When Sharwline Nicholson thinks about what happened in January 1999, it’s not about the fact that her boyfriend beat her for the first and last time.
Instead she thinks about her children, who were removed that night and put into foster care, while Nicholson was charged with child neglect–for an offense called “engaging in domestic violence.” “I’ve had no time for knowing I was a victim of domestic violence,” Sharwline (pronounced like “Charlene”) Nicholson says. “When they removed my children, the physical pain was overlooked.”
As the lead plaintiff in a federal lawsuit against the City and State of New York, Nicholson’s now part of a landmark decision–rendered in March by District Court Judge Jack Weinstein–that could change child welfare as we know it.
A Jamaican immigrant and single mother who works full time and attends college at night, Nicholson lives in Brooklyn with her son, Kendell, and baby daughter, Destineé. Destineé’s father, Claude Barnett, had already moved to South Carolina, visiting “once a month or so to see the baby,” Nicholson says. That day in January, Claude, who had never hit her before, broke her arm and smashed her face while Kendell was in school and the baby was asleep in the next room. He left before the police arrived, and Nicholson found a trusted neighbor to take care of her kids until she came home from the hospital.
In the hospital the next morning, she received her first call from the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), telling her they had removed her children, and ordering her to a Family Court hearing. By the time the court date arrived, the children were in foster care. She faced the bizarre charge of “engaging in domestic violence” without a lawyer: Only afterward was she assigned a series of overworked, underpaid Family Court lawyers, who had no time to do more than glance at her files.
It took three weeks for Nicholson to get her children back, during which time Kendell reported being hit by one foster parent and had asked the next, “Are you going to hit me?” And the neglect petition remained until Nicholson found help at Sanctuary for Families, a New York City social services provider for mothers and children affected by domestic violence. “At first, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” says Jill Zuccardy, director of the child protection project at Sanctuary. “Then more and more women were coming to me with the same set of experiences.”
Like April Rodriguez, who sought refuge from her abusive husband at her grandmother’s home: ACS followed her there and removed the kids because they didn’t like the bedding provided. Or Ekaete Udoh, who’d finally obtained an order of protection after twenty years of abuse, after which her batterer returned to his native Nigeria; Udoh also faced a neglect petition for “engaging in domestic violence,” while ACS placed her teenage daughters in foster care. Another woman, who actually asked ACS to help her with her alcoholic, abusing husband, was referred instead to family counseling and told to go to a shelter; when her husband threatened to kill her, ACS did nothing to help her but removed the children. Michele Garcia lost her children because she’d “blatantly refused to cooperate with ACS,” since she insisted they only visit when previously agreed–fearing that unannounced visits would scare the children. (In Garcia’s case, ACS ignored the advice of its own child protective services supervisor, Cheryl Meyers, who saw no reason for removal.)