS is encouraging more of the same.

Meanwhile, things didn’t go nearly so well for a nonwhite family on Staten Island.  Their child was taken away in a case that raises questions about whether ACS is complying with a class-action consent decree.  The child died in foster care.


According to WNBC-TV, Channel 4, for the Queens family, the story begins on April 26, the day of the Republican primary in New York.  Andrew Schiefer brought his five-year-old daughter with him when he went to vote.  The little girl has eczema, a chronic skin condition characterized by scaly rashes.  From time to time, when they see the family on the street, people ask them about the rash.  The Schiefers answer the question and that is the end of it. 

But a poll worker didn’t bother to ask. Instead, she simply assumed that the rashes were bruises and called the New York State child abuse hotline.  That is exactly what New Yorkers have been encouraged to do year after year by everyone from Mayor Michael Bloomberg on down.  It was easy for the poll worker to give the hotline the name and address – she used the voting records at the polling place.

It was unreasonable of the poll worker to jump to conclusions.  But once she did so, it was reasonable for a child protective hotline to screen in a claim by an eyewitness that she saw a little girl with bruises on her hands and legs.  It was reasonable for ACS to send a caseworker to the door.

But as soon as the parents produced the prescription eczema ointment and the name and contact information for the doctor, that should have been the end of it.

Instead, the “investigation” drags on and the family is dragged through the mud; all so that the caseworker can protect herself from sanction if she doesn’t follow every bureaucratic procedure required in the investigation – and, of course, to protect herself from landing on the front page if she doesn’t do it on any particular case and then something goes wrong.

A previous post to the blog gives a sense of the extent to which a typical family is put through the wringer.  And this excellent story from New York Magazine gives a sense of why caseworkers in New York City are on the defensive.

Both the Schiefers and at least some of the reporters who interviewed them couldn’t understand why they would have a permanent record as a result of such an obvious mistake.  You can blame that on some legislative grandstanding.

In New York State, the standard for having an allegation “indicated” is absurdly low.  It’s essentially a caseworker’s guess.  The caseworker is supposed to check the “indicated” box on a form when she thinks she has “some credible evidence” of abuse or neglect – even when there is more evidence of innocence.

Only when a case can’t meet even that preposterously low standard is the case ruled “unfounded.”  So it’s no wonder that, until 1996, New York State law wisely called for expunging the records of unfounded reports.  But then, after a high-profile case, the death of Elisa Izquierdo, state legislators started falling all over themselves to show who could look tougher on child abuse. So they changed the law, and now, except in very rare cases, families like the Schiefers never can clear their names completely.


The Staten Island case concerns William Monge, his girlfriend, Nicole Fair, and their two children.  They say the only reason their children, a two-year-old and a six-month old, were taken away was what a news story called their “constant fighting.”

Thanks to a settlement in a class-action lawsuit, in New York City it is illegal to take children from a battered mother just because she has been beaten – because of how harmful that is to the children.  (NCCPR’s Vice President, Carolyn Kubitschek was co-counsel for the plaintiffs.)  It’s not clear whether this case violates the letter of that decree, but it sure seems to violate the spirit.

And even if a child must be taken away, the first option is supposed to be placement with a relative.  Monge and Fair say they begged ACS to place the children with relatives.  Instead, they were placed in stranger care. Now, the infant is dead.  According to WABC-TV, channel 7:

The baby died Monday night after being rushed to the hospital from her foster mother's Steuben Street home on Staten Island.  Sources now tell Eyewitness News the baby had a 105-degree fever and marks consistent with past trauma. The medical examiner says results of an autopsy are inconclusive, pending further study.

Meanwhile, back at Channel 4, reporter Melissa Russo was making the classic reporter’s error in these cases, using her closing “stand-up” concerning the Schiefer case to parrot the ACS party line.  Said Russo:

As difficult as this situation might be for this family, too often we’re out here reporting on tragic stories where a caseworker does not do the minimum amount of investigation or neighbors don’t say something when they see something.  So ACS tells us, when in doubt, when you suspect child abuse, it’s always better to err on the side of caution.

But there was nothing cautious about what that poll worker did.  And there certainly was nothing cautious about the behavior of the ACS worker on Staten Island who took two children from a couple and sent them to a foster home where one of those children died.  On the contrary, these were profoundly reckless acts. 

And the real reason for those horror stories Russo mentions, in which a caseworker doesn’t do enough, almost always is because caseworkers are overwhelmed wasting hour after hour day after day on cases like the one against the Schiefers in order to protect not the children, but themselves.  The more people take the advice of Russo (and Bloomberg’s and ACS) and call in anything and everything, the more likely it is that workers will be further overloaded with false allegations and have even less time to find children in real danger.