Public Policy & Special Litigation
The New York state and local child welfare systems continue to fail children in foster care. Despite changes in administration, improved policies and a decrease in the overall number of children in care, the needs of young people in foster care are not being met effectively. Children often fail to receive timely mental health assessments and services; older adolescents are not being prepared adequately for employment; LGBTQ youth are not placed in affirming homes; young people are not being discharged to appropriate, stable housing. These are but some of the chronic, systemic failures that leave children in foster care vulnerable and afraid.
LFC created a Public Policy and Special Litigation Project to initiate, monitor, and coordinate advocacy and educational strategies necessary to effectuate positive systemic reform on behalf of all children in foster care in the five boroughs of New York City and in New York State. The project includes: individual advocacy in family court proceedings; legislative analysis and reform; amicus curie filings; impact litigation in both the State and Federal Courts; community, institutional, and judicial education; and collaborative work with city and state agencies as well as other advocacy organizations.
These reform efforts are tied to LFC’s direct services and reflect the needs, wishes and rights of individual children in foster care. The project also works seamlessly with LFC’s other special projects, providing public policy and impact litigation expertise for LFC’s reform efforts on behalf of children in foster care who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender; whose immigration status is unresolved; who have been sexually abused or have been exposed to domestic violence; who struggle with mental health issues; who require educational advocacy; and who are preparing to age out of the foster care system.
LFC’s impact litigation and public policy achievements include:
Marisol v. Giuliani:
This landmark civil rights, class action lawsuit was brought by Lawyers For Children and Children’s Rights, Inc., on behalf of all children in the custody of the NYC Administration for Children’s Services (ACS). The Marisol case accomplished something unprecedented - the creation of an independent panel of nationally recognized experts in the field of child welfare that monitored, reviewed and evaluated the performance of New York City’s child welfare system for two years. This innovative settlement plan set a new national standard in child welfare reform litigation and gave children in foster care in New York City the best opportunity they have ever had for genuine and comprehensive reform of the entire child welfare bureaucracy.
Richard A. v. Scoppetta:
Lawyers For Children and the Legal Aid Society jointly filed this class action lawsuit, challenging provisions of the Adoption and Safe Families Act that required the mandatory removal of children from foster homes if the foster or adoptive parents had ever been convicted of certain crimes. The law required removal regardless of how exemplary a foster parent's track record as a caregiver, how long ago the crime was committed, or how bonded the child might be to them. Outside of court, LFC joined with an unprecedented coalition of advocacy groups and legal service providers to educate members of the state legislature and counsel for the Governor about the merits of amending the statute. In a true "win" for New York's children, the court ruled in our favor and the law was amended.
Nicholson v. Williams:
LFC successfully represented the plaintiff children, as co-counsel with the Legal Aid Society, in this class action lawsuit in Federal District Court. The case challenged the practice of automatically removing children from a parent who was a victim of domestic violence. We obtained a settlement requiring ACS to engage in a case-by-case evaluation to determine whether removal is in fact necessary (rather than automatic) when domestic violence is involved. This case ultimately resulted in a landmark New York Court of Appeals decision that will inform how and when ACS intervenes in the lives of children and families in New York State for decades to come.
L.J. v. Maul:
LFC, along with New York Lawyers For The Public Interest and Patterson Belknap Webb and Tyler, filed this class action lawsuit against New York City and New York State to improve the services provided to developmentally disabled children in foster care.
D.B. v. Richter:
LFC, along with the Legal Aid Society and Davis Polk and Wardwell, filed this class action suit on behalf of youth who were being discharged from foster care to homelessness, and were not being supervised by ACS post-discharge, as required by New York State Law and Regulations. The matter was settled with ACS agreeing to implement new policies and procedures for youth leaving foster care to independent living, and agreeing to ongoing monitoring of the implementation of those procedures. The settlement ensures that youth over the age of 18 who leave foster care will never be discharged to homelessness or left alone, without services or meaningful adult connections in the community. The settlement also requires ongoing monitoring/access to services until the young person reaches age 21.
LFC works together with local and statewide organizations and agencies to improve policies, practices and procedures affecting children in foster care.
Improper Handcuffing of Young People in Court:
LFC recruited pro bono partners Dickstein Shapiro and Simpson Thacher and Bartlett, and initiated an effort to address the fact that young people were being kept handcuffed in their Manhattan Family Court proceedings, without any individualized assessment of actual safety concerns. After vigorous engagement with the Office of Court Administration, which included a formal demand letter, meetings and follow up advocacy, we received a response from the Chief of Operations at the NYS Office of Court Administration assuring us that this practice will stop immediately, and that a new policy has been developed to address this issue. In addition, a special liaison has been identified to ensure that all court captains, judges, referees and judicial hearing officers are aware of and implement the new policy requiring no handcuffs in the courtroom unless an individualized inquiry by the judge determines a specific justification for restraints.
LFC has been working with pro bono co-counsel, Skadden Arps, to compel ACS to address the systemic failure to provide appropriate, affirming placements and services for LGBTQ youth in foster care. This has resulted in an action plan that includes: the identification and recruitment of LGBTQ-affirming foster homes and congregate care facilities; creation of a system to match LGBTQ youth with LGBTQ-affirming placements; developing and implementing training for child protective workers, foster care agency staff and foster parents regarding the needs of LGBTQ youth; developing LGBTQ-focused preventive services; ensuring a designated LGBTQ point-person at every foster care agency and at ACS; and developing a transgender and gender non-conforming best practice guide. Recently, ACS acknowledged the failure of one program to respond adequately to the requirements of its corrective action plan and that program has been closed.
ACS Visiting Policy:
LFC spearheaded efforts that resulted in ACS amending its visiting policy to make unsupervised visits the default, unless risk of harm is shown. This enables our clients who are in foster care to visit with their parents and family members in a more natural and comfortable setting.
Pregnant and Parenting Youth:
LFC participated in the development of a best practices guide for pregnant and parenting youth that was successfully adopted by ACS.
Lawyers For Children, Children’s Rights, Inc., and the Juvenile Rights Division of the Legal Aid Society released “Time Running Out: Teens in Foster Care,” the first ever comprehensive qualitative study of teens living in group settings in New York City foster care.
LFC works to educate the community on legislation affecting our clients. Our efforts in this area often involve meeting with legislators and their staff, researching and drafting memoranda, and coordinating with other advocacy groups to present jointly held positions on how proposed legislation would impact our clients. Successful passage of a bill is often the result of a multi-year education effort, as legislation is rarely passed in the first year of introduction.
LFC worked with the legislature and advocacy groups on the drafting and passage of legislation that made broad changes to the laws affecting children in foster care—including mandating court hearings every six months rather than every 12 or 18 months, extending family court jurisdiction to age 21 for youth voluntarily placed in foster care, and streamlining procedures for terminating parental rights in appropriate cases.
The New York State legislature recently enacted legislation (supported by LFC) that protects the rights of destitute minors who enter foster care, ensuring them legal representation. (“Destitute minors” are youth, many of whom are immigrants, without identified caregivers.) Unfortunately, however, the legislation made no provision for identifying destitute minors already in foster care. LFC has successfully negotiated with the Administration for Children’s Services to ensure that they identify all such youth and file their cases before a Judge of the Family Court with notice to LFC, so that we may be assigned as the child’s counsel.
Safety Net for Older Youth:
LFC advocated for passage of legislation that, in appropriate circumstances, allows youth between the ages of 18 and 21 to return to foster care after discharge.
Increasing the Number of Family Court Judges:
LFC has been advocating for close to six years for the passage of legislation to increase the number of Family Court judges. Set by the legislature in 1991, the number of New York City Family Court judges has not changed, although the number of cases heard by the court has increased dramatically since that time. Children and families suffering from long court delays should finally receive some relief as a new law, passed in 2014, will increase the number of family court judges in New York State to 25 by the year 2016.
Testimony At Legislative and City Council Hearings:
LFC provides testimony on a variety of topics at hearings designed to educate lawmakers so that they can develop a legislative agenda that positively impacts our clients and requires ACS to achieve specific goals with respect to young people in foster care.
Foster Care Agency Review and Monitoring:
LFC identifies problems with foster care agency programs and works together with those programs and the ACS office of Agency Program Assistance to ensure that changes are made or that programs are closed down.