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Lawsuit: New York City Child Welfare Investigators Use “Coercive Tactics” That Traumatize Families

— February 12, 2024

One of the parents listed as a plaintiff claims that investigators harassed her over complaints filed by an abusive ex-partner, threatening to take her children away before explaining the reason for their visit.

A recently-filed class action lawsuit claims that New York City’s child welfare agency uses “coercive tactics” that violate parents’ constitutional rights and leave families traumatized.

According to The New York Times, the complaint was filed earlier this week in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn. Attorneys for the proposed class claim that the Administration for Children’s Services engages in deceptive and unlawful practices—threatening to separate families, misrepresenting parents’ legal rights, and instigating aggressive confrontations in public spaces.

“A.C.S. leaves in their wake real fear, real trauma, and real consequences that need to be accounted for,” said attorney David Shalleck-Klein, an attorney representing the nine families named as plaintiffs and founder of the Family Justice Center.

Shalleck-Klein, notes The Gothamist, is a former public defender with the city’s family courts systems. He founded the Family Justice Law Center in 2022 to prevent unwarranted family separations, and to provide additional resources to those struggling to obtain competent legal counsel.

One of the plaintiffs listed in the complaint—Ebony Gould, a single mother of three—said that she has been investigated by the Administration for Children’s Services no fewer than three times, with each investigation prompted by complaints that were later found baseless.

All of the searches, Gould maintains, were predicated on faulty information provided by her abusive ex-partner.

A gavel. Image via Wikimedia Commons via Flickr/user: Brian Turner. (CCA-BY-2.0).

Gould said that, during her encounters with A.C.S., she was often made to feel that she had no choice but to let investigators enter her home. In one incident, an A.C.S. official threatened her through a closed door, telling her that her children were at risk of being taken away.

“I felt forced,” Gould said. “It almost felt like I was being abused again, but by a stranger.”

Shalleck-Klein emphasized that the lawsuit does not intend to prevent the A.C.S. from conducting reasonable investigations. Instead, its purpose is to curtail the allegedly common practice of A.C.S. officials conducting illegal searches of parents’ homes.

“They open refrigerators, inspect labels in medicine cabinets, tell children to lift up their shirts and pull down their pants,” Shalleck-Klein said. “And it’s not just a one-and-done—they frequently come back, time and time again.”

“A.C.S. falls short of what even the N.Y.P.D. is doing when searching New Yorkers’ homes,” he said, noting that the local law enforcement uses consent-to-search forms and has recently prioritized more rigorous training for its officers.

Marisa Kaufman, a spokesperson for the agency, said that the A.C.S. will review the lawsuit.

“A.C.S. is committed to keeping children safe and respecting parents’ rights,” Kaufman said.

“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,” Kaufman said.


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