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Lawsuit Alleges Child Welfare Agency Regularly Violates Rights of Families

A lawsuit filed against New York City alleges that the Administration for Children’s Services routinely violates the rights of families it is meant to protect. The lawsuit claims that this agency uses coercive tactics, such as threatening to take children away or calling the police, in order to gain entry into people’s homes. Once inside, investigators allegedly engage in unconstitutional practices, including strip-searching children and rifling through families’ most private belongings.

One of the women suing, Ebony Gould, a single mother of three in Queens, has been investigated by the Administration for Children’s Services at least 12 times, all of which were found to be baseless. She describes the repeated investigations as traumatic experiences, where she felt forced to let the investigators into her home. It’s reported that during the investigations, Ms. Gould was made to feel she had no choice but to comply, and at one point, an investigator told her that she risked having her children taken away.

The plaintiffs are represented by the Family Justice Law Center, which is dedicated to preventing unnecessary family separation. The center’s executive director, David Shalleck-Klein, highlights that the lawsuit is not intended to stop investigations altogether, but to focus on illegal searches and coercive tactics used by the agency.

The lawsuit asserts that the agency conducts tens of thousands of searches each year in nonemergency circumstances, coercing consent and violating Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure. The plaintiffs are asking a judge to declare the agency’s tactics unconstitutional and order it to cease these practices.

While the Administration for Children’s Services has made efforts to reduce the number of children placed in foster care, criticism over racial disparities in its investigations persists. This includes Black and Hispanic children being about seven times as likely as white children to be the subject of investigations.

The impact of these investigations can be severe and long-lasting for affected families. Ms. Azar, a civil servant, describes how her daughter, once outgoing and cheerful, has been negatively affected by the investigations, blaming herself and feeling she needs to behave or her parents will be arrested.

This lawsuit is a crucial step towards holding the Administration for Children’s Services accountable and demanding that it upholds the constitutional rights of the families it serves. If successful, this lawsuit could lead to significant changes in how child abuse and neglect investigations are conducted, ultimately protecting families and children from undue harm.

A sweeping class-action lawsuit filed against New York City on Tuesday argues that the agency that investigates child abuse and neglect routinely engages in unconstitutional practices that traumatize the families it is charged with protecting.

The lawsuit says that investigators for the Administration for Children’s Services deceive and bully their way into people’s homes, where they rifle through families’ most private spaces, strip-search children and humiliate parents.

The agency’s “coercive tactics” include threatening to take children away or call the police, telling parents they have no choice but to let them in and making public scenes in hallways, according to the suit, filed in federal court in Brooklyn.

Marisa Kaufman, a spokeswoman for the agency, said in a statement on Monday that A.C.S. would review the lawsuit. “A.C.S. is committed to keeping children safe and respecting parents’ rights,” she said.

She added, “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.”

One of the women suing, Ebony Gould, is a single mother of three in Queens who has been investigated by A.C.S. at least 12 times — each of them found to be baseless. The lawsuit says the investigations, which involved dozens of home visits, were prompted by her abusive ex-partner.

Ms. Gould said that often during the repeated investigations, she was made to feel she had no choice but to let A.C.S. in. During one of the first visits, she said, an A.C.S. worker told her, through the closed door, that she was at risk of having her children taken away.

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

Ms. Gould, 35, and the other plaintiffs are represented by the Family Justice Law Center, an organization dedicated to preventing unnecessary family separation. Its executive director, David Shalleck-Klein, said that the suit was not meant to stop A.C.S. investigations altogether, but to focus on illegal searches.

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

There are three legal justifications investigators can use to enter homes: court orders, emergency circumstances or voluntary consent.

The lawsuit says that the agency “chooses to almost never seek” court orders and conducts tens of thousands of searches each year in nonemergency circumstances, coercing consent and violating Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure.

If successful, the lawsuit would require A.C.S. to fundamentally re-envision how it investigates reports of abuse and neglect.

The agency investigates over 40,000 allegations each year. Some are genuine emergencies, and the agency has the difficult task of weighing the civil rights of families against the safety of children.

When tragedies happen, A.C.S. is frequently blamed for not having stepped in more aggressively. Those rare cases where children have died after investigators intervened minimally or not at all can make it difficult to dial back the agency’s powers.

Still, criticism of the agency has risen in recent years, especially over the stark racial disparities in its investigations. Black and Hispanic children in the city are about seven times as likely as white children to be the subject of investigations, according to state data.

While A.C.S. has reported progress in reducing “the disparities that exist at each of the stages throughout the child welfare system,” a Black child still has a nearly 50 percent chance of being caught up in an A.C.S. investigation by his or her 18th birthday, according to one of the agency’s own news releases.

Ms. Gould, who is Black, said her family has been permanently affected by its experience with A.C.S. All three of her children are now in therapy.

She said one investigator asked her 6-year-old daughter if she was suicidal. Her daughter had not previously known the word. “From that day on, she started saying — when they would come — she felt suicidal.”

One night in December 2022, when Ms. Gould’s mother was visiting from California, A.C.S. banged on her door at 3 a.m., she said.

Ms. Gould told investigators that she did not want to let them in. They threatened to come back with the authorities.

“I was shaking so bad, and my mom just started praying and then my kids are like ‘Mommy, what’s going on?’” she recalled in a recent interview.

A veteran A.C.S. employee said that when a family is resistant to home visits and the caseworker has not seen the children for a while, a night-shift caseworker is sometimes sent to assess the children. The employee spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss agency policy.

The lawsuit is a crucial step towards holding the Administration for Children’s Services accountable and demanding that it upholds the constitutional rights of the families it serves. If successful, this lawsuit could lead to significant changes in how child abuse and neglect investigations are conducted, ultimately protecting families and children from undue harm.

This needs to ensure it upholds the constitutional rights of the families it serves and protects them from undue harm.

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Forest Lawn Drive now free of RV encampment and parking

Nancy Sexton was thrilled when city crews cleared out more than 50 RVs in December that had been parked near her business for months, blocking parking spots and leaving behind trash and waste on Forest Lawn Drive.

Then she realized the long stretch of road near Barham Boulevard in the Hollywood Hills was suddenly off limits for not just parked RVs, but all parked vehicles. Much of the curb was painted red. No parking signs lined the sidewalk.

“It’s a dumb decision,” said Sexton, who owns the Muse Rooms, which offers leased office spaces. “It’s frustrating.”

The more than 50 RVs, which had been stationed along the winding road for months as a semi-permanent living encampment, were removed in December as part of the city’s operation known as Inside Safe. One goal of the program, which is part of Mayor Karen Bass’ initiative to bring people living on the streets indoors, is to end the cycle of homeless encampments being cleared by the city only to return a few weeks later.

But days after the RVs were removed, Sexton said, the curb was painted red and parking was limited. The new red zone is about a quarter mile long, running between Warner Bros. Studios’ Gate 9 entrance and North Coyote Canyon Drive.

The areas that do allow parking, meanwhile, have two-hour limits.

City officials also said the decision to restrict parking was done out of fire safety concerns, not to keep the RVs from resettling along the road. Sexton has her doubts.

The lack of parking along the street suddenly imposed a new, unexpected expense on her clients, prompting some to look elsewhere. The red curb has also become an irritation for some students and workers at the New York Film Academy and businesses nearby.

A road with RVs lining its right side.

RVs are parked on Forest Lawn Drive on June 27, 2023, in Burbank.

(David McNew/Getty Images)

Since the no-parking signs went up, Sexton said, she’s lost two regular members and two potential clients. All of them had aired concern about the lack of street parking and the added expense of paying $12 a day at the parking structure on site.

The parking fee, Sexton said, doubled the monthly costs for some members.

“I didn’t know how much of a problem it was going to be until there were people saying, ‘I can’t pay $12 a day,’ ” she said. “I’m really feeling it now.”

The situation highlights some of the unintended results as city officials look to address homelessness and the concerns of businesses and homeowners affected by makeshift encampments, whether they involve tents, vehicles, or both.

RV encampments have sprung up across the city amid a housing crisis that has left many people priced out of permanent homes. Local officials have looked for ways to address the issue, including new regulations that have targeted overnight RV parking.

According to the mayor’s office, the Inside Safe program has addressed 39 encampments so far, moving more than 2,400 people into interim housing and an additional 440 into permanent housing since December 2022.

Bass spokesperson Zach Seidl said the RVs that were removed from Forest Lawn Drive were themselves causing parking issues in the area, as well as raising other significant safety and public health concerns.

Members of the surrounding community have said removing the RVs “has helped on all three fronts,” Seidl said in a statement. “This operation has saved lives.

Stella Stahl, spokesperson for Councilmember Nithya Raman, said the city has helped many of the RV residents along Forest Lawn Drive to find housing indoors.

In a statement, Stahl credited the decision to limit parking to a request by the Los Angeles Fire Department, which called the area a “high fire severity zone.” A 2019 brush fire in the area burned more than 30 acres and threatened homes and businesses.

In a Sept. 19, 2023, letter, LAFD Assistant Chief Dean Zipperman asked the city Department of Transportation to install “Tow Away No Stopping Any Time” restrictions on the road due to the stopped and parked vehicles there.

To avoid the hassle of looking for parking, cinematography students Sanchin Vinay, Yifan Xiang, and Davide Picci carpool to their classes at the New York Film Academy, which shares a building with the Muse Rooms. Eliminating the RVs has opened some spots to them, although Picci said they’d been able to find spaces on the street before — “really far down.”

A couch on a sidewalk near an RV.

The curb along Forest Lawn Drive, where someone has left a couch.

(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

Sometimes they pay the $12 for the daily parking to avoid being late for class. Carpooling helps cushion the cost.

Leslie Bates, a film production instructor, said she heard of students and faculty members having “volatile” interactions with the RV residents.

Now that the RVs have

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