Elisa W. v. City of New York

Plaintiffs: 19 foster children, aged 3 through 16, representing the class of over 11,000 New York City foster children
Public Advocate: Letitia James

About the NYC Foster Care System

  • New York City’s foster children are more likely to be harmed while in foster care than children almost anywhere else in the country.
  • Each year, approximately 1,000 New York City children leave the foster care system without a permanent family or connection to an adult upon whom they can depend. Many of them wind up homeless.
  • In New York City, children in foster care spend twice as much time in state custody as children in the rest of New York State and over double the amount of time in state custody as children in the rest of the nation.
  • It takes longer to return New York City children in foster care to their parents than in the rest of New York State and the rest of the nation. Federal data shows that New York City performs worse on this measure than all but five other states and territories.
  • It takes longer for a foster child to be adopted in New York City than anywhere else in the country. New York City has performed worse on this measure than every state since at least 2007.


New York State fails to exercise sufficient oversight over New York City’s child welfare system and to take necessary steps to ensure that the City complies with federal law. In addition, NYC fails to monitor private agencies with which it contracts for foster care services. The result of these failures is that the NYC foster care system devastates and permanently damages the children in its care.

Advocacy Goals

On behalf of a class of over 10,000 children, we ask that the Court enforce these children’s constitutional, federal, and state law rights to be safe while in state custody and to grow up in a permanent family.


One of the issues in this case that has plagued us from the beginning is that we have used “stranger” next friends for many of the child plaintiffs. These are individuals who do not have significant relationships with the named children but who understand the role of next friends and are dedicated to advancing the interests of the children in this litigation. The definitive word on this issue was put forward by the 1st Circuit in a decision several years ago, while I was at Children’s Rights, which found that because of the nature of foster care, children were all too often unable to form significant relationships with adults. When we moved to substitute one next friend for another, the city defendants formally objected to all of our next friends, on the ground that the next friends did not have relationships with the children they represented. The magistrate judge, in a lengthy and thorough decision, ruled that children in foster care “constitute a unique group of plaintiffs and determining whether their rights have been violated gives rise to unique challenges,” held that the next friends had demonstrated “unchallenged good faith” and that their status should be upheld. This ruling has been affirmed by the district court. It seems to put to rest future challenges to “stranger” next friends in other cases.

Plaintiffs have been reviewing the massive amount of documents produced by both the city and the state with regard to the operation of the New York City foster care system. As our expert reports near completion, we have undertaken  depositions to pin down the activities of the private agencies that care for almost all New York City children in foster care, and of the city and state defendants. All of this will culminate in the filing of a motion for class action status.


Here are three of our plaintiffs, using pseudonyms

Elisa was a 17-year-old girl at the time of the complaint, who grew up in more foster placements than she can remember. Over time, she has been sexually abused, beaten, denied food, and psychologically abused. Elisa was forced to take powerful psychotropic medications to keep her calm in foster care. These drugs left her barely able to string a sentence together. Elisa still articulates a desire to go to college and remembers being a good student when she was younger, but she fears those dreams will never come true. In her own words, “no one ever asks me what I want.”

Thierry was a three-year-old boy when the complaint was filed, who had been separated from his mother for most of his life. Even though his mother reported and expelled her abuser husband, Thierry had neither been sent home from foster care, nor had a new permanent home been found for him. At the end of visits he had with his mother, Thierry would cry uncontrollably. The child’s therapist had told his mother that he had to “get used to it” because this would be “his life now.”

Ayanna was two and a half years old at the time of filing, and had been in foster care since birth. She endured mandatory visits with her biological mother who severely abused two other children. (One of those children died at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend.) Ayanna did not want to see her biological mother. She remained without a permanent home and a family to call her own, despite her foster parent’s sincere desire to adopt her.

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