Family Caseworkers Are Like Cops, But They Don’t Tell Parents Their Rights

New York families are organizing to require caseworkers to give parents a Miranda-like warning informing them of their rights in so-called “child welfare” investigations.

a rally for family miranda rights
Advocates gather at a rally for family "Miranda" rights.
Courtesy of Sarah Duggan

Family Caseworkers Are Like Cops, But They Don’t Tell Parents Their Rights

New York families are organizing to require caseworkers to give parents a Miranda-like warning informing them of their rights in so-called “child welfare” investigations.

Child welfare investigations start with a knock on the door from a caseworker. Media depicts caseworkers as gentle, heroic figures—often soft-spoken women wearing cardigan sweaters, carrying notebooks, and holding benevolent intentions. But ask a family who has been impacted by the so-called “child welfare system,” and they’re likely to shatter this idyllic perception.

Those who have experienced the dreaded knock on the door often find little difference between a caseworker and a cop. For some, a caseworker is worse, because they can inflict a punishment that many parents say is more painful than an arrest or jail: the removal of a child from their home.

To reflect the extreme stakes of these interactions, impacted families have begun to call child welfare caseworkers the “family police.” But while their powers and tactics resemble law enforcement’s, they are not technically considered part of the criminal legal system. And as a result, there are even fewer protections to protect people from overreach.

In the case of actual police, the law requires cops to read people their Miranda rights before questioning—the right to remain silent, to an attorney, and to stop answering questions. Family police are not held to the same standard. These agents can carry out entire investigations without informing parents of their rights to speak to an attorney or to deny them entry into the home without a court order.

In New York, families, attorneys, and advocates—including at the organization I work for, JMACforFamilies—are organizing to pass the Family Miranda Rights Act, which would require family police across New York State to give parents a Miranda-like warning before an investigation. This legislation does not create new rights; it simply ensures that parents are informed of the rights they already have.

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In a story published in the Appeal this week, Dan Moritz-Rabson of the New York Civil Liberties Union spoke to families in New York City who described feeling “pressured to submit to sweeping demands and intrusive and degrading treatment” during investigations mounted by the city’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS).

“You got to keep a level head, or try to, even though you’re boiling inside,” said Shalonda Curtis-Hackett, a parent impacted by ACS investigations. In the eyes of ACS investigators, “you’re not innocent, you’re guilty, and you’re proving your innocence,” she added.

Even the agency’s employees have expressed apprehension about the role they occupy. In an internal survey of ACS staffers, parents, and advocates first covered by The New York Times, participants described ACS as a “predatory system that specifically targets Black and brown parents.” One ACS employee compared being investigated by the child welfare system to being stopped and frisked for 60 days straight.

Family police have been trained to skirt or violate the rights of families in the course of investigations—and New York has given them free rein to do so. For instance, investigators are technically required to obtain a court order to search a home. But in New York City, agents enter homes without a court order 99.8 percent of the time, typically by taking advantage of frightened parents who are unaware that they aren’t legally obligated to let them in.

These agencies relentlessly investigate Black, Latino, and low-income parents—searching their homes, medical records, and even their children’s bodies—for evidence of child abuse to retroactively justify their violations of a family’s rights. Ninety-six percent of the time, they don’t find any child safety concern.

Once the family police gain access to a home, they inflict extreme stress on parents and children. Children watch a stranger rummage through their refrigerators, closets, and drawers. They listen as this person interrogates their parents about relationships, personal medical histories, and employment. They are forced to answer probing questions designed to portray their caretaker as negligent and untrustworthy. This stranger often asks them to undress so they can search their body for scrapes and bruises, regardless of whether there is an allegation of abuse.

During an investigation, the family police can decide to immediately remove children from their homes–even when those children are hiding under their beds, crying, or begging to stay with their family.

With the looming threat of family separation, many parents express fear during investigations. Investigators often treat these natural expressions of emotion as grounds for suspicion. These hunches tend to reflect implicit bias more than of any real threat to a child’s safety. But they carry significant weight in family court, where judges may treat them as near fact.

Although some agency employees have supported calls for Family Miranda legislation, the agencies themselves have opposed these efforts due to concerns that they could make it harder to discover child abuse. But if less than 4 percent of ACS investigations in New York City uncover a child safety concern, this hardly seems like a justification for systematically infringing on families’ rights. Furthermore, unnecessary investigations—which can inflict lasting trauma on a child—should themselves be understood as a threat to children’s well-being. With all of this in mind, the opposition to this legislation seems less about child safety than maintaining the system’s ability to police, criminalize, and control Black and Latino families.

Family Miranda requirements will not end the horrors of the family policing system. As we’ve seen in the criminal legal system, Miranda rights have not stopped police from terrorizing, criminalizing, and murdering people nationwide. Informing people of their rights is simply the bare minimum.

Sarah Duggan is the Manager of Communications and Storytelling at JMACforFamilies, a legislative advocacy organization working to dismantle the family policing system.

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