Advocates for Impoverished Parents Fight
Neglect Cases Fueled by ‚ÄėClassism and Racism‚Äô
By Samuel Newhouse
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
BROOKLYN ‚ÄĒ 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.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs a completely classist, racist system,‚ÄĚ said Lauren Shapiro, director of the Brooklyn Family Defense Project. ‚ÄúOur clients, first of all, they‚Äôre poor. The system is totally stacked against them. Everybody in the system is telling them that they‚Äôre a bad parent. ‚Ä¶ A lot of our cases are just about poverty.‚ÄĚ
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‚Äôs Downtown Brooklyn offices, Shapiro explained the slippery slope for poor parents. They can‚Äôt 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.
‚ÄúSuddenly you‚Äôre in court and they‚Äôre holding every move you make against you,‚ÄĚ Shapiro said. ‚ÄúMaybe ACS [the city‚Äôs Administration of Child Services] is calling it neglect, but would I call it neglect because she has MS [muscular sclerosis]?‚ÄĚ
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.
‚ÄúThe practice has become much more professional,‚ÄĚ said Chip Gray, project director of South Brooklyn Legal Services, where Shapiro was the Family Law unit director. ‚ÄúIn the old days with the 18B panel attorneys, even the ones committed to doing a decent job didn‚Äôt have the resources or the backing of an institutional provider.‚ÄĚ
Besides providing good representation in individual cases, BFDP attorneys have also developed a motion practice which practically didn‚Äôt exist before, Shapiro said, ranging from systemic issues to contempt motions against ACS for violating court orders.
‚ÄúI think we have dramatically changed the practice in Family Court,‚ÄĚ Shapiro said. ‚ÄúWe‚Äôve been able to address systemic issues in Family Court.‚ÄĚ
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‚Äôs cases, there‚Äôs 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.
‚ÄúSometimes there‚Äôs a finding of neglect, and it doesn‚Äôt mean they‚Äôre not great parents,‚ÄĚ Shapiro said. ‚ÄúWe make unbelievable strides with people. Every parent comes in with incredible problems. ‚Ä¶ Our practice is built on a belief that people can change.‚ÄĚ
BFDP attorneys don‚Äôt lightly use the term ‚Äúneglect;‚ÄĚ instead, they talk about ‚Äúobstacles‚ÄĚ to good parenting faced by their clients.
Losing custody is one of these obstacles, which violates what Shapiro called a family‚Äôs constitutional right to due process and family integrity that is violated by having the children taken out of the home by the state.
‚ÄúA lot of people in Family Court feel, ‚ÄėOh, what‚Äôs wrong with letting someone come every few weeks and check the closets?‚Äô‚ÄĚ Shapiro said. ‚ÄúBut if ACS is coming to the home every day, there‚Äôs no question that that implicates their due process rights.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄėAn Adversarial Relationship‚Äô
Shapiro didn‚Äôt pull any punches about her attitude towards the city‚Äôs Administration of Child Services, which she criticized for separating children from parents.
‚ÄúWe‚Äôre all supposed to be here for the same reason, right? Helping families?‚ÄĚ Shapiro asked. ‚ÄúThey rarely help our clients. ‚Ä¶ What‚Äôs unfortunate is that when ACS files neglect [charges], it creates an adversarial relationship and takes away any chance of help.‚ÄĚ
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‚Äôs 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‚Äôs also corporal punishment, where parents raised in different countries or hit themselves as children, may not realize they are committing ‚Äúabuse.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúACS doesn‚Äôt 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,‚ÄĚ Shapiro said. ‚ÄúACS comes in, removes the children, maybe keeps them at home, but they rarely help our clients.‚ÄĚ
But from the other perspective, high-profile child-abuse cases often lead city politicians to heavily criticize ACS for not doing enough.
‚ÄúWe‚Äôre still dealing with the ramifications of Nixzmary Brown,‚ÄĚ 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: ‚ÄúWe [at BFDP] haven‚Äôt had any child murderers in three years.‚ÄĚ
But ACS spokesperson Laura Postiglione said that ACS staff do try to keep families together, referring them to many types of services.
‚ÄúTwo of our agency‚Äôs 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,‚ÄĚ Postiglione said.
‚ÄúThe vast majority of cases referred to Children‚Äôs 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.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄėThey Get a Team‚Äô
Former Chief Judge Judith Kaye‚Äôs 2004 ‚ÄúNicholson‚ÄĚ decision is one case that shows the complexities of removing children from a home.
Kaye wrote about the general predicaments of ‚Äúmothers 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.‚ÄĚ
In other words, neglect can be found in circumstances beyond a parent‚Äôs control.
Leveling the playing field for low-income parents is what drives Shapiro and her staff of attorneys.
‚ÄúWhat makes us really unique is that our attorneys are doing this all out of a deep commitment to working with poor people,‚ÄĚ Shapiro said. ‚ÄúTo give them a really good lawyer, I think that means a lot to our clients. They get a team ‚ÄĒ an attorney, a parent advocate, a law student and our administrative team. It‚Äôs a statement. Somebody cares about them in Family Court.‚ÄĚ
Shapiro‚Äôs 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.
‚ÄúThe emotional impact of the job is greater than others,‚ÄĚ she admitted. ‚ÄúYou might come in and one of your clients has had their kids removed. You‚Äôre up ‚Äėtil 10 p.m. trying to get a hearing. When they lose their kids, the parents are devastated, and so are we.‚ÄĚ
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