Child abuse investigations conducted by the Administration for Children’s Services are rife with racial and economic disparities, according to advocates and lawmakers calling for a series of reforms at the agency.

New York City families under investigation by the Administration for Children’s services lack basic protections, such as immediate access to a lawyer or information translated into the parent’s spoken language. City lawmakers say an agency with the authority to substantiate claims of child abuse or neglect, and with the power to separate children from their parents must have more oversight — especially in a system where poor, non-white families are disproportionately represented at disturbing rates.

The vast majority of families under investigation for a report of child abuse or neglect are black or Latino — 74 percent in 2017. (The city must investigate every claim of maltreatment entered into a state system.) Most of those reports, more than 70 percent, were for neglect, not abuse, which advocates say directly relates to poverty, such as poor housing conditions or children missing school.

Mothers have been investigated for drug use, including marijuana, just after child birth, even though state law and ACS policy dictates that a drug test alone cannot be the sole basis for a petition of child neglect in family court.

“We've got to talk about it: It starts with racism,” said Joyce McMillan, a parent advocate with the group Sinergia. “And until everyone can be clear that it is a racist system, just like many other systems and how they work hand in hand, nothing's going to change.”

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The lawmakers, members of the City Council’s progressive caucus, last week introduced nearly a dozen bills aimed at securing parents’ rights and requiring more enhanced reporting by ACS on its investigations.

“If you just take a second to think about the dynamic between a parent and the state, that dynamic is asymmetrical,” Councilman Steve Levin said at a rally for the legislation outside City Hall. “The parent has a very little amount of power and the state has an enormous amount of power.”

Several of the bills propose securing families’ rights. One measure would provide parents with legal counsel from the outset of an investigation. As it stands now, families are appointed an attorney only if a case is brought to family court. The vast majority of families involved in an ACS investigation cannot afford to hire their own lawyers, public defenders said.

Another pair of bills would require ACS staff to inform parents of their rights during an investigation  — including where their child is being taken if the child is removed and contact information for ACS staff handling the case — and that this information, along with other disclosures, be provided in the parents’ spoken language.

McMillan and other parents and advocates have described ACS’s investigative process as punitive and controlling. They said parents are put under scrutiny with little access to information.

Problems compound, even years after a case has been closed, because a state database keeps files on parents who have substantiated cases of maltreatment. The state has no mechanism for differentiating cases of relatively minor neglect reports from the most severe abuse cases, and having an open file in the database can affect a parent’s employment options for up to 28 years. (Lawmakers in Albany recently passed measures to reform the database, and the bill awaits the governor’s signature.)

McMillan called the entire system a vestige of slavery.

“We have to look at the fact that these parents in 2019 have no due process, just like we didn't have any due process during the plantation days,” she said. “Kids are removed out of the home, pre-warrant from the court, pre- any information from the court, under the guise of protecting them.”

The bills require ACS to report the race and income of families at every stage of the child welfare system. That includes families under initial investigation; those with cases in family court; children placed in foster care; and children separated from their parents by emergency powers, when ACS fears that a child is in imminent danger and must be removed from the household immediately, before there is time to get a required court order. WNYC reported earlier this year that the city used its emergency powers nearly half the time, 47 percent, when it removed children from their parents in 2018.

The city has reduced the foster care population dramatically over the past two decades, and it removes children at a lower rate than other large cities, according to data compiled by the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. But ACS is aware of the need to address issues, particularly racial disparities.

“Our top priority is the safety and well-being of New York City’s children,” said Marisa Kaufman, an ACS spokeswoman. “ACS has made substantial reforms over the last two years and is a national model for decreasing the number of children in foster care, providing legal counsel for families in investigations as well as other key areas, and we’re always continuing to improve. We look forward to reviewing the City Council’s proposals.”

City Council members expect to hold a hearing on the legislation by the end of October.

Yasmeen Khan is a reporter covering crime and policing at WNYC. You can follow her on Twitter @yasmeenkhan.