Early in the morning, it was 5:30. Bright flashlights came in through the windows of the East Flatbush, Brooklyn, apartment on the ground floor. Police officers and people working in child safety were telling a woman to open her front door. They were holding their guns when she got there.
She put her hands up in the “don’t shoot” position right away because she knew about recent reports of police “shooting first before asking questions later.” It was her prayer that her 7-year-old son was still sound asleep in his room. “I was so scared…. The mom, L.B., who is Black and asked to be called by her initials for the safety and privacy of her child, said, “I literally started shaking.”
Because the cops were so aggressive, caseworkers from New York City’s child welfare agency, Administration for Children’s Services, were able to break into L.B.’s apartment without a warrant in January 2021. It didn’t take long before they were looking through her personal things, her bed, her bathroom, and the contents of her refrigerator and cabinets.
Also, they made her take off her son’s shirt so they could look at his middle. Nothing was found. Case records say the boy was safe and not hurt. He lived with his mom and older sister in a clean, well-kept home. The accusations made against L.B. by a caller who did not give their name at 4:45 a.m. that day were not true.
Some of these claims were that she was a stripper (she worked at a home for disabled people), that she used drugs (none were found, and a drug test came back negative for all substances), that she lived with an abusive man and owned “machine guns” (both claims were found to be false after a thorough search and questioning).
ACS and court data show that L.B. has never been found to have harmed a child in any way. Still, the unknown caller, who L.B. thinks is a former friend with a grudge, keeps calling New York’s state child welfare number. Every time, this person or people make false, often already disproved claims about her, as if they know that doing so will instantly lead to the government getting involved in her personal life.
ACS does what she asks; in the past three years, the agency has either checked out her home or talked to and questioned her son at school more than twenty times. Just three of these searches have been done without an order, and the most recent one was in August.
Court records show that all of those requests were turned down by judges. It keeps happening, though, and records show that it’s almost always the same thing. Caseworkers keep ringing her doorbell and, more embarrassingly, the doorbells of her neighbors at all hours of the day and night to get into her apartment.
They look at their child’s stomach and legs when they are not dressed, and sometimes they take pictures. They question him about things like whether she has sex with him without her permission. He cried and told her, “Mom, you told me they wouldn’t come back,” L.B. said. She also said, “Even though I didn’t do anything wrong, I’m still trying to make it up to him.”
L.B. began a federal case this week against the ACS commissioner and the city of New York. She says that the agency’s unauthorized visits to her family’s private life have repeatedly violated her Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures. She is not mainly saying that caseworkers did specific illegal things, though the suit does name some ACS employees.
Instead, she says that three years of the same kind of study, no matter where the accusations against her came from, how credible they are, or how often they are made, is unfair and therefore against the Constitution. Legal aid lawyers in New York said that more cases like this one might be on the way after an investigation by ProPublica and NBC News last year found that ACS caseworkers search more than 50,000 low-income homes every year and only get a warrant 0.5 percent of the time.
*L.B. is represented by both Brooklyn Defender Services and a private law company. In her complaint, she refers to our story. In only 4% of these cases does the agency find a safety problem that requires taking a child from a home? Ronisha Ferguson is a mother from the Bronx who sued the city of New York after ACS took her children away because she wouldn’t let caseworkers check her apartment without a warrant.
Records from the court show that the city agreed to settle the case with Ferguson in August of this year. An ACS spokesperson did not answer any of the detailed questions about how the agency has handled L.B.’s situation. She said that New York law says ACS has to look into all reports of child abuse sent from the state hotline, even ones that are anonymous.
As part of every review, “evaluating the home environment” has to be done. “The agency has “no discretion” if the hotline operator thinks the call is important enough to pass on, she said. Lawyers for L.B. say that caseworkers can choose not to do the full check that they did before if they see that the child is safe, which is allowed by state law.
They say that doing these steps over and over again does real damage. A note from the doctor confirms that L.B.’s child now has serious anxiety, which she says is directly caused by ACS’s constant visits. (He even told her to take the button apart.) Because she had to take several months of unpaid leave to be there for her son, her job has been damaged.
Even though she has lived in her apartment for ten years, her landlord told her that the situation is making other renters unhappy, which makes her think about moving to a different neighborhood. But it was hard for her to fight back for a long time. Caseworkers would come to her door, and she would let them in because they could take her son away from her.
“They also never told her that they would need a warrant without her permission,” she said. As a result, they told her that letting them in was the only way to stop them. By 2022, a coworker had finally persuaded her that she could say no. She started to do that out of worry. In court papers from February of that year, ACS asked for a warrant for the first time, saying that L.B. now knew her rights but that her home still had to be entered “immediately at any hour.”
But after learning about the case’s history and realizing that L.B.’s child had been interviewed and seen in his home several times with no proof that any of the accusations against his mother were true and that this was upsetting the child, the judge turned down the agency’s request. In addition, the order told ACS to report the case to the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office so they could look into a trend of fake hotline calls.
“When following them is more likely to do harm,” the judge told ACS, adding that “showing up in the middle of the night is traumatic; taking off kids’ clothes is traumatic.” But caseworkers kept trying to get into L.B.’s house whenever they got anonymous reports, like the one that said she lived in a bar with several young girls, which was obviously not true. She lied over and over.
They tried again to get a warrant. This was turned down by a second judge, who said it was a “horrible intrusion” and a “waste of state resources.” Instead, ACS went in a different direction: they went to her son’s school and called him to the office to question him there, without her knowledge or permission. He missed a lot of classes because of this for months, and the caseworkers never told him he could leave at any time.
He used to enjoy his gifted and talented program, cooking class, computer time, playing baseball outside, and hanging out with his friends. He tells L.B. that he has to stay home because his chest hurts a lot these days. She said that he has been very sensitive about having to lift his shirt for people he doesn’t know.
Also, the other kids have begun to make fun of him because of it. He cries on the way home. Families like L.B.’s who are being investigated by the ACS can look forward to two pieces of legislation that the New York State Assembly might pass next year. One idea is to make a “family Miranda warning” that caseworkers would have to read to parents at their door.
This would tell them that they have the right to refuse to let police into their home and have a lawyer present. According to ProPublica, that bill almost became law this past spring but didn’t because ACS was against it. The second bill is an “anti-harassment in reporting” bill that would stop tips from being anonymous and try to cut down on fake or harmful calls to the state child welfare number.
The way things stand now, anyone can report any parent without giving their name or phone number. Under the new law, people who call would have to give some basic information about themselves so that caseworkers can follow up, get more information, make sure the claim is true, and decide how intrusive of an investigation is needed. Staff at the hotline and ACS would still have to follow the law and keep the caller’s name secret.
A representative for ACS said that the group is “very worried about malicious and false reporting and the effect it has on families.” Additionally, she said that ACS “supports eliminating most anonymous reporting,” though there are some rare cases, such as when a child calls the hotline. It’s the same with L.B., whose son is three years older than when the searches began.