For New York City’s foster chil­dren, run­ning away can lead to hand­cuffs

The Buffalo News - - LOCAL NEWS - By Ali Watkins NEW YORK TIMES

NEW YORK – Ne­vayah still re­mem­bers the feel of the hand­cuffs. They were for­eign to her; she had never been in trou­ble.

A late­comer to New York City’s foster care sys­tem, Ne­vayah had been signed over to the Ad­min­is­tra­tion for Chil­dren’s Ser­vices when she was 16. Rather than en­ter a group home, she told her case­worker she would prefer to live with her mother in Ohio. Ea­ger to start school, she bought a bus ticket, made it to Cleve­land and phoned the agency to let them know that she was safe.

Per pro­to­col, ACS said, they would send the au­thor­i­ties to make sure the home was suit­able.

But when the po­lice ar­rived that night, they told Ne­vayah that New York Fam­ily Court had is­sued a war­rant for her ar­rest. Gra­ciously, she said, of­fi­cers waited to hand­cuff her un­til she was in the back of their patrol car. By mid­night, she was in a cell.

In Fam­ily Court hear­ings ev­ery month, the ACS is qui­etly be­ing granted ar­rest war­rants to de­tain foster chil­dren like Ne­vayah, whose only trans­gres­sion is leav­ing the agency’s care. The un­usu­ally dra­co­nian strat­egy has lit­tle prece­dent in any state’s foster care sys­tem, and it is un­clear if the ACS even has the au­thor­ity to use such war­rants un­der New York state law.

It is the ACS’ con­tro­ver­sial so­lu­tion to a com­pli­cated prob­lem: how to find and keep run­away mi­nors in foster homes they do not want to stay in. To not search for run­aways is a dere­lic­tion of the agency’s duty. But to use law en­force­ment over less ad­ver­sar­ial ap­proaches, like case­work, puts some of the city’s most vul­ner­a­ble wards into volatile sit­u­a­tions.

The full names of foster chil­dren who spoke with The New York Times are be­ing with­held at their re­quest be­cause they are both mi­nors.

“War­rants can be help­ful in lo­cat­ing chil­dren be­cause they en­gage law en­force­ment re­sources,” said Chanel Car­away, a spokes­woman for ACS. “That said, we’ve taken a num­ber of steps to en­sure that we only seek war­rants in cases where they’re nec­es­sary.”

De­spite fluc­tu­a­tions in their fre­quency, the war­rants cre­ate a ten­sion that can un­der­mine ACS’ goals, strain­ing an al­ready frag­ile re­la­tion­ship be­tween wary foster chil­dren and the agency they are sup­posed to trust.

“It’s dis­turb­ing that New York does this. These are kids that have com­mit­ted no crime, and it’s par­tic­u­larly dis­turb­ing be­cause they’re the most vul­ner­a­ble kids,” said Betsy Kramer, di­rec­tor of spe­cial lit­i­ga­tion at the Man­hat­tan-based Lawyers for Chil­dren, which rep­re­sents sev­eral foster chil­dren who have been the sub­ject of ar­rest war­rants.

A re­view of foster care poli­cies across the coun­try shows no other sim­i­lar prac­tice of us­ing ar­rest war­rants to de­tain run­aways. Many other states use court or­ders or court-or­dered re­quests to pick up a child, of­ten de­ploy­ing pro­tec­tive of­fi­cers or case­work­ers who are not in uni­form, but are some­times ac­com­pa­nied by law en­force­ment. Some states use “child pro­tec­tive war­rants” that al­low the agency to take the child into cus­tody.

In 2017, New York City had 8,945 chil­dren in 24-hour foster care. Of those, 354 chil­dren were con­sid­ered by ACS to be ab­sent with­out leave, or AWOL, for a week or more.

“In most cases, they are go­ing home to their home com­mu­ni­ties to spend time with their fam­i­lies and friends,” Kramer said of miss­ing youths. “To sub­ject them to ar­rest for that is just re­ally par­tic­u­larly egre­gious.”

Across the city, lawyers de­scribed a sys­tem in which the po­lice are fre­quently di­rected by case­work­ers to a child’s lo­ca­tion in or­der to have them de­tained.

“Half the time, maybe even more, ACS knows ex­actly where the child is when they ask for a war­rant,” said Dodd Terry, an at­tor­ney with The Le­gal Aid So­ci­ety.

The agency said it ad­heres to a “lim­ited use pol­icy” that con­sid­ers fac­tors like age and spe­cial needs when it seeks war­rants, but it would not pro­vide the spe­cific pol­icy. It is un­clear what dif­fer­en­ti­ates sit­u­a­tions when war­rants are is­sued from sce­nar­ios when a softer outreach is em­ployed – for ex­am­ple, when a case­worker or a child pro­tec­tive spe­cial­ist is de­ployed to try to re­turn the child to their place­ment.

“What is trou­bling about this is that for com­mu­ni­ties of color that are dis­pro­por­tion­ately rep­re­sented in the child wel­fare sys­tem, you have law en­force­ment get­ting in­volved in ba­sic life sit­u­a­tions that should be so­cial ser­vices mat­ter,” Terry said. “Do your case­work be­fore you seek law en­force­ment.”

In a sys­tem where the ma­jor­ity of chil­dren are black and His­panic – in­clud­ing 89 per­cent of the foster chil­dren who were con­sid­ered AWOL in 2017, ac­cord­ing to agency statis­tics – the psy­cho­log­i­cal im­pact of these po­lice in­ter­ac­tions can be dev­as­tat­ing.

“I still have night­mares to this day,” said Ne­vayah, who is now 17.

She passed the time in her de­ten­tion cell read­ing the Harry Pot­ter se­ries, and said she marked each day by scratch­ing a mark on her wall. The ACS had or­dered her to come back to New York but Ne­vayah, who iden­ti­fies as trans­gen­der and is tran­si­tion­ing, wanted to stay in Ohio. The ACS, she said, would not guar­an­tee her LGBTQ-friendly hous­ing in New York.

Af­ter three weeks, when she fi­nally agreed to fly back, the po­lice walked her through the air­port in hand­cuffs and leg irons. It was an ex­pe­ri­ence that Ne­vayah de­scribed as hu­mil­i­at­ing.

“I felt stereo­typed. I’m a mi­nor­ity. I’m Puerto Ri­can, Latino, and I’m be­ing put through the jus­tice sys­tem,” she said. “The statis­tics don’t care how I ended up in jail.”

Ne­vayah has since found an ac­cept­ing group home in the city and at­tends an LGBTQ-friendly high school in Man­hat­tan. She plans to go to col­lege, where she wants to study to be­come a soft­ware engi­neer.

The Le­gal Aid So­ci­ety has filed an ap­peal with the Ap­pel­late Divi­sion of state Supreme Court that chal­lenges whether the court and the ACS have the au­thor­ity to even is­sue ar­rest war­rants. That case is ex­pected to be ar­gued this month. In the mean­time, Fam­ily Court judges have de­layed de­ci­sions on two of the war­rants for un­named chil­dren in­volved in the case, bol­ster­ing ad­vo­cates’ con­fi­dence that the agency is on du­bi­ous le­gal foot­ing.

Even un­de­cided, the ap­peal is hav­ing an im­pact in court­rooms, where judges have started voic­ing more skep­ti­cism over the use of war­rants.

New York Times

Heaven stands at Col­lect Pond Park, across the street from New York County Fam­ily Court in New York. In Fam­ily Court hear­ings ev­ery month, the Ad­min­is­tra­tion for Chil­dren’s Ser­vices is qui­etly be­ing granted ar­rest war­rants to de­tain foster chil­dren like Heaven, whose only trans­gres­sion is leav­ing the agency’s care.

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