Lawsuit: New York foster care officials didn't protect kids or find them homes fast enough

NEW YORK, N.Y. – Advocates for foster children in New York City sued the system Wednesday, accusing state and city agencies of putting children at risk by letting them languish for years without being placed in permanent homes.

The lawsuit filed in federal court in Manhattan claims the more than 11,000 children in the city’s system average far more time there than most places in the country. It says the needless bureaucratic delays subject them to emotional distress and increase the odds of physical or sexual abuse.

“Foster care is supposed to be safe and temporary,” the suit says. “For children in New York City’s foster care system, it is neither.”

Ten foster children and city Public Advocate Letitia James were named as plaintiffs in the suit against the city Administration for Children’s Services and the state Office of Children and Family Services. At a news conference outside the courthouse, James accused ACS of failing to provide proper oversight for 29 non-profit contractors responsible for day-to-day care of foster children.

“We are here today because children are suffering — at the hands of bureaucracy and at the hands of government,” James said.

Among the plaintiffs is a 16-year old girl who has spent the past 12 years in foster care, suffering abuse in one home and needing treatment for depression, the suit says. Another is a 12-year-old girl who has been in nine homes in the last eight years.

According to the suit, it takes longer for a foster child to be adopted in the city than almost anywhere else in the country. It also says disadvantaged biological parents are unable to get social services they need to regain custody of their children.

“Many children who are without a permanent home never get adopted at all and leave the foster care system only when they get too old to stay in it any longer,” the court papers say. “Approximately, 1,000 children ‘age out’ of the foster care system each year, often winding up homeless and without any adult with whom they have a permanent connection.”

The lawsuit asks the court to force ACS to use stricter oversight of the contract agencies so children are safer and spend less time in foster care.

In a statement, ACS took credit for helping drastically reduce the number of children in foster care from a high of 45,000 in the 1990s. It also said it was taking “significant steps in preventive work designed to keep families together and avoid placing children in foster care in the first place.”

The Juvenile Rights Practice of The Legal Aid Society, which is working with the city to improve the system, called the suit short-sighted.

The case is being brought “at a time when foster care numbers are at an all-time low and collaboration is at an all-time high,” Legal Aid attorney Tamara Steckler said in a statement. “We are concerned that this development may stall the progress being made by those of us actually working with these families and children to improve the foster care system.”