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City Agency Abuses Victims of Domestic Violence!

By Woody Henderson

There is currently a class action lawsuit being heard in the U.S. District Court. The suit seeks in part to stop the Administration for Children's Services (ACS) from it's practice of charging mothers who are victims of domestic violence with "engaging in domestic violence" and using that charge to unfairly remove their children.

ACS, the agency created by Rudolph Guiliani in 1995, to deal with child protective services, and is wholly accountable to the Mayor. He and its Commissioner, Nicholas Scoppetta, insist the agency has been doing a wonderful job and has been very effective in providing protection for all children at risk of being abused or neglected in New York City. That makes a good sound bite, but it is not necessarily the case, especially for families of color, as the class action suit in the U.S. District Court is revealing.

ACS for white children, may be doing a wonderful job of providing protection since statistics show that less than one percent of the children it removes and places into foster care are white. From those statistics, one can conclude that either there are almost zero cases of abuse or neglect in white families in New York City or that ACS is providing appropriate preventive services and means of dealing with the neglect and/or abusive situations that occur in these families. If either of those things is true I applaud the families and/or ACS, Rudy and Commissioner Scoppetta for a job well done.

For children removed from communities of color however, neither of those situations can be concluded. They make up 98% of the children placed into foster care by ACS.

It is important to understand that this suit deals with a very specific and vulnerable segment of our society, i.e., women who are being abused by their husbands or boyfriends. It is not focused on child abuse itself, at least not by the mothers who fought to bring this suit into federal court. They seek some relief from the insensitive and abusive way ACS deals with battered women and the children who have to witness their awful ordeal. It does not take into account the many other problems that exist within the agency. Nor is it the only class action suit currently on file in federal court, which is focused on correcting some of the other flaws in the operating procedures of ACS that are having an adverse impact on the children it is mandated to serve and protect.

Almost since the conception of ACS, victims of domestic violence and their advocates have been complaining about what they call the unfair practices of ACS and its contract agencies' so-called quest to protect children from abuse and neglect by their parents.

Mothers who find themselves victims of domestic violence say they are being twice victimized, first by the physical abuse of their batterers and then by the city's child protective agency's policy of removing children from battered mothers and charging the mothers with failure to protect. In other words, it has been the practice of ACS to blame the mothers for allowing their children to witness them being battered by their husbands or boyfriends. It's as if ACS believes the battered mothers had the ability to stop the batterer from beating them while they take the children next door or some other place where they wouldn't witness the abuse.

To do this, ACS uses specious wording in its petitions for removal of the children of battered women, the phrase, the mothers were "engaging in domestic violence."

When questioned about this practice in court ACS's management and supervisors resisted claims that this phrase leads to victimizing mothers twice. They (ACS) insist this practice is in the best interest of the child even though many of the children themselves have testified under oath that being taken away from their mothers was more traumatic and painful than witnessing their mothers being abused.

After years of seeking help from legislators and family court judges and filing complaints that seemed to fall on deaf ears, these mothers and more importantly their children who are being devastated by these forced removals by ACS. finally see relief in sight.

For weeks Judge Jack B. Weinstein listened intently to the testimonies of witnesses for both the plaintiff and the defense. He even raised questions of his own to make sure he had a clear understanding of what the witnesses were trying to convey.

Obviously Judge Weinstein was determined from the outset of the trial to not only reach a fair determination, but hopefully if needed find some alternatives to the problems that would be in the best interest of the victims and their children. He listened to testimony from parents who told how they had sought help from both the police and ACS to get restraining orders or have the batterers removed but none was provided. One mother made over twenty attempts to get a court order to keep her batterer away from the house. It wasn't until the batterer struck the child that ACS stepped in. Their intervention was not to seek help for the mother in having the batterer removed, but to remove her children and accuse the mother of "engaging in domestic violence."

Experts in child welfare testified that there is not nearly enough services or shelters to meet the needs of battered women and their children. In fact, there are only 1,400 emergency beds available in shelters for battered women and their children and there are over 13,800 requests for these beds. ACS itself only spends 10% of its budget on preventive services and only a miniscule portion of that is geared towards the needs of battered women and their children. But one of the most revealing facts to this writer about how ACS looks at domestic violence is that the agency has only one domestic violence specialist. She, according to testimony, is more often than not burdened with duties having nothing to do with domestic violence.

Evidence showed that the circumstances in these cases did not require the children be removed from their mothers because they were not at risk of harm by their mothers. In fact, ACS had not charged one of the mothers in this class action suit with abuse.

When the city put on its defense it seemed totally insensitive to the devastation it was causing the children it removed by not offering services to the families before separating the children from their mothers. One caseworker actually admitted that sometimes they take the children just to force the mother to cooperate with the service plan they had come up with. Another caseworker even said if you hold their children for a few days before going to court the mother might cooperate with the service plan and you don't have to go to court. Throughout the trial the judge often seemed bewildered at the arrogance with which ACS employees and upper management tried to justify their policies.

Before Nicholas Scoppetta, the city's star witness and Commissioner of ACS, took the stand, Judge Weinstein had apparently heard enough, even though the trial was not over. The judge is using his judicial power to force ACS to change its practice of removing children from defenseless mothers. The only thing the mothers seem to be guilty of is not being able to stop their batterers from abusing them in front of their children.

During Scoppetta's cross examination, This writer lost count of the number of times he said "I don't know" or "I'm unaware of that," the usual ploys a witness uses to dodge questions that may be damaging to their defense.

After Nicholas Scoppetta finished being cross-examined by David Lansner, one of the attorneys for the plaintiff, who by the way along with Jill Zucardy did a brilliant job of presenting their case on behalf of the defenseless mothers. And, perhaps and even more brilliant job of cross-examining the city's witnesses Scoppetta prepared to leave the stand. Judge Weinstein appeared frustrated through much of the trial by the constant dodging of questions and blah, blah, blah responses the city's witnesses used to get around answering questions asked by the plaintiff's lawyers.

In an unusual move, Judge Weinstein said to the commissioner at the end of his cross examination by David Lansner, "The evidence has convinced me that the agency {ACS} is too ready to take children from battered mothers who are otherwise capable of, and interested in, protecting their children. That must stop. The evidence also shows that you [ACS] have in the works changes and places for changes which may remedy this problem, but that they have not yet been implemented." Judge Weinstein said he was going to issue an injunction against the city to see that this is done.

He went on to say he is prepared to issue a stay for six months on that injunction to permit the city to carry forward its changes "to protect innocent mothers, while protecting the children." He also said he is prepared to appoint a Special Master to assist defendants "in accomplishing what needs to be accomplished in this area where these mothers are being doubly punished, punished by the batterers and then punished by having their children removed."

 

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