Poor and at risk of losing their kids: Moms and dads under ACS investigation deserve more legal help

by Editorial Team

Poor New Yorkers of color aren’t receiving the same access to justice that wealthy families do, and the city agency charged with supporting families, the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), wants it to stay that way. ACS overwhelmingly investigates poor black and brown families, and most often for “neglect” allegations. It also runs the foster-care system.

The City Council has proposed giving parents meaningful access to legal representation during an ACS investigation; like a suspect facing arrest, parents being investigated would have the chance to access legal help. Opponents of the bills claim access will make investigations more “adversarial,” even implying that children will be endangered.

The first problem with this narrative is that it is not attorneys, but rather social workers who are members of the attorney’s legal teams that primarily support parents during an ACS investigation. Four agencies now offer this support — our own Center for Family Representation (which provides free legal and social work services to low-income families whose children are at risk of foster care), Brooklyn Defender Services, Bronx Defenders and Neighborhood Defender Services — though not to the scale that is needed for the 55,000 parents ACS investigates each year.

Rather than make investigations more adversarial, our social workers help parents understand a confusing and scary process and help them engage productively in mandatory ACS meetings, with caseworkers, many of whom parents mistrust. They are trained to assess and address issues related to substance use or mental health. They do push back — when they believe ACS wants a parent to engage in services that aren’t needed — but in many cases they do the work to find daycare or therapists, or secure benefits that help parents raise their children safely.

In other words, access to us often means more collaboration, all directed toward family safety and preventing foster care.

Second, our assistance does not endanger children. We must focus on child safety. Why? Because parents are usually in the best position to understand risk factors in their homes. We have little to gain by advising parents to refuse to cooperate with ACS, because when poor parents exercise that right, there is a greater risk that ACS will summon them to court or take their children.

Perhaps most important, we want our clients’ first contact with ACS to be their last. To do that, we have to focus on safety.

Family separation is at best overwhelming, and very often traumatic for children and parents. And parents fear it constantly, particularly in communities where generations have been over-policed and lost children to foster care, sometimes forever. Our presence doesn’t intensify that feeling; rather, it can reassure parents, because they want to keep their children and mitigate the serious legal consequences an investigation can bring.

More important, ACS workers can consult with attorneys all through the process. Why shouldn’t parents, who risk losing their sons and daughters, get the same chance?

Several years ago, our agency piloted a partnership with ACS to give parents access to our services during an investigation. Though it was a small pilot, we avoided a court prosecution 80% of the time. Families accessed services and exercised their rights. Children were safe. Money was saved.

Certainly, figuring out how to give parents this access to counsel will be complicated. But that is not a reason to oppose it.

The City Council is not proposing to limit ACS authority. When children are at imminent risk of harm, ACS would retain the power to remove them. Parents already have the right to refuse a drug test or let ACS speak to their children outside their presence.

When faced with the formidable power of ACS, parents with means do call attorneys; most poor parents don’t know they can. The City Council has the opportunity to level an important playing field for families and children of color, one that has life-altering consequences. It must seize it.

READ FROM SOURCE: https://www.nydailynews.com/opinion/ny-oped-poor-and-at-high-risk-of-family-separation-20191214-666f5zyjyjb7bextlauufdiewy-story.html

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