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ACS Has Lost the Plot

City Journal

May 31, 2024

It’s been almost a year, but Lynija Eason Kumar was finally charged with murder last month in the death of her six-year-old daughter, Jalayah Eason. The child, according to New York City’s medical examiner, died as a result of blunt-force injuries, malnourishment, and positional asphyxia. According to the New York Times, she “died after Ms. Eason Kumar tied the girl’s hands and feet together, hung her in a closet and struck her repeatedly with a hard object, according to court documents.”

This was not Kumar’s first encounter with child-welfare authorities. The Administration for Children’s Services conducted multiple investigations before Jalayah’s death because of her older brother’s numerous school absences and a teacher’s report that he showed up to school with bruises on his face that he attributed to his mother’s beating. He also allegedly wore the same dirty clothes to school day after day.

But instead of offering an official apology for their inexcusable decision to close the case involving Jalayah’s brother, ACS has just published its spring Strategic Priorities update. Commissioner Jess Dannhauser boasts in his introductory letter, “We have increased CARES, our non-investigatory child protection approach, so that now 25% of incoming reports are addressed in a manner that empowers the family to identify needed supports for their children.” Dannhauser recently told Spectrum News NY1 that this program had been a great success. By what measure?

As I wrote recently in the New York Post, sources inside the ACS claim the agency is not investigating a lot of cases that it should be. In 2015, the list of criteria for investigations included both “Caretaker Abuses Drugs or Alcohol and Child under 7” as well as “Caretaker Mentally Ill/Developmentally Disabled and Child under 7.” As of 2019, both criteria had been eliminated, along with criminal activity in the home.

ACS’s assumption seems to be that parents can address these problems themselves if we just “empower” them to do so. What is the evidence for this? Parents engaged in substance abuse, or facing mental-health challenges, or engaged in criminal behavior need a wakeup call. It’s not clear that merely offering supportive services will keep children safe. ACS workers must now also get a parent’s consent before accessing the school records of a child under investigation. These policy changes are making it harder for front-line workers to understand whether a child is truly at risk.

Dannhauser proudly notes that anytime ACS knocks on a parent’s door, the caseworker must explain to the parents that they don’t have to let them in. To “reduce the stress investigations can cause,” ACS is “providing families with new, written information about their rights regarding CPS requests to enter and assess the safety of children.” If the family refuses entry, then the caseworker must get a warrant for a formal investigation, putting the family on a non-CARES track. All this makes one wonder how long the growth in CARES will continue. 

So many of the report’s measures of success are tautological. The reports of abuse and neglect from schools to the State Central Registry have declined by 11 percent this school year compared with last, with more than 600 fewer families being reported. You can tout this as good news only if you think the reports were not necessary Similarly, the report boasts a reduction in kids taken into foster care. What matters, though, is whether kids are safer, not how many of them are in foster care—an artificial number that agency leaders and policymakers can manipulate to suit their purposes.

The entire report is filled with measures and programs that have little to do with safety and everything to do with making abusive parents feel better about themselves. The word “protection” appears six times, while the word “support” appears 39 times. ACS notes that it has opened new Family Enrichment Centers, which it describes as “warm, inviting spaces co-designed with community and open to community members. They promote protective factors—like social connection, and parental resilience—that contribute to healthy development and a reduction of risks related to child maltreatment.” No evidence is offered supporting these claims.

Overall, the Strategic Priorities report gives the bizarre impression of a child-protection agency disconnected from child protection. The cover of the report features cartoons of kids playing badminton and hopscotch. Maybe this is the ideal vision the agency is chasing: once ACS does its job, children will be able to play again happily. But for kids like Jalayah, that vision is now unattainable.