Monday, July 20, 2009

Child Protective Services in Montgomery County & all of New York state needs reform

July 20, 6:11 AM
Comment ShareThisRSS Email Print When Child Protective Services in Montgomery County says, "Jump!," you are supposed to respond by asking, "How high?" If you don't, they will try to make your life miserable. I know because I just ended a five year battle with them. I was reported to Child Protective Services three times. The first time the investigator said there was no credible evidence to support a charge of neglect. The second and third times, she said there was, but she was overturned by an administrative law judge at fair hearings held by the Office of Children and Family Services.

Never in my life have I encountered the level of rudeness, deception, abuse of power and outright lying that I experienced in my dealings with Montgomery County Child Protective Services. Nevertheless, people continue to write letters to the editor of this newspaper accusing columnist Carl Strock of exaggerating and being unfair when he exposes Child Protective Services. I can tell you from experience that Carl Strock has yet to sound the bottom of the child protective cesspool, if indeed there is one.

The final insult from Child Protective Services came at the first part of my last hearing which occurred in April of this year. When administrative law judge, Susan Preston, asked each side to turn over the evidence they would be presenting at the hearing, Montgomery County's Senior CPS investigator, Marsha Benjamin, handed over material that was part of my last hearing, material which had been sealed by the state. The distribution of sealed material is, if I understand the law correctly, a Class A misdemeanor.

My lawyer wrote a letter to the Department of Social Services notifying them that the material was from a sealed case. The Department quickly withdrew from the hearing, and we received a letter from the State a few weeks ago notifying us that we had won the hearing.

I've written about Child Protective Services a couple of times in the past few years, and the conclusion that I came to in the past still remains, namely that CPS needs to be overhauled. I'm not alone in that conclusion.

Buried deep in the enormous bowels of the internet, I found a New York state appointed organization, the Citizens Review Panels of Child Protective Services. I was amazed to find that there are three panels that regularly hold hearings about CPS, review CPS agencies and make recommendations to the Office of Children and Family Services. I read several of their annual reports and was pleased to find that many of their recommendations to New York State were in line with mine.

Their recommendations include eliminating anonymous reporting, letting school districts deal with educational neglect, focusing on prevention, and revising civil service requirements for investigators. I highly recommend an article in the 2007 Annual Report which asks, "Is it time to rethink our child protection system?" It essentially argues that in 1979 the Child Protective system was cobbled together in a hurry, changes over the years have made the situation worse, and only systemic reform will make a difference. Much of the article is summarized in the following paragraph.

"Today, Child Protective Services is a system to receive, investigate, and make determinations of reports of suspected child maltreatment. Originally conceived as a way to protect children by helping families to take better care of their children, the system has increasingly failed to achieve that goal. We pour billions of dollars into our child welfare system. And yet the deaths still come; after four decades, the number of deaths of children due to abuse has hardly changed. Indeed, experience has shown that highly-publicized deaths lead to more reports and more removals. Some observers have noted that greater removals, rather than making children safer, leads to more deaths."

The panels state clearly that we don't need anymore band-aid solutions, such as laws named after dead children that make legislators look good but don't answer the fundamental questions which are as follows:

"Are New York’s children and families better off because of contact with Child Protective Services? For far too many, the answer is no. We call for a fundamental review of statute, policy and practice. Can a structure such as CPS really keep children safe? Can families needing help and engagement possibly be served by a punitive, criminal-justice model system? How can we mobilize other institutions to improve the lives of families and reduce maltreatment? And finally, how can we conscientiously separate the good elements of our current system from those that need improvement, and build upon the good?"

It is not just obscure people like me, or columnists like Carl Strock, who are asking these questions. The panels issuing these reports are made up of social workers, lawyers, educators, non-profit child welfare agencies and the like. Each panel is about as close to a blue ribbon panel as you can get.

They are asking the right questions. But is anyone in New York State's Office of Children and Family Services or in the New York state legislature listening?

If you enjoyed reading this article, you may enjoy these:
NYS Comptroller reports CPS non-compliant with laws more than 50% of the time
Child fatalities from abuse and neglect continue to rise in NYS inspite of CPS
What should you do if Child Protective Services knocks on your door?

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Fundamental legal right often denied parents

Fundamental legal right often denied parents
BY VIVEK SANKARAN • July 5, 2009

Last week, the Michigan Supreme Court refused to hear the case of Ronald McBride, a father whose parental rights to his three children were permanently terminated despite the fact that the juvenile court denied him the right to a lawyer throughout the entire case.

The Department of Human Services admitted that the trial court made a mistake. The Michigan Attorney General's Office conceded that the father's statutory and constitutional rights were violated and that reversal was required. National groups, including the National Association of Counsel for Children and the Public Counsel Project, urged the court to correct the injustice. And Justice Maura Corrigan, joined by Chief Justice Marilyn Kelly, wrote a powerful dissent providing compelling reasons why the court should hear the case.

All for naught. The court's one-sentence response: "We are not persuaded the questions presented should be reviewed by the court."

With that, the court endorsed the permanent severance of the parent-child relationship -- often characterized as the "civil death penalty" -- without affording the Bay County man the most fundamental of procedural rights: the right to a lawyer.

The McBride outrage was no fluke. But even though the Michigan Juvenile Code and court rules explicitly provide poor parents the right to an attorney in all child protective proceedings, much work remains to be done to implement this right and to ensure that parents receive effective representation.

In 2005, the American Bar Association concluded with respect to parent representation in Michigan that "what was reported to evaluators ... and what was observed in court hearings fall disturbingly short of standards of practice." More recently, Justice Corrigan observed a "disturbing and recent pattern of trial court's failures to appoint counsel and untimely appointments of counsel to represent parents in child protective proceedings."

How lawyers help judges
Justice Corrigan's observations match anecdotal evidence documenting wide variation across the state in the quality of representation provided to parents. Each county sets its own standards for how parents' attorneys are appointed. Compensation rates, training requirements, and the timing of appointments vary widely. The quality of counsel parents receive often depends on the county in which they reside.

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And quality counsel matters. Without zealous advocates, parents face an uphill battle navigating the child welfare system. Far too many children are needlessly removed from their homes, and frequently parents feel overwhelmed by a complex system governed by an array of interrelated federal and state laws, controlled by sophisticated professionals who are the only ones who know the rules.

Alone, parents lack the tools to tell their stories or challenge governmental overreaching.

The assistance of a zealous advocate not only reassures the parent that he or she is not alone in navigating the child welfare labyrinth, but also improves the quality of decisions that courts make. By challenging unreliable information and producing independent evidence of their clients' strengths and supports, attorneys ensure that courts rely upon only the most accurate and complete information available prior to rendering life-altering decisions.

Additionally, these lawyers expand options available to courts by proposing creative alternatives, such as guardianships or other custody arrangements, intensive in-home services to preserve a child's placement in the home, or extensive visitation between parents and children supervised by family members, friends or neighbors.

Without zealous parent representation, courts lack an important perspective -- that of the parent with whom reunification is sought -- which increases the likelihood that courts will reach an erroneous decision.

In the child's best interest
Not surprisingly, national studies strongly suggest that strong advocacy for parents dramatically improves outcomes for children. Studies from Washington, New York and California demonstrate that strengthening parent representation leads to fewer children being removed from their homes, shorter stays for children in foster care, and fewer terminations of parental rights -- exactly the types of results the system should strive for.

And ensuring that only those children who truly need foster care enter the system would result in significant public cost savings. As evaluators in the State of Washington concluded, "the enhancement of parents' representation has the potential to save increasing millions in state funding on an annualized basis."

Fortunately, child welfare leaders across the state recognize the need to strengthen the quality of parent representation, and important discussions will begin in upcoming months to fix the system.

For the sake of our children, we can only hope those talks bear fruit soon.

VIVEK SANKARAN is a clinical assistant professor of law at the University of Michigan Law School.