In 1999, Sharwline Nicholson was brutally beaten by her daughter's father after she told him she was breaking up with him. That night, while Nicholson was in the hospital, the Administration for Children's Services took her children away from the neighboring babysitter with whom they were staying and put them into foster care with strangers. Nat Williams, the "child protective manager" assigned to the case, called her at the hospital the next day to tell her that they had the children and if she wanted to see them she had to appear in court a week later. Nicholson asked him to place the children with one of two cousins, but Williams said no. He refused to tell her where the children were.
Nicholson wasn't allowed to see her children for more than a week. The social worker did this in order to pressure her into entering an emergency shelter: Williams was trained to do this, he would later testify; it was standard practice at the agency . Nicholson sued, joining two other women in Nicholson v. Williams (in PDF format), a class action law suit.
In his groundbreaking decision in January 2002, Judge Jack B. Weinstein held that it was unconstitutional for New York City to remove children from their mothers who were victims of domestic violence without providing them with adequate counsel. In many cases, mothers could not regain custody simply because they didn't have a lawyer. His decision was upheld in the federal circuit court in September. The city has appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals but it also settled with the women in the suit, paying them $75,000 per child placed in foster care. Judge Weinstein ordered an injunction against the practice, giving the administration until June 2002 to address the problems.
Now, 18 months later, there are tangible changes in the way the city treats domestic violence cases. This is the conclusion of a new report (in pdf format), which sees huge changes in administration policy, practice and enforcement of the way its workers treat victims of domestic abuse and their children. "In child abuse and neglect cases involving domestic violence, the number of children placed in foster care has declined dramatically," says the report, issued by the New School's Center for New York City Affairs.
A review of Family Court Cases in the Bronx shows that nearly a quarter of children were removed from their parents in 1999. By contrast, in cases concluded after June 2002, only a tenth were, and these were mostly placed with a relative. While the administration agrees things have changed, it doesn't believe Nicholson is the reason behind the change. "Many of these new initiatives were well underway before Nicholson was filed in 2000," says Maclean Guthrie, spokeswoman for the Administration for Children Services. In fact, she says, the injunction creates a climate that makes its work more difficult. "We are forced to divert our limited resources toward responding to the litigation rather than enabling us to focus all of them on the families we're working to serve."
Andrew White sees it differently. "The way they work with these women has changed," says White, editor of the report and director of the Center for New York City Affairs. "The city has ramped up its efforts to improve its response to domestic violence to a level never seen before in New York City. [The lawsuit] really got them to move in a way they hadn't before. They have been doing initiatives for the last 10 to 15 years, small experimental pilot programs, but none ever reached any kind of scale as this."
Whatever the reason, the Administration for Children's Services now has clinical consultation teams citywide. It has hired several non-profit organizations, including Palladia, New York Foundling, and the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services to work with the case workers, the first time non-profit staff have worked alongside city staff like this. The program is based on a similar, decade-old program in Massachusetts.
Whether by its own internal reforms or the pressure of the lawsuit, the administration has revised its policies and practices to reflect the position that it can most help children by empowering the mother, suggests a recent New York Times article. But resources remain extremely limited. "Homeless shelters specializing in domestic violence victims are so overbooked that they turn away roughly half the women who apply," Times reporter Leslie Kaufman wrote. "Other services like specialized counseling and services intended for women from various cultures and ethnic groups are also oversubscribed."
Ten months after it was formed, the New York City Family Homelessness Special Master Panel published its first report on the topic of preventing family homelessness. The report lists several policy recommendations in areas that include affordable housing, early identification, cross-agency coordination, community services and legal representation.
In addition, the mayor announced the city is working on a plan to end chronic homelessness in the next 10 years. Advocates for the homeless said there was already plenty of information about how to solve the problem. They say the solution is to build more supportive housing for the mentally ill and to build more housing for low-income families. "The time for study is long past," Mary Brosnahan Sullivan, executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless told the Times. "We have a proven track record of what works. We desperately need more capital dollars for bricks and mortar, and we need more resources, beginning with the federal government."
A record 39,000 homeless a night are in the shelter system, and 17,000 of those are children. That doesn't include those living in the streets or doubling or tripling up with friends and family. The city recently won an appeal that allows it to evict homeless men and women from city shelters if it decides they have been disruptive or don't comply with shelter rules.
Index About Children
The Drum Major Institute, the New York City think tank headed by Freddy Ferrer, issues an occasional list it calls the Injustice Index, which juxtaposes various statistics in order to make a point. Their latest Injustice Index is about children
Here is an excerpt:
â€˘ Number of New Yorkers that cited "the quality of public schools" as one of their major concerns: 8 in 10
â€˘ Amount of taxpayer dollars spent in legal fees by New York Governor Pataki to challenge the Campaign for Fiscal Equity's efforts to fix a funding formula that was shortchanging New York City schoolchildren: $11 million
â€˘ Average spending per pupil in New York City public schools: $11,474 Average spending per pupil in Peekskill (the hometown of Governor Pataki) public schools: $14,663
â€˘ Amount raised by hip-hop mogul Sean "P. Diddy" Combs for New York City public schools in a charitable run of the New York City marathon this October: $2 million
â€˘ Percentage of New York City public schools that lack a full-time certified school librarian: 94 percent
â€˘ Percentage of New York City public middle and high school students in "high poverty areas" being taught physical sciences by an "unqualified" teacher: 70 percent