NYC Child Abuse Investigators Violate Parents’ Civil Rights, Lawsuit Alleges

Class-action suit says agency coerces and threatens parents, traumatizes children and conducts tens of thousands of illegal searches each year.

In 2022, Michelle and Luis Diaz experienced a two-month investigation by NYC’s Administration for Children’s Services that found no evidence of maltreatment of their son. It began with a knock at the door of their Bronx apartment by an ACS case worker. (Marianna McMurdock)

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A federal class-action lawsuit alleges that New York City child abuse investigators intimidate tens of thousands of parents and caregivers each year, coercing their way into families’ homes where they conduct illegal and invasive searches.

The complaint argues that these warrantless actions, which often include strip-searches of children and multiple, traumatizing return visits by case workers, violate the Fourth Amendment. The city’s Administration for Children’s Services is charged with investigating all reports of child abuse and neglect.

“ACS caseworkers lie to parents and withhold information from them about their rights, threaten to involve the police when police are clearly not needed and even directly threaten to take parents’ children away from their care — all to pressure parents to give ACS access to families’ homes and strip-search their children,” states a press release announcing the Feb. 20 filing of the litigation in U.S. District Court. 

The attorneys bringing the case point out that these practices inflict disproportionate harm and trauma on Black and Hispanic families, who are the subject of 80% of ACS investigations, and that in 70% of those inquiries, allegations of parental abuse and neglect are determined to be unfounded.

Calls to reform the nation’s child welfare system have been growing, often spurred by the work of reporters uncovering abuses. The NYC lawsuit cites the investigative reporting of former 74 staffer Asher Lehrer-Small, which revealed the extent to which unfounded reports of suspected parental abuse and neglect were made by NYC teachers and a pattern of retaliation against special education parents , who were reported to ACS after speaking up on their children’s behalf.

A spokeswoman for ACS told The New York Times last week that the agency would review the lawsuit and is “committed to keeping children safe and respecting parents’ rights.” 

“We will continue to advance our efforts to achieve safety, equity and justice by enhancing parents’ awareness of their rights, connecting families to critical services, providing families with alternatives to child protection investigations and working with key systems to reduce the number of families experiencing an unnecessary child protective investigation,” spokeswoman Marisa Kaufman said. 

Shalonda Curtis-Hackett is one of nine plaintiffs suing the City of New York. She endured her own unsubstantiated ACS investigation in 2021  (LinkedIn)

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of nine plaintiffs, but could grow much larger. It asks that ACS’s practices be deemed unconstitutional, that the agency remedy how it investigates families and conducts searches, and that the plaintiffs be awarded compensatory damages.

“This may be one of the most important lawsuits in the field in the last [50]  years,” Martin Guggenheim, an NYU law professor and children’s rights and family law expert, said in the release.

Read the 49-page complaint here

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