Dennis Saffran and Seth Barron discuss New York City’s misguided family-reunification policies, which can have fatal consequences for children in distressed homes.

In the Summer 1997 Issue of City Journal, Saffran wrote an article entitled “Fatal Preservation,” which chronicled attempts by New York’s social-services agencies to keep children with their troubled and abusive parents. The policy proved tragic for kids like six-year-old Elisa Izquierdo, killed at the hands of her crack-addicted mother in 1995. Elisa’s mother had regained custody of her daughter over the opposition of relatives and teachers. Too many other New York City children have met similar fates.

More than 20 years later, Saffran finds that, on balance, little has changed. “Many in the social-work establishment, including officials in the administrations of New York City’s last two mayors . . . have remained hostile to [reforms] and committed to the old family-preservation orthodoxy.”

Dennis Saffran is a Queens-based appellate attorney, writer, and former GOP candidate for the New York City Council. He can be reached on Twitter @dennisjsaffran.

Audio Transcript

Seth Barron: Hi everyone.  Welcome to 10 Blocks, the official podcast of City Journal.  This is your host for today, Seth Barron, and our guest is Dennis Saffran.  Dennis is an attorney and writer based in Queens.  He is a regular contributor to City Journal, The Federalist, National Review, The Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere.  His latest essay for City Journal is entitled “Massacre of the Innocents: New York’s Misguided Family Reunification Policies Continue to Have Fatal Consequences.”  Dennis, thanks for joining us.

Dennis Saffran: Thank you, Seth.  Happy to be here.

Seth Barron: So, in your piece, you talk about the history of how New York City has dealt with, and today deals with, vulnerable children in abusive households.  Could you sketch this out for us?

Dennis Saffran: Sure.  What I primarily talk about is a policy that dates back to the 1980s nationwide, or the 1970s, known as family preservation, which sounds like something social conservatives would dream up, sounds like something Rick Santorum would be for, but actually it is a policy of the progressive hard Left, which was to try at all costs to keep abused children with the biological parents, or very often with the stepparents or step-boyfriends who abuse them.  Now, it was a reaction to excesses on the other side, or alleged excesses, but some of them more were real where up until the ‘60s or ‘70s there may have been an over-eagerness to remove children from poor families, and sometimes from poor families that were not particularly abusive, that were just poor and neglectful, had different standards than the middle class.  But the new Progressives went, in reaction to that, to the other extreme and started at all costs keeping children together.  There was federal legislation in 1980, New York State legislation in 1979.  It sounded reasonable.  It actually said you have to make reasonable efforts to keep a family together before removing a child and continue to make reasonable efforts to reunify the family after that.  The problem is courts and the social work bureaucracy interpreted reasonable in a way that was totally unreasonable, so that you would find, even where you had had the most severe cases of abuse, the children were often not removed and even when they were, the permanency plan was return to parent.  When the parents had, say, murdered their siblings and almost murdered the remaining child.  Then there were a number of real horrifying cases around the nation, but particularly in cities.  The one that really caught attention in New York was Elisa Izquierdo, a six-year-old girl in 1995, was murdered by her crack-addicted mother after a prolonged period of torture, and that provoked Mayor Giuliani to try to reverse the policy here.  That and similar cases around the country provoked the Congress and President Bill Clinton to try to roll back that policy, and they adopted, and Clinton signed something called the Adoption and Safe Families Act in 1997 that said look, the primary goal always has to be the health and safety of the child, and then set some particular rules about that.  And what I detail, that’s the background at more length than you probably wanted, but what I detail then is how New York City has really backtracked from that over the last 20 years.

Seth Barron: Well, I mean, talk about that.

Dennis Saffran: Yeah.

Seth Barron: So, we have something called the Administration for Children’s Services

Dennis Saffran: Yes.

Seth Barron: …and what do they do and how do they respond to cases of abuse?  What is the intervention?

Dennis Saffran: Yeah.  Administration for Children’s Services was setup by Giuliani in reaction to the Elisa Izquierdo murder.  It replaced the old Child Welfare Agency, which had been part of one of the old – part of the human resources administration, one of the old Lindsay superagencies.  Giuliani wanted to create a separate cabinet-level agency reportable only to him.  He tapped this fellow, Nick Scoppetta, who was a former foster child himself, had been a former prosecutor, held a lot of other top-level city positions, and was really – they were both really committed to reform, and to putting the health and welfare of the children first.  And for awhile the city was doing that.  Scoppetta unfortunately got – he went native.  There is no other way to put it.  He just began taking on the views of all the so-called advocates and of the bureaucracy.  He brought in these liberal foundations, and by five years later he was back to the old policy or worse.  He was grading social workers on how quickly they reunified families.  Mike Bloomberg’s commissioners were of a similar ilk.  They were devoted to that philosophy from the get-go.  And that was Bloomberg’s big failing in a lot of areas, I think.  Look, in many respects he was a terrific mayor, but like any, like a lot of rich technocrats, his biggest failing, his biggest difference from Rudy Giuliani was he tended to believe the so-called experts and didn’t realize that their expertise almost always has this trendy, so-called progressive bias, so – sorry, I’m…

Seth Barron: No, no, no.  It is interesting.

Dennis Saffran: …but they, so Bloomberg, and under his two commissioners, ACS was again focused just on reunifying families, was doing everything it could to get around the federal act and not placing the health and safety of the children first, and it resulted, not surprisingly, in some more just horrendous cases.  Nixzmary Brown, another little, I think, six-year-old girl, tortured and finally murdered by her mother and the mother’s boyfriend in 2006.

Seth Barron: Well, certainly there have been a number of high-profile abuse cases, but is it the fault of the city and ACS?  I mean, should we necessarily assume that children aren’t better off with their parents?

Dennis Saffran: Well, of course other things being equal, obviously any given child is better off with his or her parents.  A lot of children will differ with that, but when you talk about these egregious cases, which is what a children’s services agency has to deal with, very often the answer, sadly, becomes no, where you have just a history of repeated abuse.  Like in this recent case that has happened under DeBlasio, Zymere Perkins, I believe.  He had been reported absent from school 46 days and appearing with bruises, and ACS did nothing about that.

Seth Barron: Did they check up on it?  Or did they just ignore it?

Dennis Saffran: One time they went to, as I recall, they went to the apartment and said it was unfounded, accepted the excuse that the mother said he is accident-prone.  They accepted that.  Another time they went after other complaints from the school, they weren’t allowed in and they didn’t, since they didn’t have an immediate reason, they couldn’t go in, but they failed to seek a warrant, which they have the authority to do.  So, now there Is a requirement that they seek a warrant.  But they seem to be bending over backward not to aggressively try to protect the kids.

Seth Barron: And this comes from like a progressive mindset, you would say?

Dennis Saffran: Yeah, I believe it does.  You know, one thing I say in the article is you often hear this line to describe these kids that they quote fell through the cracks, as if this is all the product of, you know, an overworked, underfunded bureaucracy.  But it’s not.  These kids, the great majority of these cases, and there are some – it went up to 56 last year, kids who were killed after being previously reported to ACS, they don’t fall through the cracks.  They are known to the system.  It is more a product of ideology than of incompetence.

Seth Barron: Wow.  So, what’s the alternative?  We don’t have orphanages anymore.  There is a foster care system.  Could you – do you know much about that?

Dennis Saffran: A little bit.  And there are certainly problems with foster care, although what I found when I was active on this issue, and this goes back to the Giuliani administration but there’s no reason to think it is changed, is a lot of those people are saints.  I know there are some connivers in there, but there are some tremendous people just taking in kids, trying to help them.  There are, nonetheless, obvious problems, but what I have always said is look, when a child dies in foster care, it is because something didn’t work.  It is because the family was not screened properly.  When a child is returned, despite known danger, is returned to a biological parent and is then killed, that child is killed because the system worked.  And that is, as hard as it is to have a child die because of incompetence, it is another circle of hell to have a child die because the system was being followed all too competently.

Seth Barron: What about, I mean, I don’t know if you would call this civil liberties, or you know, maybe from a socially conservative perspective, I mean what about the danger of parents being removed from the home for, you know, say this goes a little too far…

Dennis Saffran: You mean children being removed.

Seth Barron: …yeah, I’m sorry.  Children being removed from the home for, you know, religious, or political home environments that are maybe unconventional.

Dennis Saffran: Yeah.  There’s an obvious danger, and I struggle with that and it is more real now than – you know, as I mention at the beginning of this article, and one reason City Journal wanted to do it now, is I wrote almost the very same article twenty years ago about this, and I and I think other advocates were more reasonably poopooed those concerns then.  It is more of a concern now because there is such a culture war and I think many of the same progressives who back these family preservation policies are the aggressors there.  I see a danger of, you know, removal of kids from religious homes, with that being defined as child abuse, but I think the only way to deal with it is we have to police against that if and when it happens, but I don’t think it means that we stop acting where there is – that we stop protecting children in the case of actual physical violence that imperils safety, imperils their very lives.

Seth Barron: So, you say you wrote the same article, essentially…

Dennis Saffran: Yeah.

Seth Barron: …twenty years ago.  I mean, that sounds rather grim.

Dennis Saffran: It is.

Seth Barron: Have things gotten better, or worse, or are we just slogging along with a, you know, equally terrible system?

Dennis Saffran: They got – I kind of go through this in detail in the article, they certainly got better at the beginning in New York City when Nick Scoppetta first came on the job and obviously they got better nationwide under the law that was passed right after I wrote that article, and we still have that major difference.  At least we have an overarching federal policy which every state is required to implement in order to get federal funds.  It says the health and safety of the child has to be paramount.  So, I think that has made a difference, but the problem is the bureaucracy is still fighting against that.  So, there has been progress, but it is still very frustrating when you turn around and you see that it has again crawled up to most recently 56 kids killed after being previously reported to the agency.

Seth Barron: Well, it’s a tough story.  Don’t forget to check out Dennis Saffran’s essay, “Massacre of the Innocents” in the winter 2018 issue, or on our website,  Also, you can follow Dennis on Twitter, @DennisJSaffran.  We would love to hear your comments about today’s episode on Twitter, @CityJournal.  Lastly, if you like our show and want to hear more of it, please leave ratings and reviews on iTunes.  This is your host, Seth Barron.  Dennis, thanks for joining us.

Dennis Saffran: Thank you for having me, Seth.

Photo: Imgorthand/iStock

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