Fracturing Families: The Sources of Segregation in New York’s Foster Care

Morrisania is one of the most heavily policed neighborhoods in the Bronx. Despite living in a public housing complex there, Maria was surprised when police officers arrived at her home one March night in 2009, immediately searching the small, two-bedroom apartment where she lives with her children, Anthony, 17, and Ava, 12. Maria, who is in her early fifties and wheelchair-bound due to a disability, was not the target of the warrant. The cops had received a tip that Anthony, still in high school, had been selling marijuana out of his mother’s apartment. Yet Maria and her husband were the ones zip tied and arrested in front of their children.

Criminal charges against Maria and her husband were eventually dismissed. Despite this, New York City’s Administration of Child Services (ACS), which investigates cases of child abuse and neglect, took Ava to a foster care facility on the East Side of Manhattan and opened a case against her parents. Ava would spend the next year shifting from group homes to foster families, only able to see her mother at ACS offices. Maria was forced to go to a drug treatment program in order to regain custody of her daughter, even though she did not test positive for any illicit substance. After a year of bureaucratic chaos, Maria was finally able to reunite with her daughter. That year was time neither of them would ever get back.

Ava is not alone as a poor child of color wrested from her family. New York City’s child welfare system is arguably the most racially segregated in the country, with black and Latino children making up 92 percent of the foster care system. African-Americans, who represent only 25 percent of the population in New York City, account for 56 percent of the foster children in the city. Only 4 percent of children in foster care are white. America’s child welfare system, originally set up by well-intentioned individuals trying to help children, is in reality destroying black and Latino families, especially those afflicted by poverty.

A 2008 study revealed that an estimated 71 percent of the 3.3 million cases of child abuse recorded in the United States that year were cases of neglect, challenging the narrative that violent abuse is the most prevalent type. Child neglect is defined as “the failure to provide adequate health care, supervision, clothing, nutrition, housing as well as their physical, emotional, social, educational and safety needs.” But economic resources are a fundamental factor in whether families can meet these needs: Those who lack the money to provide for their children are more likely to be charged with neglect, regardless of their intent. Simply put, what looks like neglect is often the result of constraints poverty places on families.

The intimate relationship between poverty and charges of neglect means that families—and particularly families of color—are often punished and torn apart for even the smallest infractions. Families residing in marginalized communities, such as the South Bronx, are 22 times more likely than white families to interact with the ACS. Child welfare institutions are increasingly criminalizing mothers of color across the country for being poor.

This fits into a larger trend of disproportionate increases in imprisonment of women. Since 1985, the number of women in the criminal justice system has increased at nearly double the rate for men, with many women being incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses. A little-discussed side effect of locking up women is how the criminal justice system affects the more than 2.7 million children left behind when their mothers go to jail. In the United States, more than 60 percent of incarcerated mothers have children under the age of 18. Approximately half of those children are under the age of 10, and these young children may have an especially difficult time maintaining a relationship with a parent that’s in prison. And the notorious Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 created incentives to construct prisons in rural areas, meaning imprisoned parents can be held more than 100 miles from their homes, making family visits difficult, if not impossible.

While over-policing in urban neighborhoods—exemplified by the backlash and reversal of the NYPD’s much lamented “stop and frisk” policy—is a well-documented disaster, the intrusive policies officials rely on to separate families remain under-covered. But for poor parents and children harmed by imprisonment, the disparities that these policies create are all too real. “When you walk into the court, you think ‘white people must not deal with issues of mental health or substance abuse issues’ because they simply are not present in family court, which we obviously know is not true” states Emma Ketteringham, the managing director of the Family Defense Practice at the Bronx Defenders. Even Gladys Carrion, former ACS commissioner under Mayor Bill de Blasio, acknowledged that along with racism, “over-surveillance of families in poor neighborhoods” plays an outsized role in creating these racial disparities.

Families living in public housing or homeless shelters do not have much privacy. Spaces are staffed 24/7 by security guards and social workers who are legally obligated to report to ACS if they witness anything out of the ordinary, which can happen frequently and randomly in such cramped places. A system so powerful yet so capriciously applied leaves plenty of room for bureaucratic abuse. Across New York, the threat of an agency removing children has become a weapon landlords use to force out lower-paying tenants in gentrifying neighborhoods. Ketteringham explains that “we do see cases where neighbors or people who want to cause trouble call into ACS. Everyone knows it’s the best way to blow up somebody’s life.”

The combination of near-constant surveillance and extreme punishment for poverty-linked negligence frequently leads to the removal of children from their homes, spelling disaster for families. When children are taken away after a parent is charged with a crime, the family often becomes ensnared in a well-meaning but destructive system. “Parents can be kicked out of [public] housing for arrests, often leading them to resort to single-sex shelters. This then prevents them from getting their children back from ACS until they are in a family shelter—yet with no children, there is no access to family shelter,” creating a vicious cycle, says Helene Barthelemy of The Nation.

The kids face real harm, too: Research shows that children in foster care have worse outcomes on both short- and long-term measures. Placement in foster care has been linked to increases in behavioral, psychological, developmental, and academic problems. One in four foster children ends up behind bars two years after leaving the system. Only 3 percent of foster children graduate from college. Even short-term removals that are quickly reversed can have lasting effects on vulnerable children.

If the goal of the child welfare system is genuinely to protect children from abuse and neglect, parents should be able to reach out and ask for support without risk of separation. But today, many families in the Bronx fear ACS social workers more than the police. When this is the understanding between the child welfare system and the community it serves, the system is failing. According to Ketteringham, in order to solve the problems deeply entrenched in the child welfare system, “we need to transform, not reform, it, starting with the idea that permanency is more important than reuniting families.”

As a nation, we must address how we look at poverty. On both sides of the aisle, social welfare has become increasingly associated with behavioral expectations. Until we stop thinking of child neglect and child welfare issues as results of deficient characteristics and start acknowledging their deep relationship to poverty, we will continue to turn a blind eye to the larger problem of child welfare and continue to do harm to the children that public policy is trying to protect. For all the Avas and Marias of the world, maintaining the status quo is simply unacceptable.

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