In 2020, the New York City Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) commissioned an internal audit, which involved interviews with dozens of agency employees. The interviews revealed that workers themselves feel the agency’s mandate to ensure the welfare of the city’s children is severely undermined by systemic racial bias, resulting in the targeting of poor Black and brown families and the constant threat that their children will be taken from them.

“White parents are presumed to be innocent and are repeatedly given opportunities to fail and try again,” the report states, “while Black and Brown parents are treated at every juncture as if they are not competent parents capable of providing acceptable care to their children.”

A draft of the report was buried, however, until the legal advocacy group Bronx Defenders submitted a freedom of information request to obtain it and then shared it with the New York Times, which first published the findings this week.

For many advocates of child welfare reform, the findings add new urgency to the need for so-called Miranda rights, which would involve ACS workers informing parents of their legal rights before attempting to enter their home — a practice the city has resisted.

For others, the report points out what many have long experienced, both as advocates and as parents with firsthand experience with the child welfare system.

“It means that Blacks are being targeted, and I'm not shocked because Blacks have been targeted in America since we were brought here, and it has continued through systems,” said Joyce McMillan, the executive director of the advocacy group JMACForFamilies in an interview with Gothamist.

ACS did not respond to questions asking why the report it commissioned was never released. Nor did the officials address the findings. Mayor Eric Adams' office referred inquiries to ACS, which released a statement but declined to answer questions.

“ACS is focused every day on achieving safety and equity,” ACS Commissioner Jess Dannhauser said. “While many have suggested it must be one or the other, we believe they can only be accomplished together. We have been working with members of the community — including those with first-hand experiences in our system — our partners in City service, and community-based organizations to build trust with communities and address the racial inequities that have existed in child welfare for too long. We will continue to put policies and initiatives in place that aim to keep children safe while reducing unnecessary ACS involvement.”

Although Black and Hispanic families comprise 52% of the city population they contend with the vast majority of ACS investigations — 87%, according to city figures. By contrast, white families comprise 26.5% of the city population but just 8% of ACS investigations.

White parents are presumed to be innocent and are repeatedly given opportunities to fail and try again, while Black and Brown parents are treated at every juncture as if they are not competent parents capable of providing acceptable care to their children.”
Draft ACS report

The report noted that generation after generation of families cycle through the system and that staff are judged according to their number of encounters with families rather than their ability to understand what a family is going through and how to best support them.

The agency has said all workers are required to undergo implicit bias training and that it came up with an Equity Action Plan last year, intended to ensure “a child or family’s race, ethnicity, national origin, immigration status, gender, gender identity and sexual orientation do not predict their outcomes.”

It also was working to reduce the number of calls it receives through its child abuse hotline, two-thirds of which are ultimately “unfounded,” according to testimony in 2020 by former ACS Commissioner David Hansell. He said at the the agency is obligated to follow up on such calls, which disproportionately target Black and brown families. These include reports from other city agencies, including the Department of Education and NYC Health + Hospitals.

The report was commissioned under former Mayor Bill de Blasio who in the past rejected allegations that the system was racially biased.

“I don’t believe that’s the case,” he said in 2017. “I think we are talking about extremely complex situations and frontline workers who are trained and were certainly trained a lot more in the last few years than in the past to go in and make assessments. We’re also talking about a workforce that looks like the people they serve by-and-large.”

'A smoke screen'

McMillan, from JMACForFamilies, dismissed the idea that the diversity of ACS staff served the agency well: “I think that's just a smoke screen that they have used. And I think it is also a way to undermine the Black community.”

The ACS report was prepared by the National Innovation Service, an organization that described itself online as a “public benefit corporation that partnered with government to design equitable public systems” from 2019 to 2022, but which appears to no longer be in operation.

“America’s public systems are built on a structurally racist foundation and disproportionately fail to support communities of color,” it states on its home page.

Within the report that it prepared for ACS, there are numerous references to race and racial divides, including those within ACS itself and “an organizational hierarchy that privileges white workers with senior leadership in central administration while Black and Brown employees predominate frontline workers.”

Workers operated in a culture marked by fear and intimidation, according to the report, “where staff can easily find themselves in front of ‘a firing squad’ being interrogated about their work.”

Families were often harmed by their interactions with ACS. The system, according to the report, fails to address the problems that many Black and brown families regularly contend with, especially in the poorest districts of New York. Often, it exacerbates those problems.

“Participants described how poverty is criminalized, as signs of poverty are often seen as indicators of neglect,” it reads. “Parents felt penalized for being poor, as investigatory processes sought to catalog the ways in which parents struggled to provide food, housing, and resources for their children, and frame it as neglect.”

The ultimate consequence for many families was the removal of a child if ACS determined they weren’t safe. However, kids who had been placed in foster care, then returned to their parents, “continued to be fearful, unconfident, and traumatized.”

At the same time, the report validates ACS’s official position that it is inundated with calls, including from DOE staff who “frequently file reports based on the cleanliness of a child’s clothing or whether they bring food to school.”

Councilmember Carlina Rivera said she was “disturbed by the revelations” of the buried ACS report and said in a statement that it showed “a troubling racial double standard in ACS engagement with Black and white families.”

“While ACS has touted its intent to address racism within the child welfare system, it has actually acted as a roadblock to the Family Miranda bills – the first concrete opportunity that would enact meaningful change to this discriminatory system. The need for legislative intervention to force ACS to adhere to protocol and ensure that all New York families are treated equally when involved with ACS is clear,” Rivera said.

Ysmerlyn Murshed, a social work supervisor with the Center for Family Representation, said ACS should be tending to the needs of families, many of which struggle with poverty or low ages, long work hours and other strains. Instead, she said, the agency ignores issues of poverty and makes the lives of parents much harder.

“Supporting the parents is what supports the children’s well being, and supporting that bond is what we know produce the best members of society. What is interesting to me is that there’s doubt about that,” Murshed said.

Teyora Graves, a parent advocate supervisor at CFR, said Black and brown families who interact with ACS must constantly submit to its authority, while living in fear that their children might be taken from them and placed in foster care.

“There's this notion and this demand from ACS and the courts that they're willing to be compliant,” she said. “All times of the night.”

The underlying strain, she said, amounted to, “How much you can beat someone down before you're willing to do what. We saw that in slavery.”