Thursday, January 10, 2019

Foster care in New York: What’s worse than being “docked for the time you were up in the sky”?

Do 19th century railroad barons and  21st century child
protective services agencies really have anything in common?
Unfortunately, yes.

When I was in middle school music class, we learned a 19th Century folk song about the workers who built the railroads – and how they were oppressed by their bosses.  It’s called Drill Ye Tarriers Drill.  It tells the story of a man named Jim Goff who was blown “a mile in the air” by an explosion.  What happened next?  See the lyrics below – or just let The Weavers tell you:

Next time payday came around
Jim Goff a dollar short was found
When he asked "What for?" came this reply:
"You was docked for the time you was up in the sky."

Of course that’s just a folk song.  In real life no one would ever - - ah, but any regular reader of this blog will know where this is going.

Meet child welfare’s Jim Goff.  Her name is Stella B. – she doesn’t dare give her full name for fear of reprisal from New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS).  But here’s what happened to her, as described in this excellent story by Rachel Blustain for the New York City publication City Limits:

Stella B., says she never had the opportunity to be properly investigated because her children, 8 and 17, were removed on an emergency basis and placed with a relative after she was kidnapped by her ex-boyfriend and held for eleven days—a fact confirmed by a letter from the Manhattan district attorney’s office—while child protective services “indicated” a case of neglect against her. [Emphasis added.] A case is deemed “indicated” when investigators contend they have found enough evidence to support the claim that a child has been abused or neglected.

The consequences vary from state to state, but typically it means you are listed on a “central registry” for years, sometimes decades and are barred from any job involving working with children.  And, of course, as in Stella’s case, it can be much worse:

Because of that indication, her children were kept out of her care for four months, and even after their return, her case remained indicated until recently, when she appealed the finding. She allows me to look at the document from New York State’s Office of Children and Family Services that shows the judge’s determination, several years after the fact, that being kidnapped did not make her guilty of neglect. [Emphasis added.]

The theme of the story is the urgent need for high quality family defense – and the need to provide that defense as soon as an investigation begins – as opposed to Stella B’s case, where, as the story notes: “She was provided a lawyer only after ACS took custody of her children and indicated her case.”

Sure, one hopes that 21st century child protective services leaders are more humane than 19th century railroad barons.  And sure, one hopes you wouldn’t need a lawyer at all to explain to a child protective services agency that being a kidnapping victim does not make you guilty of neglect.

But since that seems to be too much to expect of CPS agencies, we really ought to bring in the defense lawyers early.