Dee, a Brooklyn grandmother, awoke at around midnight last Spring to banging on her door. Workers from the city's Administration for Children’s Services were there to investigate an anonymous tip that her 10-year-old grandson was being mistreated.

“It happened so fast,” Dee recalled. Gothamist is identifying her only by a nickname because she fears further ramifications for her grandson, for whom she is the primary caregiver. “They’re here. They want to come in.”

She said the investigators searched her home and interviewed her grandson before taking him away that night in tears, without any explanation of who had complained or what she was accused of. When she finally was able to be heard in court about three days later, a judge ordered her grandson returned to her care.

He was among the 1,459 children taken from their homes by ACS last fiscal year, in what’s called an “emergency removal” — when caseworkers deem there’s an “imminent danger to the child's life or health,” before a judge approves or mandates the child be taken out of their family’s custody. When those cases went before a judge, ten percent were scrapped, according to city data. Advocates say the law is vague and a lot is left to case workers’ discretion, which allows racial inequities to persist.

But so far there’s little by ways of an official mechanism to hold the city agency accountable. The removals disproportionately affect Black New Yorkers, according to city data, and most families affected can’t afford legal representation to sue when they've been wrongfully targeted.

A newly formed civil rights organization called the Family Justice Law Center aims to end this type of family separation, along with a myriad of other issues within the children's services agency. The group’s founder, attorney David Shalleck-Klein, said it will target ACS with lawsuits — the same way New York Civil Liberties Union or Legal Aid regularly sue the police and corrections departments to force policy changes.

“Predominantly low-income children of color are unnecessarily traumatically and illegally taken from their families across New York,” Shalleck-Klein said in an interview. “These are illegal government actions that constitute civil rights violations. No organization focuses solely on vindicating families rights in court by initiating legal action against government agencies that flagrantly violate the law.”

Dee said the lack of accountability for the agency was among the more galling aspects of her experience. A year later, she said her grandson still has bursts of anger she can’t seem to assuage.

“Nobody apologized.” she said. “No, ‘I’m sorry for the trauma that I caused you and your grandson.’”

According to data provided by ACS only 4 percent of the agency’s 68,845 investigations ended in a child being placed into foster care last fiscal year. About half of those children were taken away from their guardians in an “emergency removal” before a judge had a chance to weigh the facts. Though in those emergency situations a judge eventually did sign off on the child’s removal 83 percent of the time, according to ACS. .

They check your home more thoroughly than a police officer with a warrant.
Joyce McMillan, founder of JMac for Families

Taking children away from their families is a last resort, the agency argues, to protect at-risk children, about 15 of whom are murdered in their homes each year. Officials also point out the number of children in foster care has
gone down dramatically over the past two decades — from about 17,000 children a decade ago, to 7,639 in the last fiscal year.

“ACS is committed to being responsive to the needs of children and families,” said agency spokesperson Christopher Rucas. “We are continuing to develop new ways, in partnership with government and community organizations, to keep children safely at home while carrying out our legal responsibility to keep New York City children safe.”

Advocates have long pointed to the racial disparities within child protective services systems in New York City and across the country. Nationwide, more than half of Black children are subject to some child protective investigation before they turn 18, according to a 2016 study published in the American Journal of Public Health — that's 37.8% average for all children and nearly twice the rate of white children. Though Black and Latino children account for 60 percent of kids in the city, they make up 86 percent of the investigations ACS conducts, according to a 2020 analysis by the agency.

And even if the investigation doesn’t lead to a child’s separation from their family, advocates say it still inflicts trauma on guardians and children. .

“They check your home more thoroughly than a police officer with a warrant,” said Joyce McMillan, founder of JMac for Families, a group that helps families navigate encounters with ACS. “They check your drawers. They take your kids clothes off and check for marks and bruises.”

School tardiness and absences, unkempt hair or dirty clothes are among some of the many things people can report anonymously to ACS and trigger an investigation, the types of things that are often more related to poverty than abuse, McMillan said. Investigations can last for more than three months, and involve surprise visits from case workers, during which a child can be removed at any time.

When children are placed into foster care, families can spend months and even years trying to regain custody, sometimes caused by bureaucratic delays at family court.

Critics argue the ACS has not shown it can police itself, and yet it faces some of the lightest legal penalties of any city agency.

The NYPD is the city’s most sued department, according to data from the New York City Comptroller, followed by the transportation department and the corrections department. Major class action lawsuits over the years have forced policy changes on city agencies, most notably the 2017 settlement regarding Stop and Frisk and the 2015 settlement with the Corrections Department over civil rights abuses on Rikers Island. The city paid out $205 million in fiscal year 2020 in settlements involving the NYPD and $34 million for Corrections Department settlements.

By comparison, ACS was sued just a handful of times that year and paid out just over $1 million in 2017, according to the most recent data available from the comptroller’s office.

McMillan said she’s looking forward to that dynamic changing with the creation of the new group.

“It will bring some relief to communities who often live with the harm and the frustration on top of it, that they were never able to hold ACS accountable,” she said. “That's another weight that people carry.”

This story has been updated.