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.

Stanley was diagnosed with PTSD after being shot in front of his building some years ago. His symptoms, for which he sought treatment on his own, were the subject of much scrutiny during his Family Court case. During a very difficult therapy session, Stanley described a story from his own childhood, which his therapist mistook for a description of what was going on in his home with his children. She then called in a report to ACS, who developed a theory that Stanley was abusive to his wife and children – a theory that was never proven in Court or a part of this family’s reality. From that point on, Stanley experienced a roller coaster of ACS involvement in which his six children were repeatedly removed, or threatened to be removed, from his care. First, his kids were removed then returned after a hearing. Then after a few more hearings, Stanley was excluded from the home and his wife was left to care for their six kids on her own. After another protracted hearing, the kids were removed from her and they went into three different foster homes for five months until they were finally returned home. Sixteen months after ACS filed – after determinedly complying with ACS and proving that he was a caring and devoted father – Stanley’s case was finally closed. And since the case closed, Stanley and his wife have added two more little ones to their brood, totaling a happy family with eight children.

Crystal was one who made it, the one who did best of all of her siblings born to their mother in the so-called “crack baby” epidemic of the 1980s. Against all odds, she found a way to live a positive life, despite having spent her first six months at Lincoln Hospital, with no loving caretaker nearby, in observation after having been born cocaine-exposed. After those six months, she entered the foster care system. In those years, she learned well just how chaotic it could be to be a ward of the state, and knew she would never let her children suffer the same. She has spent her young adulthood parenting her three growing boys perfectly, making them feel secure and reflecting upon the childhood that was taken from her. In October, 2013, her infant fell off the bed as she turned around to grab a clean onesie from a nearby drawer. He hit his head on the bed frame on his way down. She rushed him to the hospital, where doctors did not believe her account of what happened. ACS came to court to remove him from her care. A few months later, ACS resolved the case when a pediatric neurologist confirmed the plausibility of her account, and the prosecuting doctor refused to answer phone calls about the matter. Her case is now closed, and Crystal is able to resume her life as a hard working single mom with her three amazing sons.

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Glenda suffers from dystonia and scoliosis. She first had an ACS case opened, and her children removed, in 2008. At the time she was living with her five children and their father. Times were incredibly hard; the children’s father would perform on the subway to earn money and Glenda stayed home with the children. She had applied for social security but, for reasons she never understood, kept getting denied. The case was called to Court by child protection services because of allegations of “dirty home” and hygiene issues. Glenda’s disability made it difficult for her to keep up with her home and care for her children without additional support. Deeply disillusioned with ACS, the father of the children eventually disappeared. In 2008 Glenda’s five children were removed. In 2009 she gave birth to a baby daughter, Miracle, who was then removed as well. After years of fighting an uphill battle, her youngest daughter Miracle was returned in 2010, and her two sons were returned only in 2013. Though her three other daughters are currently being adopted by a close family friend, Glenda can finally say that her family is together again.

Photos by Andy Vernon-Jones