A piece of news from New York City
bears mention here today, given comments made yesterday by Gov. Asa Hutchinson regarding the current “crisis” state of the Arkansas foster care system, which now contains record levels of children. A federal class action suit has been filed against New York’s local and state agencies responsible for child welfare.

Named as plaintiffs are ten children in the NYC’s foster system:

The lawsuit alleges that the city’s Administration for Children’s Services fails to provide the services, planning and caseworker training to help children find permanent families before they suffer irreparable harm — all part of a lack of urgency, child welfare advocates say, that permeates the system.

“Foster care is supposed to be a temporary system,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, a veteran child welfare litigator who has filed class-action lawsuits aimed at reforming foster care systems around the country, and who leads a group filing the new lawsuit. “Children are not supposed to grow up thinking that the state is its parent; they should be raised by families. What pervades the New York City system, which I haven’t seen anyplace else, is that there is no sense of urgency whatsoever. And there’s no accountability.”

Coincidentally, Kathryn Joyce’s cover story in this week’s Arkansas Times concerns the systemic shortcomings — and sometimes, clear failures — of foster care here in Arkansas, specifically in Sebastian County. It’s the first in an ongoing, in-depth series about child welfare in the state, made possible by the generous donations of readers to a crowdfunding effort this spring sparked by the story of the Justin and Marsha Harris “re-homing” controversy.

Many of the issues Kathryn cites in her monumental story are mirrored in the federal complaint filed in New York today: overloaded caseworkers, a lack of in-home support for struggling parents, a sometimes capricious juvenile court system, and the disturbing tendency of children to accumulate serious psychological diagnoses the longer they remain in state custody.


Child welfare problems clearly are in no way unique to Arkansas. But the New York suit should serve as a reminder as to Gov. Hutchinson and other leaders that fixing the state’s foster care system must be taken seriously. Children’s Rights, an advocacy organization that was founded by Lowry, has successfully filed similar class action suits against child welfare agencies in Tennessee, Mississippi and, most recently, Oklahoma, for failing kids; a similar suit in Texas is ongoing.

An important point: Not all child welfare advocates think lawsuits are the best route to achieve positive reform. From the NYT:

..Lauren Shapiro, the director of the family defense practice at Brooklyn Defender Services, said [New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services] already had an overly punitive culture that focused on holding parents to certain standards instead of helping them be better parents.

But Ms. Shapiro called the lawsuit shortsighted, saying it could force the administration to focus on complying with a legal settlement instead of continuing to collaborate with advocates on improvements.

“I have a question about whether this is a really good use of resources in terms of how to address the problems, because we have been successful in working with them,” Ms. Shapiro said. “We don’t have time to file lawsuits — we’re representing the clients — but we’re also the ones who are seeing what’s happening on a day-to-day basis.”