Fordham Law

Interdisciplinary Center Calls for New York State to Create an Independent Child Advocate Office

March 27, 2007

The Fordham Interdisciplinary Center for Family and Child Advocacy is today calling on elected officials to create an independent office to provide monitoring, oversight, and accountability.  The Center concludes a year-long research project with the release of its report, "AN INDEPENDENT VOICE FOR CHILDREN," and its recommendation that New York pass legislation to create the Office of Child Advocate, finding that too many children are lost in the complex bureaucracy meant to help them.

"New York has one of the most complicated systems in the country for serving children in government custody," says Erik S. Pitchal, Director of the Fordham Interdisciplinary Center.  "There are public agencies and private ones, and they operate at the state, county, and municipal levels.  There is insufficient oversight of these systems, creating too great a risk that they are not doing--and cannot do--the best possible to serve the needs of New York State's children." 

The Fordham research was undertaken in large part by students in Fordham Law School's Urban Policy Clinic, supervised by Professor Elizabeth B. Cooper.  "We have seen too many children suffer unnecessarily," Prof. Cooper said.  "Creating the OCA is a way to increase the odds that all of New York's children will be safe and well cared for." 

Legislation to create an OCA in New York has been introduced in both the State Assembly and State Senate the last several years, but the bills have never been fully adopted.  There are bills pending once again this year.  Even if they were to pass and be signed by Governor Spitzer, the OCA they would create would lack the necessary teeth to fully protect children and their rights. 

The Fordham research reveals that five factors are essential to the effective functioning of an Office of Child Advocate.  The Fordham Interdisciplinary Center recommends that the legislation be amended to ensure that these factors are included:

Independence from political pressure.  To be a true voice for children and to provide real accountability to the public, the OCA must be structured in such a way that it is immune from attempts by those agencies it is monitoring to influence its work.

The OCA must be an independent office separate from the state's Office of Children and Family Services.
The Child Advocate should be appointed by an independent commission, not directly by the Governor. 
The term of the Child Advocate should be longer than the Governor's, for example, five years.
The Child Advocate should be removed from office only for cause, and only by the appointing commission.

Public reporting.  The OCA should be required to issue periodic reports to state and local leaders and to the public, outlining necessary systemic reforms.
Sufficient authority.  The OCA should have the ability to investigate fully any individual cases or systemic problems in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems in New York.  To do this, the OCA needs to have:

Subpoena power.  The OCA should be authorized by law to subpoena documents and testimony from individuals.
Access to facilities.  The OCA should be permitted to inspect, unannounced, any facility anywhere in the state where children are housed.  Children and their families should be permitted to call an OCA-run hotline at any time to complain about conditions in these facilities.
Litigation authority.  The OCA should be permitted to bring suit on behalf of individual children or a class of children against any state or local agency, public or private, that it believes is violating the rights of children in its care.

Adequate funding and appropriate staffing.  New York has established monitoring bodies before but funding was not always included in the annual state budget, making it impossible for them to do their job.  It is not enough to create the OCA; the OCA must be fully funded each and every year.  It must have lawyers and social workers on staff.

Contact: Erik Pitchal, 347-512-6194