The opinion of the court was delivered by: LUMBARD
The Organization of Foster Families for Equality and Reform (OFFER) and three individual foster families bring this class action for injunctive and declaratory relief seeking the invalidation of New York Social Services Law §§ 383(2) and 400, and N.Y.C.R.R. § 450.14. Plaintiffs allege in their complaint that the above provisions violate both the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment in that they authorize the state to remove foster children from their foster homes without affording a prior hearing to either foster child or foster parents.
Plaintiff foster parents initially sought to represent, as "next friend," the interests of their foster children as well. However, to forestall any possible conflict of interest, Judge Carter appointed Helen Buttenwieser as independent counsel for the foster children, advising the parties of his action by letter dated October 29, 1974. In that capacity, she has consistently argued that the foster parents have no constitutionally cognizable interest independent of those of the foster children and that an adversary hearing is not the proper forum to determine the "best interest of the child."
The defendants -- government officials at the state and local level and the Executive Director of the Catholic Guardian Society -- are responsible for administering the foster care system within their respective jurisdictions. In addition, five biological mothers of children currently in foster care were granted leave to intervene in these proceedings on behalf of themselves and all others similarly situated.
The present statutory scheme, applicable throughout most of the state,
provides that the local public welfare department or an authorized private agency acting on its behalf
may, in its discretion and on 10 days notice, order the removal of any foster child from the foster home in which he or she has been placed. Social Services Law §§ 383(2) and 400. After having been informed of the impending removal in a printed notice which contains no space for any detailed elucidation of the reasons for that removal, the foster parents may request a conference with a "public official" of the local social services department at which they have an opportunity to express their dissatisfaction with the agency's decision but no formal manner is provided whereby they may contest it. N.Y.C.R.R. § 450.14.
Although the foster parents may be accompanied to the conference by "a representative," they may not present or cross-examine witnesses, nor may they inspect the agency files even if records contained therein formed the predicate for the administrative decision. Yet, despite these handicaps, the burden is upon the foster parents to submit "reasons why the child should not be removed." The agency, by contrast, has no countervailing obligation to provide an articulated rationale for removing the child. N.Y.C.R.R. § 450.14. There is evidence in the record which indicates that rarely, if ever, do these pre-removal conferences result in the reversal of the initial decision. Post-removal, the foster parents are entitled to a "fair hearing ", Social Services Law § 400(2), and then, if still "aggrieved" by the agency action, they may obtain judicial review.
Plaintiffs contend that these procedures deprive them of "liberty and property" interests without due process of law. The specific liberty interest which they assert is the right to familial privacy. E. g. Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390, 43 S. Ct. 625, 67 L. Ed. 1042 (1923); Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510, 45 S. Ct. 571, 69 L. Ed. 1070 (1925); Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479, 85 S. Ct. 1678, 14 L. Ed. 2d 510 (1965). Cognizant that each of the Supreme Court decisions in this area dealt with a more traditional, biological family, plaintiffs rely on several recent studies which functionally define the family as a psychological rather than a biological unit. Goldstein, Freud and Solnit, BEYOND THE BEST INTERESTS OF THE CHILD. Plaintiffs insist that after one year of foster care, emotional attachments have formed which the state should not be at liberty arbitrarily to upset. Plaintiffs further assert that the statistical evidence as to the length of the average child's stay in foster care creates an "informal tenure" system raising legitimate expectations that their role as foster parents will not be abruptly terminated.
Perry v. Sindermann, 408 U.S. 593, 92 S. Ct. 2694, 33 L. Ed. 2d 570 (1972). To illustrate the arbitrary manner in which they claim the outlined statutory provisions can operate, plaintiffs offer the example of their own personal involvement with the foster care system.
Madeline Smith is a 53 year old widow who lives in East Elmhurst, New York. She became an approved foster parent
under the supervision of the Catholic Guardian Society of New York in 1969. On February 1, 1970, she took Eric and Danielle Gandy into her home as foster children. At the time, Eric was four and Danielle two. Plaintiffs claim, and defendants do not dispute, that Danielle has never seen her natural mother and Eric no longer remembers her. Both children, who are legally free for adoption consider Mrs. Smith to be their mother.
Nevertheless, on March 29, 1974, Mrs. Smith was notified by letter from the Catholic Guardian Society that Eric and Danielle were to be removed from her care because "it is now in their best interests to leave your home." The agency's concern, not shared by Mrs. Smith, was that her arthritis would interfere with her undeniably well-meaning efforts to supervise the increasingly active behavior of Eric and Danielle. Although Mrs. Smith signed a waiver of her right to a pre-removal conference, she made it abundantly plain that she had no intention of surrendering the children. When told that they would be forcibly taken from her, she obtained a lawyer and began the instant litigation. To date, the children remain in Mrs. Smith's home -- originally the result of a temporary restraining order, later the product of a voluntary stipulation among the parties.
Plaintiffs, Mr. and Mrs. Lhotan are similarly authorized foster parents; they, however, are under the supervision of the Nassau County Department of Social Services Children's Bureau. On september 4, 1970, Cheryl and Patricia Wallace were placed in the Lhotan home; two years later they were joined by their younger sisters, Cynthia and Cathleen. By all accounts, most notably that of the children, the reunion was a happy one for all concerned. Indeed, when Mrs. Lhotan was told on June 26, 1974 that the children were to be removed from her home ten days hence, the only reason given was that the four girls were growing too attached to their foster family. Mrs. Lhotan was informed that Cheryl and Patricia were to be returned to their biological mother while Cynthia and Cathleen were to be transferred to another foster home.
However, on July 8, 1974, in response to a request by the Lhotans, Judge Carter issued a temporary restraining order barring the removal of the children which had been scheduled for the next day. That order remained in effect until March 3, 1975, when it was dissolved by this court. Meanwhile, Mrs. Wallace, the biological mother, had begun habeas corpus proceedings in the state court to secure the return of her children. On February 23, 1976, the Appellate Division for the Second Department upheld a lower court ruling mandating immediate implementation of the plan devised by the Nassau County Department of Social Services Children's Bureau. The time for appeal of that decision has not yet passed.
Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Goldberg, the final set of plaintiff foster parents, face a less imminent threat. They have, since July 1969, taken care of Rafael Serrano, then six years old. Prior to his placement in the Goldberg home, Rafael had lived with a succession of foster families after having been abused by his natural parents during the time that he remained with them. Although the Goldbergs have been repeatedly told that they have done an excellent job in providing a healthy environment in which Rafael might grow and develop, they now fear, on the basis of various unofficial statements, that the Bureau of Child Welfare intends to remove Rafael and place him with his aunt. While the Goldbergs have yet to be officially notified of any such plan, they join in this action to insure that they will be entitled to a pre-removal hearing if and when such a decision is made.
Neither defendants nor intervenors dispute the strength of the emotional ties binding plaintiffs and their foster children nor the loss that will be felt if those ties are severed. Both defendants and intervenors insist, however, that the question now before us is and must be more narrowly focused. We agree. As a statutorily ordained court we must limit our inquiry to a determination of whether plaintiffs have established a deprivation of life, liberty or property sufficient to invoke the protections of the Due Process Clause.
We find no merit in plaintiffs' argument that the realities of the foster care system, as presently administered in New York State, justify their expectation that their role as foster parents will not be abruptly and summarily terminated. See Board of Regents v. Roth, 408 U.S. 564, 92 S. Ct. 2701, 33 L. Ed. 2d 548 (1972). The most obvious and formidable obstacle to plaintiffs' contention is the agreement that each of them signed upon assuming responsibility for their respective foster children. The contract employed by the Catholic Guardian Society, typical of those used throughout the state, reserves to the agency the right to recall the child "upon request, realizing that such request will only be made for good reason." While such a provision is not dispositive, Perry v. Sindermann, 408 U.S. 593, 92 S. Ct. 2694, 33 L. Ed. 2d 570 (1972), the discretionary authority which it vests in the agency is on its face incompatible with plaintiffs' claim of legal entitlement. We are unpersuaded by plaintiffs' efforts to equate an open-ended relationship with one of indefinite duration. Nor does evidence showing that the average child placed in foster care remains within the system for approximately 4 1/2 years
support the plaintiffs' position. Cf. Perry v. Sindermann, supra.
We find considerably more difficult plaintiffs' assertion that the foster home is entitled to the same constitutional deference as that long granted to the more traditional biological family.
Plaintiffs base their contention upon several recent studies which conclude that the "family" can best be conceived as a psychological entity, uniquely characterized by the emotional interdependence of each of its members. E.g. Goldstein, Freud and Solnit, BEYOND THE BEST INTERESTS OF THE CHILD. Plaintiffs argue that it is this interdependence, born out of daily and intimate contact, which best explains the family's pre-eminent constitutional position. Plaintiff foster parents further insist that their relationship with their foster children fully satisfies this functional definition, although custody of the child is vested in the authorized agency. Social Services Law § 383(2). They point to decisions such as Stanley v. Illinois, 405 U.S. 645, 92 S. ...