Defending families in the Bronx: A collection of portraits celebrating family reunification
Families are the building blocks of every community. They are a primary source of identity and support for individuals in American society. However, in the Bronx – home to some of the poorest, most-under-resourced neighborhoods in the country – parents often struggle to retain the right to make basic decisions about their children, and families end up torn apart. Based upon allegations that are rooted in poverty, with little evidence of actual harm, parents in the Bronx can have their children removed from their homes and care and placed with strangers.
Families involved in the child welfare system are among the poorest and most disenfranchised in New York City. Despite myriad studies showing that children are better off staying with their own parents, even in imperfect situations, children in the Bronx are traumatically removed from their homes because their parents have marginal resources or employment, unstable housing, and/or suffer from mental illness or addiction. Each year, these issues cause thousands of children to be taken from their parents and placed in foster care. In 2012, Bronx County had the highest number of children entering foster care in all of New York City, with 1,428 placements, or approximately 30% of the total foster care placements for the whole city. In the Bronx, these families are often over-prosecuted simply for being poor. Once in the child welfare system, children often languish in foster homes as their parents attempt to meet the court’s requirements to secure their return. Without a strong legal defense and the social work resources to address and resolve the problems that brought them there, many families will continue to cycle in and out of Family Court for years at a time, sometimes generation after generation – destabilizing their lives, families, and community in the process.
The Bronx Defenders has been providing holistic advocacy for parents involved in the child welfare system for almost ten years. We started with a small grant in 2005, and two years later, as a result of our success in keeping families intact in the Bronx, The Bronx Defenders became the first institutional provider of legal representation and advocacy for parents in Bronx Family Court. Today, The Bronx Defenders represents parents in 85% of abuse and neglect cases in the Bronx Family Court system. We have served more than 6,000 families, impacting the lives of 12,600 children. Our dedicated Family Defense Practice attorneys, social workers, and parent advocates defend parents against the painful and unnecessary removal of their children.
In recognition of the struggles that many families go through in the Family Court system, the American Bar Association designated June as ‘National Reunification Month’ to celebrate the accomplishments of parents in getting their children home. The fight to effectively advocate for and empower families who are systematically disadvantaged and disenfranchised in the criminal justice and child welfare systems is one that is slow and arduous, with some cases lasting months, and most lasting years. The parents who are finally reunited with their children are a source of inspiration for the others who are at the beginning or in the midst of these processes.
Throughout the month of June in the year 2014, through advocacy both inside and outside the courtroom, The Bronx Defenders Family Defense advocates secured reunification for 34 families in which a total of 56 children went home to their parents. For nine clients, our Family Defense advocates succeeded in avoiding removal of 18 children in cases where the New York City Agency for Children’s Services (ACS) was petitioning to have children placed in foster care. For seven more clients whose children were being removed by ACS, Family Defense advocates identified suitable relatives in order to avoid the children staying with strangers while the parent underwent the court-mandated steps to address the risk identified in their home. And a total of six open child protection cases were finally closed, meaning that any and all supervision from ACS ended – cases in which a total of 11 children had been removed and, eventually, reunited with their families.
To commemorate this special month and the importance it holds for our clients and the Bronx community, The Bronx Defenders hosts an annual Celebration of Families event in June. What we thought would be a little party turned out to be an incredibly powerful moment for our clients to step back from their legal cases and reflect on how far they’ve traveled for their children. This is a celebration for our clients in recognition of all they have accomplished to bring their children home.
The following portraits were taken of clients and their families who attended the Celebration of Families event this year and last year. Each client has lived through the experience of having their children removed, and has undergone the arduous process of advocating, together with The Bronx Defenders team, to bring their children home. These portraits, and the accompanying stories, are meant to provide a glimpse into the struggles and triumphs that these clients experienced throughout the process in Family Court. The portraits included represent only clients whose cases have been fully closed. Because so many clients cope with protracted cases for months or years, this collection is far from complete. We will continue to add portraits and stories as cases conclude, to grow a valuable archive that calls attention to the hard work, and the extreme hardships, that these families have endured to stay together.
Photos by Andy Vernon-Jones