Statewide Family Defense Advocates Lay Out Legislative Agenda for 2021

Letter to Cuomo, Stewart-Cousins, and Heastie Calls for Action to Curb Targeting of Low-Income Communities of Color

(New York, NY) – In a recently issued letter, 18 family defense organizations representing thousands of parents across New York State in family court called on Governor Andrew Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie to pass a suite of bills aimed at helping the family regulation system move from a framework of racially-based surveillance and punishment towards a system that supports and empowers Black and brown families.

The letter states:

As New York’s family defense organizations, we write to share our legislative priorities for 2021, which seek to shrink the state’s foster system while offering families and communities the support and resources they need to raise the next generation of New Yorkers. Together, our offices represent thousands of parents and caregivers in child neglect and abuse proceedings in New York family courts every year. Much like the criminal legal system, the family regulation system has been profoundly shaped by structural racism and operates by surveilling and punishing low-income families and communities of color. The system reinforces racial and economic inequality by treating poverty as child neglect, unnecessarily separating families and shifting resources to the foster system rather than providing the support and resources to the families it is meant to serve.

The advocates urged the Legislature to pass the following critical bills:

Prohibit Non-Consensual Drug and Alcohol Testing and Screening of Pregnant and Perinatal People and Newborns – S07955 (Montgomery) / A05478-A (Rosenthal)

Require Caseworkers Investigating Child Maltreatment to Notify Parents and Caretakers of Their Rights – S07553-A (Montgomery) / A09841 (Wright)

Require Non-Mandated Callers Making Reports of Suspected Child Maltreatment to Provide Their Name and Contact Information – S05572 (Montgomery)

Give Judges in Article 10 Matters the Discretion to Grant Adjournments in Contemplation of Dismissal (ACDs) – S06214 (Montgomery) / A11022 (Weinstein)

Allow Post-termination Contact Between Children and Their Birth Parents or Siblings in Termination of Parental Rights Proceedings When in the Best Interest of the Child – S04203 (Savino) / A02199 (Joyner)

The full letter can be found here.

“It is time for New York to reckon with the system that purports to keep children safe, but actually terrorizes and harms Black, brown and marginalized families,” said Emma Ketteringham, Managing Director of the Family Defense Practice at The Bronx Defenders. “The family regulation system needlessly separates children from their parents and subjects families to traumatic surveillance. As public defenders representing low-income parents in the Bronx, we see first-hand how families are unnecessarily entangled in the family regulation system by a “test and report” system that subjects pregnant people and newborns to non-consensual drug testing. And we see the devastating mistakes and rushes to judgment made by ACS when our clients are not informed about their rights during investigations by child protective services. The Bronx Defenders calls on Governor Cuomo and the Legislature to prioritize legislation that will shrink the family regulation system and protect the rights and wellbeing of New York families.”

“If passed, these reforms would be a huge step forward in reforming the family regulation system to make it focused on keeping families together and upholding the rights of parents, rather than being punitive,” said Susan Bryant, Executive Director of the New York State Defenders Association.

“It is time to bring the same level of scrutiny to the family regulation system that we bring to other government systems that have the power to disrupt families’ lives. Structural racism has permeated our efforts to protect children and far too often our system has ended up harming those it is intended to help,” said Chris Gottlieb, co-director of the Family Defense Clinic at NYU School of Law. “The first step toward making rights meaningful is making sure people know what they are. We call on all advocates for children and families to join together to take that step now.”

“Families deserve respect. The so-called ‘Child Welfare’ system is really a Family Regulation System; and it has over-scrutinized, investigated, and surveilled Black and Brown families, while resting on the false premise that this regulation and separation are necessary to keep children safe,” said Michele Cortese, Executive Director of the Center for Family Representation, which serves 2400 parents investigated each year. “It’s time to give families the respect they deserve by ensuring they have the information they need to protect themselves during government investigations. We call on the Legislature and Governor Cuomo to support New York’s most vulnerable families by enacting legislation that prioritizes support over regulation and keeping families together over separation.”

“As public defenders representing low-income parents in Brooklyn family and criminal courts, we see how both systems harm communities of color,” said Lauren Shapiro, Managing Director of Brooklyn Defender Services’ Family Defense Practice. “Just as the criminal legal system disproportionately targets people of color and separates families through arrest and mass incarceration, so too the family regulation system surveils and separates families living in poverty. Resources should instead be invested directly into impacted communities and toward helping and supporting families. We urge Albany to enact this slate of legislation that will minimize the traumatic impact of this system on families of color, and instead empower and protect parents’ rights and keep families together.”

“Racism is just as embedded in the family destruction system as it is in policing and our criminal courts. ACS and the broader family destruction system exist to surveil, seize and separate Black and brown children, consciously perpetuating the systemic and structural destruction of Black and brown families by the government in Upper Manhattan,” said Alice Fontier, Managing Director of Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem. “The constant surveillance has devastated the Northern Manhattan neighborhoods we serve. ACS is punishing Black and brown families for being poor instead of providing support and the outcomes speak for themselves: just six percent of children in foster care in New York City are white. We demand Governor Cuomo and state legislators act swiftly in eliminating the racialized surveillance of the family destruction system and replacing it with community-based infrastructure that allows Black and brown families to thrive.”