Friday, March 8, 2024

Is this guy the most helpless “child welfare” leader in America? His own comments suggest the answer is yes.

New York City Administration for Children's Services
Commissioner Jess Dannhauser


Poor Jess Dannhauser.  The head of New York City’s family police agency, the Administration for Children’s Services, says he’s really, truly concerned (though apparently not much more) about all those families and children traumatized by needless investigations and strip-searches resulting from all those false allegations, trivial cases or cases in which family poverty is confused with “neglect.”

But sheesh, all that whining!  Over and over again he offers the same response: It’s not my fault!  That mean old state government makes us do it!  And yet, Dannhauser ignored the obvious solution.  That should make us wonder if he really just wants to keep things as they are. 

The latest example to emerge from Dannhauser’s whine cellar is a letter to the editor in the New York Daily News.  That newspaper published an excellent commentary from the city’s family defense providers calling on the City Council and/or the State Legislature to pass a “Family Miranda” law – requiring ACS to tell families their rights.  Because if you don’t know your rights, you don’t have your rights. 

Dannhauser (or some flack in the ACS p.r. department) wrote a letter to the editor that regurgitated his standard excuse.  He writes: 

Anyone can make a report to New York State’s child abuse hotline. If a call about a New York City child is accepted by the state, the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) is required by state law to respond to allegations and assess the safety of the child. ACS can’t choose which families to respond to but must, under law, respond to reports the state accepts. 

He continues: 

A Black child is seven times more likely than a white child to be in a report to the hotline. This is concerning. 

Let me interrupt here: just "concerning"

ACS can’t control calls made or reports accepted, 

Yes, you already said that. 

so we have been retraining mandated reporters on when to appropriately make a report and when, instead, they should connect the family to support. 

Because training is what you do when you don’t want to make real change. 

Here’s what Dannhauser never mentions.  Laws can be amended.  If he doesn’t want to be “required by state law” to do something, why doesn’t he go to the New York State Legislature and ask them to change the law? 

Perhaps if I say that more slowly ACS will understand: Ask. Them. To. Change. The. Law. 

Perhaps I need to say it louder: Ask. Them. To. Change. The. Law. 

The change would be simple: Authorize ACS and its county counterparts across the state to set up their own mechanisms to screen calls and decide if they need to be investigated. 

Of course, asking for such a change doesn’t mean he’ll get it.  But not asking guarantees he won’t.  So I figure there are three possible explanations: 

● It never occurred to him to ask.

● He’s asking but it’s top secret because he wants it to be a surprise and he hates spoilers.

● He likes things the way they are because they enable Maximum Feasible Buckpassing. 

I’m thinking it’s the third one. Because it so benefits both ACS and the state agency that runs the hotline, the Office of Children and Family Services.  That means it also benefits the mayor and the governor.  Here’s why: 

As things stand now, the state has an incentive to screen out fewer cases, since all those false reports become the localities’ problem.  The localities get to go full Dannhauser and say: It’s not our fault that we traumatized all these families with needless investigations and strip-searches, the state made us do it!  And both are in a position where it’s less likely they’ll wind up on the front page of the New York Post for wrongly screening something out.  In short, it works for everyone – except the children and families. 

Oh, and by the way: Nothing Dannhauser wrote in his letter is a reason not to pass family Miranda legislation.  On the contrary, if Dannhauser really believes that often his investigators shouldn’t be knocking on families’ doors at all, isn’t that more reason to make sure those families know their rights? 

The consequences were perfectly illustrated in a new report from the NYC Family Policy Project.  The report found that New York State screens out, proportionately, far fewer reports than the national average. 

As The Imprint reported

The report quotes several parents by first name. Cynthia said that as her CPS investigation dragged on, she couldn’t concentrate at work and eventually lost her job. Her 3-year-old daughter “was so nervous being interrogated by strangers so many times that she started behaving irregularly.” A mom identified as Ruth said she went through five years of “malicious calls,” leaving her anxious and depressed. 

“My daughter wet the bed for three years straight,” she stated. “There has to be some mechanism put in place so you’re not destroying families.” 

Among the report’s many great recommendations: 

“Enabling ACS and county agencies to have discretion to screen out reports” 

It’s not just Jess Dannhauser who needs to answer a question.  Reporters have published his don’t-blame-me-the-state-makes-us-do-it whine over and over.  Why has no reporter ever asked Dannhauser why Dannhauser doesn’t seem to have asked the Legislature to change the law?

UPDATE: I just had an interesting email exchange with an ACS flack:  Here it is, in full:

Kaufman, Marisa (ACS) 

2:52 PM (6 minutes ago)

Hi Richard,

We saw your blog post today.  We are not asking you to make any changes.  We did want to be sure that you were aware that the Commissioner has asked for there to be a review and changes to the state laws related to the SCR. 


As an example, please see our testimony (attached) from the September 2023 Assembly hearing where at the top of page 4 he says, “ We believe that the State should conduct a full review and assessment of SCR practice and policies, as well as mandated reporter laws, and then take actions (legislative or otherwise) to address.”


In addition, in the Imprint article about the hearing it says:


At a public hearing last fall, the head of New York City’s children’s services agency, Jess Dannhauser, said state leaders should conduct a “full review and assessment” of the Statewide Central Register of Abuse and Maltreatment, including a potential overhaul of the relevant statutes.

“We cannot make sufficient progress within the current laws that were written over 50 years ago,” Dannhauser said.


Marisa Kaufman

ACS Division of External Affairs


Richard Wexler 

2:58 PM (3 minutes ago)
to Marisa
I am well aware of that.  Asking for "a full review and assessment" is like asking for "more study," which is another classic copout.  It is not the same thing as going to key legislative leaders and saying: Can you please introduce and pass a law that lets us screen reports.  Why won't you do that?