PAGaullette Healy can tick off the ways her family’s life has been disrupted over the last three months: her younger child’s nightmares, the hours she has poured into collecting evidence to prove she’s a fit parent and an arduous legal process that still looms to clear her name.
From early November through 1 enero, the Brooklyn family was under investigation by the administration for children’s services, or ACS, la Nueva York City agency tasked with looking into suspected cases of child abuse and neglect. Healy had been reported for “educational neglect” for not sending her two children to school amid Covid fears, though she says her kids kept up with their work remotely.
Last fall, the city government issued guidance discouraging educators from reporting parents who kept kids home out of fear when schools reopened. But that has not been enough to stop families motivated by Covid concerns from getting caught up in the web of child protective services – a blunt instrument that disproportionately targets low-income families of color who have already suffered the most harm during the pandemic.
The report that spurred the investigation into the Healy family was one of more than 2,400 that New York City school personnel made to the New York statewide central register for child abuse and maltreatment during the first three months of the 2021-22 school year, according to data obtained by the 74 through a public record request – about 45% more than were reported over the same time span a year prior, when most of the city’s por poco 1 million students were learning remotely.
The highest monthly tally, 1,046, came in November 2021, the same month that ACS and the department of education issued joint guidance instructing schools to have patience with families keeping their children home over Covid concerns, and to avoid jumping to allegations of educational neglect when students don’t show up.
Many of the families ensnared in investigations this school year, including the Healys, say that given the guidance, their ACS reports should never have been made.
Child welfare investigations can have devastating impacts. Charges can stay on parents’ records for years – even in cases like Healy’s, in which the agency ultimately found no evidence of neglect. Job prospects in fields like childcare and education can be erased. And most dire, children can be separated from their parents – a trauma that, studies show, is later associated with elevated risks of mental health challenges, incarceration and even early death.
A spokesperson told the 74 the agency was providing training to professionals working with children on ways to support families without reporting them for neglect.
When New York City announced last fall that schools would open in-person with no option for remote learning, Healy was terrified. She had suffered massive personal losses through the pandemic – more than a dozen of her relatives had died of the virus, ella dijo. She quickly submitted applications for home instruction for both of her kids.
Just before classrooms reopened, the nation’s largest school district made a vow to parents: “The only time ACS will intervene is if there is a clear intent to keep a child from being educated, period,” the then schools chancellor, Meisha Porter, dicho. “We want to work with our families because we recognize what families have been through.”
Even while remote, Healy’s kids were still learning, ella dijo. Both were accessing and submitting coursework and she met with school staff to develop education plans for them.
But in early November, an ACS caseworker knocked on her door. The agency had received a report of suspected educational neglect from a staff member at her younger child’s school.
Healy had understood that a visit from ACS was a possibility. As a member of the advocacy group Press, Parents for Responsive Equitable Safe Schools, she knew of other parents keeping their children home from school during the pandemic who had been investigated. She had even put resources together informing parents of their rights when ACS shows up. But her own investigation took her by surprise. Si algo, she was over-involved in her children’s education, pensó, not neglectful.
“I’ve always inserted myself into the schools whether they wanted me there or not,” Healy joked.
Familiar with her rights as a parent, Healy did not let the caseworker inside the house. But the visit was jarring to the whole family. After the caseworker left, her 14-year-old son, who has autism, paced back and forth for an hour, worried that the unfamiliar woman would return with law enforcement, Healy said. Her 13-year-old child had nightmares, fearing they would be taken away. Even Healy couldn’t avoid creeping thoughts of the worst-case scenario.
“You automatically think: someone’s here to take my kids away,” she told the 74.
Like doctors and nurses, school personnel are mandated by New York state law to report suspected cases of child abuse and neglect to a central hotline. But experts and parents alike have long criticized the practice as potentially harmful to families and prone to racial bias.
Estas organizaciones ya han estado organizando mítines y lanzando eventos para recaudar fondos., aproximadamente 90% of children named in ACS investigations are Black or Hispanic, mientras, together, those racial groups make up 60% of the city’s youth. En 2019, de acuerdo a city data, the lower-income, mostly Black and Latino neighborhood of East Harlem was subject to more than six times as many investigations as the nearby Upper East Side, which is mostly white and affluent. Even among neighborhoods with similar poverty rates, those with greater shares of Black and Hispanic residents face higher rates of child welfare investigations, estudios muestran.
“ACS has long been used to criminalize our families,” said Tanesha Grant, a New York City parent leader who formed the group Parents Supporting Parents for mutual aid throughout the pandemic. Many Black parents, she told the 74, see child protective services as a form of racialized surveillance and punishment.
“ACS is a curse word in our community. ACS is like the police," ella dijo.
An ACS spokesperson pointed out that the agency was legally obliged to investigate all reports fielded by the statewide central register, but added that the dramatic racial and ethnic disparities in those reports year after year was “deeply concerning”.
Under a 2021 Expresar ley, mandated reporters are now required to undergo implicit bias training intended to keep their assumptions from coloring their assessments of parental fitness.
In many cases, said Gabriel Freiman, head of education practices at the legal non-profit Brooklyn Defenders, there was a mismatch between the typical impacts of child protective services investigations and the purpose they were meant to fulfill.
The parents keeping their children out of classrooms this school year, from what he has seen, tend to be highly involved and caring, like Healy. Some are even former PTA heads at their children’s schools.
“These aren’t people who are trying to hurt their children. They’re trying to protect their children,” he told the 74. “ACS is just the wrong tool to employ.”
Cuando, sin previo aviso, ACS showed up at the door of Melissa Keaton’s Flatbush, Brooklyn, apartment in late October, the mother was taken by surprise. Having lost her father, who was a caregiving adult to her nine-year-old daughter, to Covid in April 2020, Keaton chose not to return her traumatized child to her dual language school in Manhattan’s Lower East Side when classrooms reopened. The family was not ready for a two-train commute to and from school each day, Keaton decided. Unlike Healy, she was in the dark about how to navigate the interaction with her caseworker.
“There’s no paperwork. There’s no way of, sabes, finding out: what is this process? How does it work? What is expected of me?” Keaton said.
Parents are not legally obliged to allow investigators without warrants to enter their homes. But many parents assent without realizing they have a choice. If caseworkers find evidence of drug use or other outlawed practices, it can lead to compounding charges and increase the likelihood of child separation.
“Sometimes our families actually find themselves in a deeper hole – not because they’ve done anything wrong, but because ACS comes into the home looking for a problem,” said Taj Sutton, a Press organizer. “They’re going through your refrigerator, your cabinets … asking these really invasive and inappropriate questions of your children.”
The state senator Jabari Brisport, a former educator from Brooklyn, es sponsoring a bill that would require a Miranda-style reading of parents’ rights at the outset of every child welfare investigation.
In Healy’s case, the caseworker fast-tracked her children’s applications for home instruction, helping her younger child recently gain approval for the program. Healy hopes her older son will also soon be approved.
But not everyone is so fortunate.
En diciembre, Keaton’s caseworker told her the agency had found evidence of neglect, based on the school’s allegations of inconsistent summer school attendance in 2019 – allegations Keaton says are “completely false”. The news hit her like a thunderclap, Keaton said, stirring fears of what the findings might mean for her future employment and, sobre todo, whether it opened up the possibility of her daughter being taken away.
Staff at the elementary school did not respond to requests for comment and ACS said that it could not disclose the details of individual cases. Keaton is awaiting paperwork in the mail that will provide insight into the exact reasons the educational neglect allegation was substantiated by ACS. She plans to appeal.
Keaton says she was trying to keep her daughter safe and had been putting together educational assignments for her even though her school had not provided materials. She was also applying for medically necessary home instruction – a process through which the November ACS and education department joint guidance instructs schools to support parents wary of Covid rather than reporting them to child services.
“Based on the guidelines,” said Keaton, “ACS should not have been called.”