The New York State legislature passed a raft of historic child welfare bills this year. All of them aimed to strengthen birth family ties: one bill would open access to original birth certificates for adoptees; another increases the standard of evidence in child neglect cases, and decreases the consequences of such investigations for parents; four other bills boost support for relatives and family friends who care for someone else’s child.
At the center of the advocacy push was Brooklyn State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, who will be the returning chair of the senate’s Children and Family Committee next session.
Montgomery is one of the longest-tenured senators in New York, with a district spanning from Sunset Park to downtown Brooklyn, and across Bedford-Stuyvesant. She’s been in office since the borough’s rising black political class shepherded in a new generation of elected leaders in the early 1980s. The New York Times described her then as a “soft-spoken advocate for child care,” and decades later she remains a subdued but forceful presence, described more recently by the Village Voice as “quietly plugging away since 1986 on women’s and criminal justice issues in the legislature.”
Her efforts have begun to pay off in recent years, with a landmark bill she’d championed for years — a law raising the minimum age of automatic criminal court jurisdiction to 18 — going into effect in late 2018.
This year, each of the Democrat-sponsored child welfare bills Montgomery supported passed with large majorities and some bipartisan support, but many had been pushed for years by advocates, who in the past were stymied by a Republican-controlled Senate, divided Democrats, or Governor Andrew Cuomo’s veto pen. Now, Cuomo’s pen is again the last hurdle for each proposal. He has until January to sign them.
Montgomery spoke to The Chronicle of Social Change on the phone on a recent Friday about why the governor should approve the state legislature’s child welfare reforms, how “Raise the Age” is going, and what we should expect from her committee next session.
The next legislative season starts in January. What will be your number-one highest priority — whether it’s a question you want to ask the Office of Children and Families Commissioner, Sheila Poole, or a bill you want to introduce?
I’m going to have a lot of questions about this whole issue of what are we doing with children out of their homes.
You mean placing them in foster care?
Absolutely. Foster care and kin care, but especially foster care, and for the child welfare agencies — what is the high cost of defending keeping children away from their parents?
And how about on issues around services for those youth who are removed and placed in foster care?
It was very clear from our recent New York City roundtable with stakeholders that we need to look at what happens to young people aging out of foster care, and how to be more focused on creating supports for them. They are too young to be totally and completely independent. They have not had a chance to develop skills and a way of navigating their lives so that they are successful as adults. Yet they are thrown out on their own. So, housing for them, and just building up support systems for young people aging out.
And what are your goals for the rest of the session?
As a means of identifying where we’re going next session, the three of us who have related committees — the chair of the Committee on Social Services, who is Roxanne Persaud, the chair of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities committee, David Carlucci, and myself, the chair of Children & Families — we’ve been doing roundtables in different parts of the state with other local representatives, starting with New York City.
What we hear at each roundtable will become part of our agenda for the coming session. And I’m really excited about it, because so many people have been attending each of the roundtables and it’s just so enlightening and reinforcing of some of the things we have thought we would like to do. But once we hear from people we know if we are on the right track or if we are not doing enough.
The convening in Manhattan seemed especially focused on the needs of youth while in foster care, and the consequences of child welfare involvement for their birth families. Have those issues come up during your conversations around the state outside of New York City?
We’ve had a number of conversations particularly with family court judges as well as people who run programs and work with families around the area of foster care.
There’s the whole question of kincare and who that serves, is why we came up with the bills we were able to introduce [last session]. The kincare bill that passed both houses and is waiting for the governor now will expand the type of relatives and family friends who are eligible to participate in the kincare program. So that … there are more people in a family or close to a family that are able to keep children closer to a community family environment and not have them go to a complete stranger.
And based on what we’ve got from people who actually work with children out of their homes, is the question of what happens to parents in these cases. When a decision or determination has been made that those children would be better off in a foster care family than being reunited with their own parents — there are some glaring issues that we need to at least have more discussions about with the heads of all of the agencies that are represented in these family court cases.
So, working with advocates, having personal experiences and understanding where the weaknesses are, and what’s actually working in opposition to what we would like to be happening — that’s what we’re doing when we’re not in session.
Given the number of bills passed this year around child welfare and kinship care — do you see an opportunity to do more in 2020 with your colleagues more up to speed on these issues?
I believe so. I think that we’ll be able to filter what we’re hearing in a very different way because we’ve had these conversations with people who are actually out there in the field, running the programs, encountering the issues on the frontline.
The governor has not signed the bill passed by the Senate and Assembly that addresses the consequences of a removal: The State Central Registry Reform Bill you championed. Why should Cuomo sign that, and do you think he will?
Current law, unfortunately, has resulted in thousands of people who were reported under the [Family Court Act, for child neglect] and become part of a state-run registry and they’re never able to come off of the registry. They are hindered to be able to even participate in PTA programs, or accompany their children on a class trip, because of having them identified as being on the registry.
The bill is also looking at this whole area referred to in the law as “child neglect” which is not the exact same as abuse. So that area of maltreatment can be as little as someone seemingly not being able to care for their children. And that leads to a lot of subjectivity in terms of what I view as having maltreatment versus how I define the whole issue.
We want to raise the standard … and make it at least a preponderance of evidence before one can be charged with neglect. That’s one of the main concerns we were trying to address. It’s very, very easy to be identified as being neglectful, and that could be based on simple poverty issues.
I know you also supported a birth certificate bill opening up access for adoptees. The governor vetoed a related bill that advocates hated last year. Do you expect him to go a different way this time?
First of all, the one that was vetoed was one that the adoptee rights advocates did not agree with and did not support. This new bill is one that came out of a task force committee for which there was a consensus bill on what the adoptee advocates agreed to themselves. So that’s one.
This is a consensus bill. It is a clean bill, as they refer to it. There is no intermediary between them being able to receive the information they need, their birth certificates, and the agency that is going to issue it. So that I think comes closer to making this access to birth certificates by those people who were adopted when they were children, basically, and at the point where they are 18 or above, they are now going to be able to have information on their legacy as people in the state of New York.
It is widely, widely supported, there are thousands of adoptees, some of them have even moved out of the country or out of the state. But nonetheless they were born in New York State and their birth certificates remain here. I’ve received communications from people from far away as well as from New York State supporting this legislation and thanking us.
On the kinship bills, you were at a convening with the Kinship Navigator group this week — did you learn anything there about the issues facing relative caregivers?
I was inspired by the work that the Kinship Navigator has been able to seed in being an organization resource around the state. I think that is something that I would certainly pay much more attention to.
The fact is that these are now — this is a whole generation of parents who are almost in a similar category as brand-new parents. Whenever they were originally parents raising their own children — the world was very different. Now they are having to navigate new systems in a very new way, and having to deal with technology and all of the rapidly changing and moving education system.
But these are people who really have none of those skills and need a lot of support and assistance.
You’ve been one of the most enduring champions for raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction, on the justice side of the things. We’ve been reporting on the implementation of that all year. The governor’s task force just released a report painting a very sunny picture of implementation. Do you agree, and what needs to happen to successfully accommodate 17-year-olds becoming eligible for the law this month?
I have not had a chance to look at the report but I know my staff has been looking at that. One of the things that was very, very important that was raised by some of the family court judges was the fact that they were now going to have 17-year-olds coming into their purview. We have proposed the family support service program. I view that as extremely important. For people upstate there are a couple of issues around that. One is that there are quite far distances from one point to the other. So when you are dealing with a young person in the off-hours in particular, when there’s no magistrate available, and even when there is one they might be miles and miles away — what do we need to allow those situations to have some flexibility in how they are handled?
And now that you are not supposed to have 17-year-olds with adults any longer, and they only have a facility for adults, what are those counties going to do to address that situation? That was a big one, flexibility for judges.
I think especially, that is going to be — how do we make it work for people outside New York City? The city is different because we have such a large population in such a small geographical area. Upstate is a very different situation.