Administration for Children Services' Ambivalent Relationship With Special Needs Families

By Natalie Ferguson, PhD - Last Updated: September 25, 2023

Natalie Ferguson, Ph.D., ONP MSN FNP MSA APRN

The New York City Administration for Children Services (ACS) has been described by some as a system where Black and Brown children are disproportionally singled out by caseworkers. An article in the New York Post recently highlighted that even some ACS workers described their agency as a “predatory system subjecting Black parents to a different level of scrutiny” than White families. There is a movement to end ACS as a racist and harmful institution. Vocal critics of this system, such as the Parent Legislative Action Network, an organization that works towards abolishing Child Protective Services (CPS) harmful practices, and the Black Families Matter movement, have argued that ACS is a carceral institution masquerading as a social service.

There are numerous parallels that can be found in every single area of the ACS process. For example: 1) Emergency removal of children, and placement in foster care resembles pretrial detention. 2) Fact- Finding hearings before a family court judge simulate a trial. 3) Intake hearing, where a judge decides where the child will stay during the ACS process, is like a bail hearing. 4) The adjudication process where evidence is weighted is comparable to the police testifying against a defendant in criminal court, and finally, 5) The disposition is like sentencing, and termination of parental rights is most certainly equated to the death penalty.

This feeling of racial disparity in the treatment from ACS towards Black and Brown parents versus the treatment towards White parents has been echoed by minority parents of both neurotypical and neurodivergent children. However, parents of special needs children emphatically state that once they begin advocating for services for their child in the New York City School system, some of the teachers will weaponize Child Protective Services to intimidate parents and dissuade them from advocacy. According to Christine Gottlieb, co-director of NYU Family Defense Clinic, “Black Families are 5 times more likely to be investigated by ACS and 14 times more likely to be separated from their children than White Families”. Most advocates equate ACS with being the “Family Police.” There have been numerous cases of children being removed from homes, and parents who spoke out being harassed and bullied into agreeing with school recommendations. Innocent children get caught in the crossfire, while children who truly need the protection are ignored due to a lack of staffing to investigate legitimate calls.

Years ago, I advocated for the school services my special needs son was entitled to, much to the chagrin of school officials. I was told by teachers that I was unable to fully comprehend my child’s needs. I was also told that I was destroying my son’s future with my ignorance of what he really needed and what would benefit him. They made me feel like I was the worst parent in the world because (at the time) they had the degrees to prove them right, and ACS to back them. Their resolve only made me fight harder for my son, and the more I fought, the more ACS was called. Suddenly, my private life was no longer my own. Social Workers would show up at my home any time during the day and demand to see my son and speak to me. They would look through my food pantry, refrigerator, and closets for any signs that I was abusing my son. This abuse of power originated from the NYC school system and was executed by ACS: one worker was even apologetic, knowing full well that there was nothing to the allegations against me. Thanks to my attorney, I was able to put an end to these unwarranted home visits. However, I was fortunate: the sad fact is this retaliation tactic to silence parents persists to this day, leaving many minority and underprivileged parents unsure of their options.

Although ACS has been weaponized and used disproportionally against minority and marginalized families, the answer is not to get rid of the department, as some advocates are pushing for. When used correctly, ACS can and does save lives. There are instances, unfortunately, where children are being genuinely abused and need the support of ACS, and because of this fact, keeping the agency intact is necessary. With that said, there needs to be widespread change so that it is not a tool used by unscrupulous educators to control parents. There needs to be education, not eradication, of the employees of both ACS and the school districts. There also needs to be a realization that ACS’s primary goal is to protect all neurodiverse and neurotypical children alike and support parents who are only advocating for what their children truly deserve.


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