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