When Protection Hurts

When Protection Hurts

By Crystal Baker-Burr

"Can I have that quarter?" Anita asked me, pointing to the change she found in the chair in the courthouse interview room. I asked her what she needed it for. "I am saving all the change I find on the ground and keeping it with me,” she said. “If they ever kidnap me and my brothers again, I can take a cab back home to mommy."

I have been privileged to work as both an attorney for children and parents in Bronx Family Court. During the past five years, I represented families that were under investigation by Child Protective Services and at threat of separation. As an attorney for children, I was trained to spot cues of a child who was being coerced to repeat responses and to build a relationship of trust, so that I could find out what the child truly wanted and then fight for them in court.

It was through this work that I witnessed how children are separated from their families in the name of child welfare — even when the very children being "protected" are begging, screaming, and pleading to go home. I watched as child protective agencies exercised their power to remove children without court permission or due process, subjecting children to traumatic separations that do not take into account what they actually need.

Seven-year-old Anita had been removed before because her mother was young and smoked marijuana. Their family had been monitored by the Administration for Children's Services (“ACS”) ever since. On one Friday night, ACS learned that the Department of Homeless Services ruled that Anita’s family was ineligible for shelter. When Anita woke up, she was not in the shelter with her mother, or in a building with her brothers, or in the car with the child protection specialists. She was in the home of a man she had never seen before.

She knew something was terribly wrong and grabbed the man’s cell phone to try to call the police. She was shaking so violently that she dropped the phone and decided to run out of the house. She eventually reached the police station, shared her mother's name and date of birth, and reported that she had been kidnapped.

The police turned to the man who had followed her in, who explained that he was her foster father. That experience began Anita’s traumatic three days away from her family. During this time, she was forced by the child protection specialist to write an apology for cracking her foster father’s phone.

The worst and extremely traumatizing practices I observed were late night removals like this one.  In New York City, family court is not open on the weekends. If the child protection agency feels like a removal of a child is warranted on an evening or a weekend, they can use their emergency removal powers to remove a child without court authorization. Judges overseeing these cases will often overturn the removals and order the children to be returned, as occurred in Anita’s case. But by then, the trauma of the removal has already been cemented. And as is also the case with most emergency removals, less traumatic, alternative ways to support children like Anita were available and ignored.


Research confirms that separating children from their families doesn't just punish their parents, as suggested in a recent op-ed written in the Washington Post by Naomi Shaefer Riley of the American Enterprise Institute. These practices deeply hurt the very children they are purported to protect.

Children in foster care, who have been traumatized by forced separations from their families have higher levels of prescribed psychotropic medication than other child populations. Children are medicated to counteract the destabilizing effects of being separated from their loved ones.

I oversaw a case when five children were separated from their father because he was struggling with drug addiction and became violent towards their mother. Their mother understood emotions are complicated, and that her children loved their father. As a result, she allowed them to occasionally see their father in violation of a court order. When child protective services found out, they arrived in the middle of the night with the police to take the children away from their mother.

The children knew where they were going, having been previously placed in separate homes where some were beaten. All five children grabbed ahold of their mother, from her upper body, to her stomach, to her legs. Her oldest son, who is autistic, began to shake when he was pried from his mother's arms. Another son began kicking the police officers. One of her sons was taken to the hospital and given a drug to calm him down. When the case came before the judge the next day, she ruled – in tears – that the children needed to be returned to their mother. 

I think it is difficult for the government to admit that their actions may have hurt a child. But if we truly care about protecting these children and acting in their interest, it is time to treat children as experts when it comes to their families and address the ways in which the current processes strip that power away.

One mother tried to commit suicide after her husband passed away. As her teenagers were grieving their father’s death, the judge told them that she was ordering them to stay away from their mother in order to protect them. The teenagers jumped out of their chairs. “You aren’t protecting me,” one screamed. “You are the one hurting me.”

The majority of children that I have spoken with did not feel like they were being protected. Instead, they felt like they were being treated unfairly. Many kids thought they were being kidnapped or separated against their will. Some blamed themselves and thought they were punished. Others blamed their siblings.

Emergency removals supersede all the safeguards put in place to ensure that children’s voices are heard and that separations do not happen without due process. Judges, attorneys, and social workers working on behalf of the families have no say in whether or not a child is removed. During an emergency removal, there is no one that families can turn to in order to keep their families together. Children are completely disempowered.

And allowing child welfare agencies to remove children without any oversight does not create safer outcomes for children — it ignores a process intended to identify what is in the best interest of children.

We must use the spotlight on the harms of unnecessarily separating families to make changes that will protect children and their families. In New York, criminal courts are kept open 24 hours a day so people held in confinement are given their opportunity to be heard as soon as possible. And yet, family court is open for less than seven hours a day, leading to children being removed at all other hours of the day without any protection at all.

We should turn our eyes on the five-year-old crying herself to sleep at night because she can't cuddle with her mom before bed. We should turn our eyes to the seven-year-old who wants to be where he fits in – with his family – instead of being bounced between stranger’s homes. These children should not be left out of decisions that can impact the trajectory of their lives.

I frequently recall one child who was asked to draw himself as a superhero. I asked him what his power would be, "When I grow up, my superpower is going to be to keep families together,” he said. “So no kid has to go through what I am going through right now."

In reality, that superpower can be, and should be, one we all share.


*Crystal Baker Burr is an attorney at the Bronx Defenders.

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