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June 22, 2018

In Brooklyn, An Institution Dedicated to Keeping Families Whole
by Samuel Newhouse (, published online 09-15-2010
Advocates for Impoverished Parents Fight Neglect Cases Fueled by ‘Classism and Racism’

By Samuel Newhouse
Brooklyn Daily Eagle

BROOKLYN — The public rarely has any sympathy for Brooklyn parents who lose their children to the city for accusations of neglect.

But one Brooklyn legal organization is dedicated to fiercely advocating on behalf of impoverished parents who are in danger of losing their children.

“It’s a completely classist, racist system,” said Lauren Shapiro, director of the Brooklyn Family Defense Project. “Our clients, first of all, they’re poor. The system is totally stacked against them. Everybody in the system is telling them that they’re a bad parent. … A lot of our cases are just about poverty.”

Shapiro is the leader of the three-year-old Brooklyn Family Defense Project (BFDP), an institution started in 2007 on a city contract to fill a gap in Family Court: representation for underprivileged parents in custody and neglect hearings.

The city gave out three such contracts at the behest of former Legal Services NYC executive director Andrew Scherer and NYU Law professor Marty Guggenheim, with two other contracts given to the Bronx Defenders and the Center for Family Representation in Manhattan.

Sitting down with the Eagle in the BFDP’s Downtown Brooklyn offices, Shapiro explained the slippery slope for poor parents. They can’t pay their bills, afford private transportation or pay for adequate housing; often clients or children have complicated physical handicaps.

Facing those types of obstacles, many parents are woefully unprepared to defend against neglect charges, Shapiro said.

“Suddenly you’re in court and they’re holding every move you make against you,” Shapiro said. “Maybe ACS [the city’s Administration of Child Services] is calling it neglect, but would I call it neglect because she has MS [muscular sclerosis]?”

An Uphill Battle

Before BFDP, which is affiliated with Legal Services NYC, indigent parents were entitled to 18B attorneys. But they never had an institutional provider focused on their rights before, and the emergence of BFDP was seen by some as a boon to Brooklyn Family Court.

“The practice has become much more professional,” said Chip Gray, project director of South Brooklyn Legal Services, where Shapiro was the Family Law unit director. “In the old days with the 18B panel attorneys, even the ones committed to doing a decent job didn’t have the resources or the backing of an institutional provider.”

Besides providing good representation in individual cases, BFDP attorneys have also developed a motion practice which practically didn’t exist before, Shapiro said, ranging from systemic issues to contempt motions against ACS for violating court orders.

“I think we have dramatically changed the practice in Family Court,” Shapiro said. “We’ve been able to address systemic issues in Family Court.”

The BFDP has about 1,500 open cases, which take on average two years to complete, with children in foster care in half of them and at home in the rest.

In half of BFDP’s cases, there’s a finding of neglect either admitted or at trial, so BFDP staff work closely with parents to find new sources of financial support or welfare to improve their home situation.

“Sometimes there’s a finding of neglect, and it doesn’t mean they’re not great parents,” Shapiro said. “We make unbelievable strides with people. Every parent comes in with incredible problems. … Our practice is built on a belief that people can change.”

BFDP attorneys don’t lightly use the term “neglect;” instead, they talk about “obstacles” to good parenting faced by their clients.

Losing custody is one of these obstacles, which violates what Shapiro called a family’s constitutional right to due process and family integrity that is violated by having the children taken out of the home by the state.

“A lot of people in Family Court feel, ‘Oh, what’s wrong with letting someone come every few weeks and check the closets?’” Shapiro said. “But if ACS is coming to the home every day, there’s no question that that implicates their due process rights.”

‘An Adversarial Relationship’

Shapiro didn’t pull any punches about her attitude towards the city’s Administration of Child Services, which she criticized for separating children from parents.

“We’re all supposed to be here for the same reason, right? Helping families?” Shapiro asked. “They rarely help our clients. … What’s unfortunate is that when ACS files neglect [charges], it creates an adversarial relationship and takes away any chance of help.”

In one BFDP case Shapiro mentioned, a homosexual teenage girl was taken from her mother, then institutionalized in a psychiatric facility while in foster care. Even after the daughter said she wanted to go home, she was shuttled from one psych ward to another for four months.

Shapiro mentioned several such cases: one was charged with neglect because a social worker came to the home while he was out looking for a parking spot.

Another client was charged with neglect after she skipped her son’s medical appointments because traveling on the subway caused the child too much pain, and she could not afford any other transportation option.

Shapiro said that in some cases, the only or primary allegation is marijuana use, which she said would never be grounds for neglect in a middle-class family. There’s also corporal punishment, where parents raised in different countries or hit themselves as children, may not realize they are committing “abuse.”

“ACS doesn’t help people get public service or housing. This is what our clients [would] need: money, practical help, if ACS was an organization that actually helped people,” Shapiro said. “ACS comes in, removes the children, maybe keeps them at home, but they rarely help our clients.”

But from the other perspective, high-profile child-abuse cases often lead city politicians to heavily criticize ACS for not doing enough.

“We’re still dealing with the ramifications of Nixzmary Brown,” Shapiro said when asked about the murder of a 7-year-old girl at the hands of her mother and stepfather.

ACS was heavily criticized for not removing Brown, and Shapiro said they started seeing more neglect cases around that time. But she added: “We [at BFDP] haven’t had any child murderers in three years.”

But ACS spokesperson Laura Postiglione said that ACS staff do try to keep families together, referring them to many types of services.

“Two of our agency’s key commitments are that no child we come into contact with will be left to struggle alone with abuse or neglect and no family who needs and wants help to keep their children safe will be left without the help it needs,” Postiglione said.

“The vast majority of cases referred to Children’s Services for investigation do not go to Family Court. Only the most serious cases are referred for protective intervention, and many of these cases result in the children remaining at home with their parents.”

‘They Get a Team’

Former Chief Judge Judith Kaye’s 2004 “Nicholson” decision is one case that shows the complexities of removing children from a home.

Kaye wrote about the general predicaments of “mothers and their children who were separated because the mother had suffered domestic violence, to which the children were exposed, and the children were for that reason deemed neglected by her.”

In other words, neglect can be found in circumstances beyond a parent’s control.

Leveling the playing field for low-income parents is what drives Shapiro and her staff of attorneys.

“What makes us really unique is that our attorneys are doing this all out of a deep commitment to working with poor people,” Shapiro said. “To give them a really good lawyer, I think that means a lot to our clients. They get a team — an attorney, a parent advocate, a law student and our administrative team. It’s a statement. Somebody cares about them in Family Court.”

Shapiro’s a resident of Park Slope who has spent her entire legal career with Legal Services NYC. She left the South Brooklyn Legal Services Family Law unit with two colleagues to start BFDP.

“The emotional impact of the job is greater than others,” she admitted. “You might come in and one of your clients has had their kids removed. You’re up ‘til 10 p.m. trying to get a hearing. When they lose their kids, the parents are devastated, and so are we.”

* * *

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© Brooklyn Daily Eagle 2010 All materials posted on are protected by United States copyright law. Just a reminder, though -- It’s not considered polite to paste the entire story on your blog. Most blogs post a summary or the first paragraph,( 40 words) then post a link to the rest of the story. That helps increase click-throughs for everyone, and minimizes copyright issues. So please keep posting, but not the entire article. arturcatt




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