A handful of people turned out at Bethesda Baptist Church in Jamaica last Thursday to share their experiences with the Administration for Children's Services, the agency that investigates unhealthy situations for children, and to get information on what procedure agency employees should be following.
"We are not here today to accuse ACS of anything," said Leroy Gadsden, second vice president of the Jamaica NAACP. "We support ACS when they do the right thing, but as we are anti any form of discrimination, we are out to investigate that."
One mother, Danielle Kearsley, related two situations where she thought ACS workers may have acted inappropriately. In one instance, the agency was investigating Kearsley's sister, who was accused of neglecting and physically abusing her 11-year-old daughter. In the midst of the investigation, a social worker went to the girl's school and did a physical examination of the girl's naked chest without taking any precautions to ensure privacy or find a witness, Kearsley said.
"They went to the school and with no principal, with no vice principal, with no one but the secretary, who wasn't paying attention, pulled her into a corner," she said. "They took my niece and pulled up her shirt and looked at her."
While physical exams and school visits are a routine part of an investigation, a teacher is usually present, said Ed Thompson, the borough director for the division of child protection.
"We do encourage our workers to visit the school, sometimes to interview the child away from the home," Thompson said. "If there are allegations of physical abuse, the child should have been examined, but we do encourage a teacher or someone else to be there."
Kearsley said she and her own children were dragged into an investigation because of an incorrect address. Kearsley, who lives at the Baisley Houses complex in South Jamaica, said that a few days after her neighbors, who have children of their own, were arrested on charges of selling and using marijuana, an ACS worker knocked on her door to investigate her for the same thing. When the worker asked about the neighbor's children, thinking that they were Kearsley's children, she tried to explain there was a mix-up, she said.
"They were confused with the apartment across the hall," she said. "They're the ones who were raided for selling drugs. It's been a year and I have not gotten an apology yet for the mix-up."
Other questions raised by parents and guardians at the meeting focused on their rights, should ACS knock on their doors.
"I've been asking for two weeks about what my rights are as someone being investigated," Latina Lewis said. "They're quick to tell me what I need to do, but they won't tell me what my rights are."
ACS has set up an advocacy office designed to help parents navigate the system as well as try to avoid situations where the children would have to be taken from the parents, said Anne Williams-Isom, special counsel to ACS Commissioner William Bell.
She and Thompson gave a rough outline of correct investigation procedure. ACS workers are allowed to gain entry into homes to determine if a child is in danger, and court orders can let them get past parents who are trying to keep them out, Thompson said.
"I can only imagine what that would be like," Williams-Isom said. "To come into your home and try to get between your most precious thing - your children. People are not welcoming them in."
Reach reporter Courtney Dentch by e-mail at news@times
©2004 Community News Group
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