Advocates Angry Over Policy to Take Newborns

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Some child welfare watchdogs are aghast over a new policy that says New York City should remove newborns from parents if those parents already have children in foster care.

The city’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) last month announced that a child born to parents already involved with the agency would remain in the care of the parents only in an “extraordinary instance.”

It’s hardly unusual for a child welfare system to gauge the risk of allowing parents who have children in the system to care for a newborn. What’s new in New York City is the assumption of removal.

“Children’s Services is directing staff to act on the assumption that the newborns whose siblings are in foster care will themselves come into care, unless a thorough investigation determines that it is absolutely safe for the newborn to go home to the biological family,” ACS spokeswoman Sharman Stein said in an e-mail.

A decision to keep newborns with their parents would have to be approved by an ACS borough commissioner, who is the highest-ranking child protection official in each of the city’s five boroughs.

Some in child welfare say the policy was developed without their knowledge and unduly pressures case workers to remove children.

“I find this policy upsetting,” says David Tobis, executive director of New York City’s Child Welfare Fund. “It has the presumption of guilt unless proven innocent. It is far from certain that the policy is legal.”

“It’s skewing practice in the direction of removal,” says Mike Arsham, executive director of the New York-based Child Welfare Organizing Project. “Workers will feel intimidated” against deciding that a baby born into such a family should remain home.

Asked for examples of cases that would probably not require the removal of a newborn, Stein named the following: cases where the siblings in foster care are teenagers, and the “reasons for their removal are not about the parent’s ability to parent,” or when the children in care are about to return home; “i.e., the parent has already addressed all the issues that presented a safety risk to begin with, and the decision has already been made to reunite the family.”

“Neither of these circumstances can be considered extraordinary,” Arsham said. “In fact, they are fairly common.”

Strangely, ACS agrees. “They are certainly not unusual circumstances,” Stein said of the cases she named. “We used ‘extraordinary’ in order to make sure a very thorough assessment is made as to the safety of the newborn.”

It won’t matter anyway, because those examples are not written in the policy, said Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Center for Child Protection Reform.

“Any caseworker, supervisor, or borough commissioner who decides to leave a child in his own home puts her or his job on the line,” Wexler wrote in an e-mail. “If something goes wrong and ACS points to the policy, what are they going to say: ‘Well, I read in Youth Today that this case could be an exception’?”