Testimony of Carlos Boyet, CWOP Parent Advocate
New York City Council
Joint Hearing of the General Welfare and Education Committees
April 11, 2006
My name is Carlos Boyet. I am a Parent Organizer with the Child Welfare Organizing Project, CWOP. I work in CWOP’s Highbridge office in the South Bronx, as part of a collaboration called “The Bridge Builders.” We work to organize and engage other local parents in services and community improvement activities. Our overall goal is to reduce child maltreatment and foster care placement of children from our community. One important part of this goal is to arm parents with knowledge about the child welfare system. I was one of the first group of Highbridge parents who completed a six-month parent leadership curriculum with CWOP in April 2005. This training helped me to understand my rights as a parent, and ultimately helped me to gain custody of my son. I struggled for four years to get my son out of the system. Before I heard about CWOP, I didn’t know anything about how the system worked. I was appearing in court, and caught up in a world that I did not understand. I only knew what people who worked in the system were telling me, and what they thought I should be allowed to know.
My son was removed from his mother’s care. I was living in Connecticut when I was informed of his removal. I was trying to find where my son was located, and I had a very hard time. The caseworkers kept changing, and my son was in the system for two years before I could even find him. I came to New York and appeared in court to announce myself as the father. Instead of being given credit for my persistence in finding my son, or being seen as a possible resource for him, the treatment I received in court I can only describe as badgering. They questioned whether or not I was “really” the father. They told me that I did not need a lawyer, but that I had to be investigated. The process seemed to take forever. I lost three jobs because of demands of this investigation process, while my son continued moving from one foster home to another. I was trying to learn things on my own. I was compliant and polite. I did everything that was asked of me. I submitted to drug tests even though I was not using drugs. I took parenting classes that did nothing to educate me to the special needs of my son, who is developmentally disabled.
During this process, my son remained in foster care. While in foster care, he was overdosed on an adult tranquilizer, Valium. Someone in this foster home that was certified and reimbursed to care for a special needs child gave this drug to him. He was hospitalized for a week. The fact that he was released to me shortly after this incident did not feel like a coincidence to me. I felt like ACS was saying: “Here, just take him and be quiet about this.” After four years of struggle and confusion, intrusive investigations and meaningless requirements, my son was suddenly paroled to me with no real preparation or support from either ACS or the foster care agency.
One of the first issues, not surprisingly, was that my son was having a difficult time in school. He was reacting to his experiences in foster care, trying to adjust to a new setting, and not enough attention had been paid to finding the right educational setting for his needs. His teacher complained about him constantly, and attributed his problems to a “bad attitude.” Although I very much wanted for him to attend school regularly, and to succeed in school, I became tired and frustrated by the constant calls and complaints about him. I kept him at home for a few days, thinking I would give us all a break. When I did this, the same teacher who called me constantly to complain did not call me to ask if my son was okay. Instead, she called the State Central Register and made an allegation of educational neglect. It was at this time that I secured legal services through the Bridge Builders and LSNY / Bronx. Not only did they help defend me against these new allegations, they helped my temporary custody of my son became full custody. I was very happy. A little help went a long way. My son and I are doing well. He is eleven, and while he is still struggling to succeed in school, he attends school regularly.
Even though I am now working in partnership with ACS, I have to honestly say that there was nothing good about my own experience with ACS. I did not find ACS helpful. There were very few meaningful resources made available to me. Instead, ACS made me go through many obstacles in order to prove myself as a father. Some of their demands had nothing to do with my skills as a parent. For example, they told me to get a better job that produced more income, but without offering me any kind of help or support in doing this. The tasks I was assigned felt nearly impossible for me, like I was being tested and expected to fail.
Another problem was that I was being stereotyped. This was not helpful. Caseworkers seemed to form snap judgments of me and then use them against me. I had so many different caseworkers. All of their different opinions seemed to come from their own mindset, and then I would have to deal with one set of stereotypes after another: drug user, deadbeat, thug. My experience with ACS caseworkers was that they wouldn’t take the time to speak to me and try to understand me as an individual. They would form their opinions of me quickly without any real investigation. They could have worked with me and shown me some respect. They could have been more resourceful and offered me some real help. In my four years of being involved with ACS, I had one good caseworker, and she only worked on my son’s case for about a week before she left ACS. In my experience, most caseworkers were nasty. They need to examine their attitudes and work with a more open mind. They need to make fewer negative assumptions about parents in our community.
Also, if child safety is really “job one”, then why aren’t we more concerned about the safety of children in the custody of ACS? ACS sometimes seems more understanding with foster parents than with actual parent. For example, aren’t there foster children who are excessively absent from school? Why doesn’t anybody seem to be calling for stricter attendance standards for foster children, or saying that a certain number of absences should trigger an automatic investigation, or a child’s removal from a foster home, and the closing of that home? Where is the integrity? What message does this send to parents in our communities, that foster parents are treated with more respect and leniency than actual parents? And, of course, when I say “our communities,” I mean poor communities.
I still have issues are with my son and his school. I know my son. He is challenging and difficult. He has not had an easy life. He has behavior issues and learning problems. But the public school system does not seem dedicated to helping him be as educated and productive a student as possible. School staff have been rejecting of him. It sometimes seems like they are trying to push him to another program or level, not because this is what is appropriate for him, but so that they will no longer have to deal with him. It is hard to challenge this without doing more damage to his relationship with the school. Also, we are having some problems with the buses. There are days when we are expected to wait for a late bus, but if we are late, they will leave. I’ve complained at the school and to the bus company on numerous occasions. The bus company says they will do an investigation and a report. In the meantime, nobody is holding them accountable for my son’s attendance.
I have seen some changes at ACS in recent years. They have been more open to using Parent Advocates and they are more willing to work with families. This is good, but it is not a huge improvement, and it is moving slowly. I hope that our elected officials will support ACS in continuing to move in the direction of respect for parents and families. This is what is in the best interests of our children.