UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK
March 22, 1976
ORGANIZATION OF FOSTER FAMILIES FOR EQUALITY AND REFORM et al., Plaintiffs,
James DUMPSON, Individually and as Administrator of the New York City Human Resources Administration, et al., Defendants, Naomi Rodriguez et al., Intervenors-Defendants
The opinion of the court was delivered by: LUMBARD
LUMBARD, Circuit Judge:
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. Ct. 1208, 31 L. Ed. 2d 551 (1972), which, they claim, indicate the Supreme Court's willingness to look behind legal formalities when inquiring into the existence of a fruitful family life.
While the intervenors and defendants rely on precisely the same Supreme Court opinions, they emphasize that the holding of each was limited by its facts to biological families. Intervenors, in particular, strongly protest any implication that the contractual relationship between foster parent and foster child is, or ever can be, the equivalent of the relationship between a mother and the child to whom she has given birth.
Intervenors have introduced affidavits from eminent experts in social work and psychology which attack the validity of the concept of the "psychological family."
The intervenors also argue that this court would be ill-advised to create a precedent which might later be applied to other foster families less concerned and well-intentioned than those now before us.
We agree with the parties that this debate as to the definition of the family and the role in society is an interesting and important one. We need not and should not, however, reach out to decide such novel questions when narrower grounds exist to support our decision. See Ashwander v. Tennessee Valley Authority, 297 U.S. 288, 341, 56 S. Ct. 466, 480, 80 L. Ed. 688, 707-708 (1936) (Brandeis, J., concurring).
We believe that the pre-removal procedures presently employed by the state are constitutionally defective. We hold that before a foster child can be peremptorily transferred from the foster home in which he has been living, be it to another foster home or to the natural parents who initially placed him in foster care, he is entitled to a hearing at which all concerned parties may present any relevant information to the administrative decisionmaker charged with determining the future placement of the child.
While our decision today is perforce limited to the class as defined in Judge Carter's accompanying certification order, namely all children in foster care for one year or longer, we note that similar interests suggest a similar result whenever the child is placed in a foster home for long term care.
The time has long since passed when children were considered mere chattels of the adults with whom they lived. The foster care system itself, initiated in New York in the latter part of the nineteenth century, represented a large step forward from the prior practice of institutionalizing children with the poor and feebleminded or boarding them out as apprentices or indentured servants. In any event, it is by now well-settled that children are "persons" within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment whose rights are entitled to protection against state abridgement. In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1, 87 S. Ct. 1428, 18 L. Ed. 2d 527 (1967); Tinker v. Des Moines School District, 393 U.S. 503, 89 S. Ct. 733, 21 L. Ed. 2d 731 (1969); Goss v. Lopez, 419 U.S. 565, 95 S. Ct. 729, 42 L. Ed. 2d 725 (1975). Foremost among those rights, as the Supreme Court has repeatedly held, is the right to be heard before being "condemned to suffer grievous loss," Joint Anti-Fascist Committee v. McGrath, 341 U.S. 123, 168, 71 S. Ct. 624, 645-46, 95 L. Ed. 817, 852 (1951) (Frankfurter, J., concurring).
The basis of this right is easily understood. A hearing dispels the appearance and minimizes the possibility of arbitrary or misinformed action. Goldberg v. Kelly, 397 U.S. 254, 266, 90 S. Ct. 1011, 1019-20, 25 L. Ed. 2d 287, 298 (1970). In cases such as these, the harmful consequences of a precipitous and perhaps improvident decision to remove a child from his foster family are apparent. Plaintiffs' experts assert that continuity of personal relationships is indispensable to a child's well adjusted development. We do not need to accept that extreme position to recognize, on the basis of our common past, that the already difficult passage from infancy to adolescence and adulthood will be further complicated by the trauma of separation from a familiar environment. This is especially true for children such as these who have already undergone the emotionally scarring experience of being removed from the home of their natural parents.
Intervenors dispute the seriousness of these losses, relying principally on a longitudinal study conducted by Professor David Fanshell of the Columbia University School of Social Work in which he concluded that there was no statistically significant correlation between a child's successful development and the number of times that child was moved within the foster care system. We find significant, however, Prof. Fanshell's further testimony that, "as a professional, [I] would be against the capricious movement of children." The requirement of a hearing is designed to insure no more.
Most specifically, a hearing is not, as intervenors apparently fear, intended in any way to impede the right of biological parents to regain custody of their children. The law in New York is clear: in the absence of abandonment, formal surrender for adoption or demonstrated unfitness, the "primacy of parental rights may not be ignored." People ex rel. Kropp v. Shepsky, 305 N.Y. 465, 469, 113 N.E.2d 801, 804 (1953); see also Spence-Chapin Adoption Service v. Polk, 29 N.Y.2d 196, 324 N.Y.S.2d 937, 274 N.E.2d 431. We do not, by our holding today, disturb that local judgment.
Nonetheless, we are unable to agree with intervenors' contention that a hearing is therefore superfluous when a foster child is to be returned to his biological parents. Even under such circumstances, a hearing performs the salutary function of providing the agency with an organized forum in which to gather information concerning, inter alia, the frequency with which the biological parent has been visiting his or her child. If the evidence discloses that, despite the diligent efforts of the agency, the biological parent has failed for more than a year to maintain "substantial and continuous contact" with a child in foster care, permanent neglect proceedings may be instituted and the biological parent's presumptive right to custody may be forfeited. Family Court Act § 611 et seq.; In re P., 71 Misc.2d 965, 337 N.Y.S.2d 203 (Fam.Ct. N.Y.Co. 1972). A fortiori when the question is whether a foster child is to be moved from one foster home to another, the state in its parens patriae capacity, will be better able to make an informed decision after a hearing at which all relevant information has been presented. The interest of the state, as parens patriae, is therefore compatible with, rather than antagonistic to, the requirement of a hearing. Goldberg v. Kelly, 397 U.S. at 265, 90 S. Ct. at 1019, 25 L. Ed. 2d at 297-98.
Plainly, the present pre-removal conference is not designed adequately to fulfill this data-gathering function. As outlined earlier, the foster parents are denied any right to present evidence or witnesses, the public official with whom they confer is already acquainted with the agency's version of the background facts, and the foster child whose future is at stake does not participate. Such a scheme fails to satisfy even the most minimal requirements of procedural due process. Escalera v. New York City Housing Authority, 425 F.2d 853 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 400 U.S. 853, 91 S. Ct. 54, 27 L. Ed. 2d 91 (1970). We do not understand the defendants seriously to claim otherwise.
Rather, the state argues that any constitutional defect is remedied by the post-removal "fair hearing" provided under N.Y.C.R.R. § 450.14. We disagree. See Sniadach v. Family Finance Corp., 395 U.S. 337, 89 S. Ct. 1820, 23 L. Ed. 2d 349 (1969); Fuentes v. Shevin, 407 U.S. 67, 92 S. Ct. 1983, 32 L. Ed. 2d 556 (1972). It is, at the least, paradoxical to suggest that a hearing designed to forestall the hasty and ill-advised separation of a foster child from his foster home can occur after that separation has already taken place. We are unpersuaded by defendants' contention that a decision by the hearing examiner to reverse the agency's action and reunite the family effectively restores the status quo. Such a reunion may ameliorate but it cannot eradicate the injury caused by uprooting the child. Indeed, to the degree that implementation of the hearing examiner's decision requires the disruption of arrangements made in the interim, it may further exacerbate the child's sense of loss. It is in the best interests of the child that the risk of such dislocations be avoided or minimized.
We find equally without merit intervenors' assertion that § 392 of the Social Services Law adequately protects the due process interests of the foster child. Enacted in 1971, § 392 provides for periodic review of the status of each foster child. One and a half years after being placed in foster care, and every two years thereafter, the Family Court is required to conduct a hearing upon notice to the biological parents, foster parents in whose home the child has lived for at least eighteen months, the child care agency to which the child has been surrendered, and "such other persons as the court may, in its discretion, direct." Following the hearing, an order must be entered incorporating one of four stated dispositional alternatives: that the child be continued in foster care, that he be returned to his natural parents, that proceedings be instituted legally to free him for adoption or, if legally free already, that he be placed for adoption with specified individuals.
Intervenors contend that the above procedure, when coupled with the continued jurisdiction of the Family Court, Social Services Law § 392(10), fully satisfies constitutional requirements. We do not agree. Cf. Boone v. Wyman, 295 F. Supp. 1143 (S.D.N.Y. 1969), aff'd, 412 F.2d 857 (2d Cir. 1969), cert. denied, 396 U.S. 1024, 90 S. Ct. 600, 24 L. Ed. 2d 518 (1970).
First, and most obviously, § 392 offers no comfort whatsoever to the child in foster care for less than eighteen months. Second, intervenors' reasoning appears to rest upon an unjustifiably expansive interpretation of the scope of § 392. In In re W., 77 Misc.2d 374, 355 N.Y.S.2d 245, 248 (Fam.Ct. N.Y.Co. 1974), the court concluded that the power to direct the child to be continued in foster care did not encompass the authority to order that the child be maintained in any specific foster home.
Third, and most fundamentally, intervenors assume an identity of interest between foster parent and foster child which we are unwilling to accept as we have already indicated by the appointment of separate counsel at the outset of this litigation. The continuing jurisdiction of the Family Court constitutes a safeguard against arbitrary state action only if the proposed removal of the foster child is brought to the court's attention. Intervenors posit that the foster parents will perform this function. They may well be correct in the majority of cases. But we decline to rest the rights of the foster children upon the shoulders of foster parents who, however well-meaning, have a personal involvement and perhaps a financial interest
which may color their conduct. If a hearing is required, as we hold it is, it is required in all cases and cannot be made to depend upon the initiative of third persons.
A similar flaw taints the amended regulations promulgated by New York City during the pendency of this action. In most other respects, however, New York City's revised procedures represent a significant improvement over the agency conference and post-removal hearing envisaged by N.Y.C.R.R. § 450.14 and already discussed.
As of July 1, 1974, New York City has provided, at the foster parents' request, as a substitute for or supplement to the agency conference, a pre-removal "independent review" conducted "in accordance with the concepts of due process." Its salient features, as set forth in an internal memorandum of August 5, 1974, are as follows: (1) the review is heard before a supervisory official who has had no previous involvement with the decision to remove the child; (2) both the foster parents and the agency may be represented by counsel and each may present witnesses and evidence; (3) all witnesses must be sworn, unless stipulated otherwise, and all testimony is subject to cross-examination; (4) counsel for the foster parents must be allowed to examine any portion of the agency's files used to support the proposal to remove the child; (5) either a tape recording or stenographic record of the hearing must be kept and made available to the parties at cost; and (6) a written decision, supported by reasons, must be rendered within five days and must include a reminder to the foster parents that they may still request a post-removal hearing under N.Y.C.R.R. § 450.14.
While the amended regulations represent a considerable improvement over previous procedures, we note certain deficiencies still present in New York City's current practices. First, as alluded to above, the "independent review" now afforded by New York City is available only upon the affirmative request of the foster parents. We reiterate that such a restriction is inconsistent with our holding that it is the child's right to avoid arbitrary dislocations which necessitates a hearing. Whatever hearing is provided should be provided as a matter of course.
Second, New York's amended regulations have no applicability whatsoever when the child is to be returned to his biological parents. We see no basis for this distinction which, we believe, erroneously confuses the standard by which evidence is to be judged and the process by which it is gathered. No matter where he is to be placed, a well informed decision cannot but help to promote the child's "best interests," which all parties seek to advance.
Third, it is unnecessary and likely counterproductive to provide duplicate hearings, one pre-removal and a second after the event. We recognize that New York City was operating within the constraint of a statewide regulation, N.Y.C.R.R. § 450.14, which it had no authority to abrogate. We note, however, that the welfare of the child is best served by a speedy and final decision as to his fate.
Fourth, participation in New York City's "independent review" is limited to the foster parents and the agency representative. In order to insure that all relevant information is presented to the hearing examiner, the child and biological parent should be heard as well. Moreover, it may be advisable, under certain circumstances, for the agency to appoint an adult representative better to articulate the interests of the child. In making this determination, the agency should carefully consider the child's age, sophistication and ability effectively to communicate his own true feelings.
It is not, however, necessary that the chosen representative be an attorney. "The insertion of counsel . . . would inevitably give the proceeding a more adversary cast," Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539, 570, 94 S. Ct. 2963, 2981, 41 L. Ed. 2d 935, 959 (1974), which as Mrs. Buttenwieser points out, might well impede the effort to elicit the sensitive and personal information required. Thus, we do not hold that a trial-type hearing, such as that now provided in New York City, is constitutionally requisite. See Morrissey v. Brewer, 408 U.S. 471, 92 S. Ct. 2593, 33 L. Ed. 2d 484 (1972). Indeed, we are reluctant to impose any pre-ordained structure upon the endeavor of trained social workers to evaluate the often ambiguous indices of a child's emotional attachments and psychological development. Rather, we believe the sounder course is to allow the various defendants -- state and local officials -- the first opportunity to formulate procedures suitable to their own professional needs and compatible with the principles set forth in this opinion.
In summary, therefore, we conclude that New York Social Service Law §§ 383(2) and 400, and N.Y.C.R.R. § 450.14, as presently operated, unduly infringe the constitutional rights of foster children. Defendants are enjoined from removing any foster children in the certified class from the foster homes in which they have been placed unless and until they grant a pre-removal hearing in accord with the principles set forth above. Of course, our decision today does not in any way limit the authority of the State to act summarily in emergency situations. Family Court Act § 1021.
The court thanks Mrs. Helen L. Buttenwieser for her valuable assistance as assigned counsel.
Order to be taken on submission.