Why NYC’s Foster Care System is Failing Children

Photo: Bebeto Matthews/AP Photo.
City Public Advocate Letitia James, center, and child advocates hold a press conference announcing a class action lawsuit against the New York City Administration for Childrenu2019s Services (ACS) and the New York State Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) for causing irreparable harm to children, Wednesday, July 8, 2015, in New York.
New York City's foster care system has failed to protect and find stable homes for the thousands of children in its care, alleges a class action lawsuit filed by children's advocates this week. "Foster care is supposed to be safe and temporary. For children in New York City's foster care system, it is neither," alleges the suit, filed Wednesday by children’s activist Marcia Lowry, New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, and lawyers from the firm of Cravath, Swaine & Moore. “Our foster children are suffering physical, emotional, and sexual abuse as a result of a system that fails them every single day,” James said in a statement. “Lives are being ruined during our children’s most formative years, and our legal action seeks to put an end to this injustice.”

It's devastating to children when they don't know where they're going to be.

-Marcia Lowry, Executive Director, A Better Childhood
“Children stay in the foster care system in New York City longer than anywhere else in the country... It's devastating to children when they don't know where they're going to be,” Lowry told Refinery29. In 2014, she founded the advocacy organization A Better Childhood. "Some children are staying in foster care and being physically harmed beyond the psychological damage of not knowing where you're going to live, who your parents are, whether you're going to change schools and make new friends, and who you can count on." In fact, statistics from the New York State Office of Children and Family Services show that in 2013, children in New York State spent 4.2 million days in foster and adoptive homes. Of those 4.2 million days, 2.5 million were spent in New York City. The suit details 10 specific instances of abuse, maintaining that New York City — and in particular the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) and its commissioner, Gladys Carrión — is responsible. The suit alleges that if the system had been more expedient in finding these children — and thousands of others — permanent homes, tragic instances of physical and emotional abuse could have been prevented. The plaintiffs in the suit range from three to 16 years old and are both boys and girls. Some have special needs, and all have spent significant portions of their young lives in the foster care system. Today, none of the child plaintiffs is in a permanent home, which deprives each of them of the stability experts agree is critical for healthy development. But the Administration for Children's Services said the lawsuit is baseless, arguing that the city has made significant and costly — though possibly insufficient — progress since Mayor Bill de Blasio took office. "We have been working closely with the courts, attorneys, parent advocates, advocates for children, provider agencies, and, most critically, the parents and children whose lives are impacted by this system," the ACS told Refinery29 in a statement. "We have made great strides in dramatically shrinking the foster care census and in finding stable, permanent homes for children who must come into care." But the 10 cases detailed in the lawsuit tell a different story. The complaint details the experiences of children who have spent what their advocates believe is far too long in temporary care after trauma struck their households. Though these children's initial removals were legitimate, the suit claims that viable options for permanency have been ignored or overlooked. One child, a three-year-old named Thierry, has spent 21 months in ACS custody. He was removed from his biological mother, a veteran public school teacher, after she alerted child services that his biological father had "held a knife to her throat threatening to kill her, strangled her at least three times, punched her in the face and threw household furniture at her." Thierry remains in ACS custody and has not been reunited with his mother. Another child, two-and-a-half-year-old Ayanna, was removed from her biological mother just three days after birth. Ayanna's mother's boyfriend beat her older sister Angela to death in March 2010. To date, she has still not been adopted. And while the goals for Thierry and Ayanna differ — Thierry wants to be returned to his mother, while ACS hopes that Ayanna will be adopted — neither has come to fruition.

Another child, two-and-a-half-year-old Ayanna, was removed from her biological mother just three days after birth...To date, she has still not been adopted.

Other child-advocacy groups, however, have said the lawsuit is not the way to fix the system's problems. “The filing of this lawsuit is shortsighted,” wrote Tamara Steckler, an attorney with the Juvenile Rights Practice of the Legal Aid Society, in a statement. “This lawsuit is being brought by attorneys who have never represented clients in New York City's foster care system, yet purport to know how to fix it, at a time when foster care numbers are at an all-time low and collaboration is at an all-time high.” But Gretchen Biedl and Michael Willner, foster parents who live on New York's Upper West Side, believe the system is inherently flawed. The couple told Refinery29 about the challenges and rewards of raising foster children. They also shared their experiences with the New York City Family Court, which the city government claims is to blame for delays in transitioning children to permanent homes. According to ACS, the Family Court must "approve of any action taken by ACS with respect to foster care placement or return to parent." According to Biedl and Willner, the approval process drags on for far too long. "I get frustrated when they're asking you the same thing over and over again," Willner said. "They're intrusive. Six months after you have a doctor's approval that you're physically capable [to foster a child], you need another one. They come to your house to do inspections multiple times."
Photo: Courtesy of Gretchen Biedl.
Gretchen Biedl and Michael Willner, New York City foster parents.
Biedl shared a story that brought tears to her eyes. When she was volunteering as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA), she saw a father drive up to New York City from North Carolina to petition for custody of his daughter. "He came regularly," Biedl said. "He wanted her. He would be at the court hearing and the mother would not show up, so they wouldn't give him custody. It went on for months and months while [the child] was languishing in a non-family home." That's why Biedl and Willner are supportive of Lowry's lawsuit. They said they are critical of ACS not because they believe the agency has bad intentions, but because it approaches foster care from a reprehensible policy of quantity over quality. The couple believes that the ACS's focus on hiring more social workers diverts its attention, and its funds, from nonprofits like You Gotta Believe and the Council on Adoptable Children, which are trained in and committed to achieving permanency for foster children. "Creating bureaucracy to solve problems doesn't solve problems; it creates more problems," Willner said, referring to the ACS and Commissioner Carrión's move to hire more than 300 new employees. "What I worry about is just hiring a bunch of people. I know where that goes, and it's not pretty." Biedl added: "The fact of the matter is that the case workers aren't the ones who know how to achieve permanency. The case workers are there to deal with emergency situations. My case workers have never helped me work through a situation; they just ask if I want the kid removed."

My case workers have never helped me work through a situation; they just ask if I want the kid removed.

-Gretchen Biedl, foster parent
The couple also fears the consequences of allowing children to "age out" of the foster care system. According to the 2011 Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth, adults who spent time in foster care have lower-than-average earnings, difficulty paying bills, reliance on government benefits, and high levels of incarceration compared to other adults their age. Since the 1990s, the number of children in foster care in NYC has dropped from 45,000 to less than 15,000. In September 2014, Mayor de Blasio signed a set of laws that require the ACS to compile annual foster care reports that would reveal important information about the number of children who age out of the system, and about high school enrollment and graduation rates for children in the foster care system. Additionally, the laws require the ACS to intensify its efforts to connect children removed from their parents with extended family members. But the groups filing the lawsuit believe that if it succeeds, those initiatives will be reduced to what Lowry, James, and others believe they are — good-faith attempts that have fallen dangerously short.