IE 11 cannot be used. Use a different browser to view our site for the best experience.
In 2019, caseworkers from the Administration for Children’s Services knocked on Ronisha Ferguson’s Bronx apartment door and demanded entry without a warrant. She declined. Stephanie Mei-Ling, ProPublica and NBC News This article was released in collaboration with ProPublica, a non-profit reporting organization that looks into instances of power abuse. Register to get ProPublicas biggest stories as soon as they’re released.
NEXT YORK On a Thursday afternoon while Ronisha Ferguson waited for her two sons to arrive home from school, someone began beating on the door of her apartment in the Bronx.
Ferguson, a nurse working 16-hour double shifts in February 2019, recognized the person she found in her corridor right away.
Inspecting her kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, and her children’s bodies without a warrant had been a longstanding practice for caseworkers from the Administration for Children’s Services, New York City’s child protective services department.
Ferguson, a survivor of domestic abuse who had previously been in a shelter, had never been charged with child abuse, according to ACS case files. However, she had previously been accused of having parenting issues, many of which were attributed to her long hours at work. For example, it was claimed that she failed to provide adequate supervision when she let her 14-year-old daughter watch the boys when they were 5 and 2 and had allowed them to miss numerous days of school.
She claimed that the social workers beat on the ground like police.
According to ACS data, this scene occurs in New York tens of thousands of times a year, on average more than 150 times per day, mostly in the neighborhoods with the most Black and Hispanic residents.
Unless a kid is in immediate danger, ACS caseworkers are not permitted by law to enter and search a house without either permission to enter or an entrance order, which is the legal equivalent of a search warrant. However, according to parents and their advocates, many parents are unaware that they have the authority to refuse these government agents or choose not to do so out of concern for the safety of their children. In addition, caseworkers regularly use aggressive and misleading statements to enter homes without first consulting a judge, according to interviews with more than three dozen former ACS employees, judges from the New York City Family Court, parents, kids, and lawyers.
According to a ProPublica and NBC News investigation, the agency obtains fewer than 94 entry orders annually on average to inspect residences, which means that less than 0.2% of the time, it has a warrant.
According to data from the federal Department of Health and Human Services, child protective services organizations around the country look into the homes of over 3.5 million kids each year. In the end, only approximately 5% of them are discovered to have been subjected to physical or sexual abuse.
A examination of the child welfare statutes and agency investigative procedures for all 50 states reveals that, with very few exceptions, every one of these investigations involves at least one house visit and frequently more.
However, all of the 40 state child welfare agencies that participated in a ProPublica and NBC News survey and provided comprehensive responses stated they would only need a warrant or court order to search a home or call the police for assistance in extremely rare circumstances where they are denied admission. None of them claimed to keep records of how frequently they receive entry orders.
It’s a startling truth that probably involves millions of unwarranted searches each year, and it hasn’t before been publicized.
The scope of this is beyond anyone’s imagination, according to law professor and director of the Family Defense Clinic’s impact project Anna Arons.
She added that many areas will experience a generalized feeling of unease as a result of the upcoming knock on the door.
Ferguson claimed that due to the humiliating drill that would follow, she started to fear that sound.
According to her case records, caseworkers would almost always analyze the cleanliness of her floors and how she arranged her clothes as well as the contents of her refrigerator and cabinets, noting what she needed. She had not disposed of a large rubbish bag and had allowed her bedroom to get filthy and humid, which was cited in one report as proof of child abuse.
Then, she claimed, they would tell her kids to raise up their shirts and take down their pants while still wearing their underwear to check for bumps, cuts, and scratches.
Ferguson was therefore frustrated to see ACS at her door again that afternoon in 2019 to look into a tip that her kid, who was 8 at the time, was still missing school too frequently and had a bruise and a cut beneath his eye. (According to case papers, which Ferguson’s lawyer partially blacked to protect the privacy of other relatives, he and his siblings claimed he sustained the injuries while roughhousing with them and their grandmother’s cat while their mother was at work. Later, the case was dismissed by a judge.)
Ferguson remarked in response to the knocking on her door, “I thought I was done with these folks. What was the Constitution for?” What was the purpose of that?
No of how serious the allegation is or whether it has anything to do with the status of the home, ACS caseworkers in New York are required under a broad state law to make an effort to examine a kid’s home whenever they receive a report from the states central hotline regarding potential child abuse.
According to data provided by an ACS representative, less than 4% of the agency’s annual more than 56,000 cases disclose a safety issue necessitating the removal of a kid from a household.
According to David Shalleck-Klein, founder and executive director of the Family Justice Law Center, a recently formed civil rights organization that is considering filing a rare class-action lawsuit challenging such searches as unconstitutional, most children are forced to watch as their parents are humiliated, rendered powerless, and treated like second-class citizens in their own homes rather than being saved from harm.
Children of color, who made up at least 83 percent of children in ACS cases last year, are disproportionately the ones who experience this.
According to Shalleck-Klein, this is one of the most significant yet misunderstood civil rights concerns of our day.
In an interview, Jess Dannhauser, who has been the ACS commissioner since January, agreed that house visits may be unnerving for families and said he has been observing his front-line workers to find less invasive ways of carrying out their duties. We must put a lot of effort into it, he remarked.
According to Dannhauser, he is open to finding a middle ground between a family’s right to privacy and his agency’s core moral and legal obligation to protect children.
In other answers to ProPublica and NBC News, ACS officials highlighted that the law compels them to make an effort to assess a child’s household before filing a court case. They claimed that lawmakers took the decision to require them to do this. According to the organization, the investigations, known as “home evaluations,” can also pinpoint a family’s needs and link them to resources like food banks.
Officials claimed that caseworkers almost always obtain parental consent before entering a home, which is why they only require an entrance order in less than 0.2% of situations. (The agency, however, does not gather statistics on how frequently families consent to or object to house entrance, and officials did not reply to a finding by ProPublica and NBC News that the ACS had no method to track whether consent is freely granted.)
ACS has also opposed legislation that would mandate caseworkers to inform parents of their rights to remain silent, to decline admission, and to talk to or have a lawyer present at their front door in a Miranda-style warning. In the upcoming months, versions of the measure will be reintroduced at the Albany City Council and State Assembly.
Ferguson is suing New York City in federal court because she feels as though her constitutional rights were violated that day at her apartment. (This summer, the city refuted her accusations in a court filing.)
Records reveal that when she encountered the caseworkers at her home, they inquired about the mark on her son’s face, and she felt unfairly implicated. She said she went back to her flat and used her phone to open a know-your-rights website.
She read that even murder suspects are exempt from the government’s indiscriminate, warrantless searches.
Motivated by years of unresolved resentment, she went back to the doorway and remained firm at the entrance to her house.
She recalled responding, “F—- you, you’re not coming in here this time.”
I wasn’t at my best, she said.
The ACS caseworkers were unable to enter Ferguson’s home or take her sons, who had arrived home on a school bus, for additional investigation because Ferguson wouldn’t allow it. But, according to case files, they made a call to the New York Police Department.
According to the documents, they then knocked on her door once more at 4:30 a.m.
She was startled awake on her fold-out bed as it was completely dark outside.
ACS! They had now turned to yelling in the corridor. NYPD!
POWERFUL THAN POLICE
According to the Fourth Amendment, people have the right to be secure in their person, homes, papers, and belongings from arbitrary searches and seizures.
There is no social worker exception to this fundamental protection of the home, several federal and state courts have found, despite the fact that the Supreme Court has never definitively weighed in on the subject.
However, unlike when obtaining a warrant, child welfare officers often do not specify what they are searching for while entering a home. They do not adhere to what is in plain view, as required of police when they enter a house without a warrant. They might examine the labels on each prescription bottle, open every closet, turn on and off each light switch, and turn on and off each faucet. Whatever they discover is probably acceptable in family court later.
For actual police, this is all very perplexing.
Shamus Smith, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former NYPD officer with more than ten years of service, recalled receiving calls from ACS frequently while out on patrol. He expressed shock that caseworkers could go through anything they wanted inside a home as if they had a blank check instead of a warrant and no disincentive if they overstepped, saying that we didn’t always grasp the powers and privileges they possessed. What on earth does ACS possess that we do not? said Smith.
Professor of law at the CUNY School of Law in New York Tarek Ismail said he frequently advises clients under FBI investigation not to open the door for anyone unless they have a warrant. Ismail has represented Muslim families who had being monitored in national security matters as well as families in the child welfare system. But given that ACS officers have the authority to remove children without a court order, he said that he would find it difficult to advocate for that.
In reaction to this reporting, ACS officials established a contrast between their work and that of the police, asserting that entry orders are categorically different from search warrants and that the Fourth Amendment only pertains to the criminal court system.
However, the New York state law controlling how ACS should acquire entry orders expressly states that the process must follow the guidelines for obtaining a search warrant as set down by criminal law. And the federal circuit court in charge of New York City has determined that a Family Court order is ProPublicas biggest stories0 in terms of the Fourth Amendment.
The Fourth Amendment applies to the entire government, not just the police, according to Shalleck-Klein of the Family Justice Law Center.
The nine former ACS caseworkers who interviewed with ProPublica and NBC News admitted having almost total access to families’ homes, but they insisted that their superiors never instructed them to inform parents that they had the authority to refuse cooperation with a search.
Rights No, we didn’t do that. Natasha Walden, a child protective specialist in Queens from 2019 to 2021, stated, “I didn’t even realize that was a thing. My goal was just to get inside and make sure the kids were secure.
Some caseworkers claimed they would use phrases like “I don’t want to discuss your business out here in the corridor” to increase the pressure. Others: I won’t stop coming, I guess. If you don’t have anything to hide, why not? Other caseworkers said that they intentionally misled the public by framing the obtaining of a warrant to search the home as the issuance of a warrant against you.
Many said that they were forced to break into residences despite receiving repeated or anonymous tips to the state hotline from resentful neighbors or other sources.
According to Shytavia Cole, who worked as a child protective expert in Staten Island from 2018 to 2021, someone claimed that Mickey Mouse resides at 123 Disney Lane and commits bad deeds. And each time, I have to enter.
All of it is actually quite immoral, she claimed.
In response, ACS stated that mandatory reporters of child abuse and neglect, such as police, pediatricians, and teachers, make the bulk of reports to the hotline, which are not anonymous. These calls are initially investigated by the authorities to see if they are true. A representative for ACS said that caseworkers are instructed on state and federal legislation, the legal system, and the importance of parenting as a protected constitutional right.
If a judge authorizes regular supervision of a family in an ongoing case, ACS may also conduct house searches; in those circumstances, the agency may not require parental consent or a fresh court order each time.
Officials stated that while inside the home, they have the chance to evaluate and assist in addressing any potential child safety concerns, such as if window guards are installed or there is drug paraphernalia left out where children may access it.
Critics questioned whether doing such a thorough home investigation is legal or even a reasonable response to, say, a claim that a youngster has been skipping school.
Many former caseworkers expressed their anger over having to constantly check children’s bodies, even their underpants, in interviews. (More than twenty caseworkers, parents, kids, and lawyers claimed that the procedure is a part of every or almost every initial house visit by the agency, regardless of whether there is any accusation of physical or sexual abuse.)
An ACS representative said the organization will remind its child protective experts that body checks are not required as part of every visit and should instead be decided on a case-by-case basis with supervisory advice in response to this ProPublica and NBC News investigation. Additionally, photos should be taken with as much tact as possible.
According to Allison Green, legal director for the National Association of Counsel for Children, a legal advocacy group, children often suffer the most intrusive aspects of these searches, so for them, it’s about maintaining their bodily integrity.
Intrusive examinations of children’s rooms, which many view as their castles, may be part of the searches, she noted.
THE LIVES WE LIVED WERE DESTROYED
Ferguson approached the door at 4:30 that February morning, shaking with fear. She cracked it open to discover a hallway lined with police officers and ACS agents standing shoulder to shoulder.
One officer said that ACS now had a court order to remove her sons in a cellphone video she captured of what transpired next. He remained silent when she demanded to see it. (A check of the case files and court records reveals that there was never a time when a judge had issued a removal order. The city refuted Ferguson’s claim that she made in her lawsuit.)
A second officer can then be seen shoving his foot through the doorway and snatching the woman’s phone from her grasp in the footage.
According to a video Ferguson recorded when she got her phone back, ACS and the police eventually persuaded Ferguson to let them inside so they could take her children by threatening her with arrest. She expressed her fear that she would be of no service to her children while in jail.
According to a case report, the agency didn’t defend its actions until afterward, asserting that her failure to cooperate showed that the boys, who were 8 and 5, may have been in immediate danger. According to court filings, her fury also pointed to a mental health issue, according to ACS.
Ferguson entered a state of panic, skipping work to attend court that morning in an effort to learn where her kids were being held.
Days later, when she finally visited her sons at a care agency, they informed her that their foster father was punching and shoving them, she claimed. According to a case report, ACS later confirmed such assertion.
Our way of life was ruined, Ferguson claimed.
She still had no idea when she would be able to bring her kids home.
You are entitled to.
Parental advocates have recently pushed for legislation requiring caseworkers to read people’s rights, much like police do, in New York ProPublicas biggest stories4 and other places.
The Miranda principle, according to supporters, would make it plain that child protection workers are fulfilling a comparable function to police officers.
Because child welfare issues are dealt with in civil, rather than criminal, procedures, the proposed method would be different from Miranda cautions. Therefore, experts argued, it is conceivable that evidence collected without properly Mirandizing a family would still be accepted in family court.
Advocates noted that even so, it would at least guarantee that social workers are aware of the law’s requirements so that they can be held accountable later through legal action or other sanctions if they violate them.
Additionally, they noted that although the right to refuse admission already exists, not expressing it is only a means for people to enter lower-class households by taking advantage of educational disparities and a lack of access to legal representation.
The city of New York opposed the notion in a memo from 2020, claiming that giving parents a formal legal notice would unnecessarily exacerbate instances that could otherwise be resolved amicably or with assistance. Only around 1 in 10 ACS investigations currently proceed to court, and it was noted that two-thirds of them are false.
The method might potentially lead to unjustified anxieties and a more combative interaction between social workers and parents, according to the memo.
However, four current judges of the New York City Family Court stated in interviews that they support the movement for a Miranda-style warning, in part because ACS overly broadens the scope of its authority to conduct searches and seizures and seeks court authorization for such actions far too infrequently.
Most parents who have had an ACS caseworker come up at their door will state that it is already an adversarial situation, with or without rights being read, according to Ann OShea, a Family Court judge in Brooklyn from 2005 to 2019. They are saying that you are a poor parent, she said. Losing your child would be really tragic.
One of the country’s only experiments with this form of active assertion of rights in child welfare cases has been ongoing for the past ten years in nearby Connecticut.
According to written reports from his staff, the Connecticut Department of Children and Families is receiving more information from families than it did before the policy’s introduction, according to Michael Williams, the department’s deputy commissioner of operations. According to him, the interaction’s fear has decreased as a result of the increased transparency.
Williams added that there has been no adverse effect on children’s safety and that we are not experiencing what New York is claiming.
Numerous caseworkers, judges, and attorneys across the nation concur that any of this happens infrequently to wealthy families. These parents are more likely to have a lawyer and to oppose access right once, experts added. As a result, employees are more likely to request a warrant or decide not to search the home.
A child welfare lawyer in Georgia named Diana Rugh Johnson said wealthy parents frequently retain her as soon as they learn they are under investigation, but low-income parents typically choose not to do so. They should respectfully refuse any home inspections until she can be there, she instructs them. She emphasized how wealthy families are accustomed to having a high level of privacy and that the system’s uneven treatment of them is unfair.
I’ve never had one of them result in the removal of a child, she continued.
You’d think there would be some accountability, right?
After having her children taken away, Ferguson received a court decision a month later. The boys were ordered to come home after a judge determined that they were not in danger while with her. She was also ordered to attend counseling sessions and anger management classes, as well as make her home available for future ACS inspections.
According to court documents, the case was later permanently dropped after the judge determined that Ferguson’s antagonism against allowing the agency into her private life was not by itself proof of a mental health condition or of child maltreatment as defined by New York law.
Ferguson remarked, “In a location like New York City, you would think there would be some responsibility. I just have protecting-my-kids syndrome.”
She filed a federal lawsuit against the city, as well as the ACS agents and NYPD officers involved in the seizure of her children, for this reason, claiming, among other things, that her refusal to let government agents search her home did not amount to probable cause to take children out of a mother’s care.
The city reacted in its court filing, stating that during the course of the case, the two agencies’ personnel behaved in a reasonable, legal, legitimate, and constitutional manner while acting in good faith and without malice. The brief further contended that the specific ACS agents and police are exempt from legal responsibility due to the idea of qualified immunity, which holds that government officials are not personally liable for constitutional rights violations that are not clearly established.
According to a representative for the ACS, confidentiality restrictions prevented the organization from commenting on a specific case.
According to an NYPD representative, the police helps out when partner organizations like ACS ask for it. The spokeswoman stated that officers may be present while ACS does its activities in order to guarantee the security of all parties. In regards to ongoing lawsuit, the agency declined to comment.
All 12 of the ACS employees named in Ferguson’s lawsuit were contacted by ProPublica and NBC News, and the majority of them had messages left for them, but none of them responded. The four NYPD officers mentioned in the lawsuit could not be reached by journalists.
Ferguson claimed that despite her best efforts to protect her sons and their house, she is still unsure of how to talk to them about the incident in which strangers came to take them away in the middle of the night. It pains me that I can’t erase this from their memories since it shouldn’t be in their mind, she said.
At least her boys will always know, she remarked, that when it comes to their rights, their mom doesnt play.
Reporter Eli Hager covers issues impacting kids and teens in the Southwest for ProPublica.
Contributors included Suzy Khimm, Mike Hixenbaugh, Hannah Rappleye, Agnel Philip, Mariam Elba, and Mollie Simon from ProPublica.