In all of American child welfare, no one has a tougher job than John Mattingly, commissioner of New York City's Administration for Children's Services. And there is no one in America who could have done a better job than Mattingly when the system was engulfed in crisis in 2006.
Mattingly came to ACS from the Annie E. Casey Foundation where he worked on foster care reform efforts nationwide, and served on a panel of national experts that steered former ACS Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta away from a take-the-child-and-run approach and toward reforms that almost made New York City a national leader in child welfare. (While at Casey, Mattingly also recommended that the Foundation fund NCCPR, perhaps not one of his favorite recommendations at the moment.)
So reforms he helped initiate were well underway when Mattingly took over from William Bell who had succeeded Scoppetta. Mattingly built on those reforms and, at their height, New York City had safely reduced the number of children taken from their parents over the course of a year from 12,000 to under 4,900. At the same time, he bolstered kinship care, an area where New York long has lagged behind other cities, reduced the use of group homes and institutions and even took the first tentative steps toward requiring real accountability from the huge, powerful private agencies that have dominated New York child welfare for 150 years.
And the challenges faced by Mattingly are unique among reform-minded child welfare administrators. There are very few such people in child welfare; but among those few the others either haven't faced a backlash yet or left before the backlash hit. Mattingly is the first to face head-on the powerful forces that always try to exploit tragedy to thwart reform.
● Mattingly was running ACS when the neocon ideologue who then had the child welfare beat at The New York Times turned child abuse deaths into a "series" that didn't exist and then blamed them on ACS' reforms. The deaths were tragically real, but there had been no increase in their number. ("It was a series," the reporter would famously explain later, "but not statistically.")
● That set the stage for the response to the hideous murder of Nixzmary Brown in January, 2006 – a huge spike in removals of children from their homes. The New York Post called for Mattingly's resignation and the Daily News came close. (To his credit, Mayor Michael Bloomberg ignored those demands. Indeed, while Bloomberg could have done better, he was a beacon of statesmanship when compared with the likes of Adrian Fenty in Washington, D.C. or the Board of Supervisors in Los Angeles County.)
Had almost anyone else been running ACS at the time, the spike in removals almost certainly would have been worse and reform efforts in New York City now would lie in ruins. As I said, no one in America who could have done a better job than John Mattingly.
But John Mattingly could have done a better job than he did.
A series of missteps has become a retreat from reform that never needed to happen. In the year ending May 31, 2009, ACS took away more than 7,500 children. That's still a much better record than the 12,000 taken when the system was at its worst more than a decade ago, but it's a 50 percent increase from the year before Nixzmary Brown died. It happened because:
● Instead of defending reforms that had, by all objective measures, improved child safety, Mattingly pandered to the neocons. He fed red meat to the Daily News editorial board with inflammatory comments about how his own caseworkers were doing too much to keep families together.
● ACS made disingenuous claims about the surge in removals, arguing that more children were being taken because there were more reports of maltreatment. In fact, the rate at which families were torn apart far exceeded the rate of increase in reports.
● Mattingly invited the New York Times reporter who invented the notion that deaths were a "series" to watch him in full "get tough" mode at a meeting of caseworkers.
● When the city's Department of Investigation drew absurd conclusions about ACS based on a study of only the worst cases, ACS embraced the report instead of fighting back on behalf of the agency and its frontline workers.
● Mattingly issued a confiscation-at-birth policy, requiring his workers to automatically take into custody any child born to a parent who already had a child in foster care. Exceptions are possible, but very difficult.
● ACS partnered with the group that so arrogantly calls itself "Children's Rights" in a project that gives every other constituency in child welfare a full place at the table while relegating birth parents to a focus group.
● Mattingly threw cold water on plans to expand an excellent form of permanence for children, subsidized guardianship.
● ACS even is reportedly slowing down what may be Mattingly's signature accomplishment, moving children out of the worst form of care, group homes and institutions, and into families. Of course, everything is harder when you're taking away 7,500 children per year than it was when you were taking fewer than 4,900.
The message to the frontlines is clear and it is overwhelming: Take away children needlessly and the children may suffer terribly, but your career is safe. Have the next tragedy on your caseload and your career may be over.
Part of the fault rests with advocates like me. Precisely because we hold Mattingly in such high regard, and understood how much pressure he was under from the take-the-child-and-run crowd, we waited too long to direct our criticism specifically at ACS and Mattingly. So he was getting pressure only from those who wanted him to retreat even further from his own reforms.
All of which brings me to a publication on NCCPR's website called Twelve Ways to do Child Welfare Right. When we first published it, we could find only seven such ways. But, as more best practices emerged and more systems transformed, we added more programs and places to the list, until we reached 12.
Actually, for quite a while it was more like "twelve-and-a-half." That's because our listing for New York City had two parts. Our full-fledged "way to do child welfare right" was, and is, an outstanding model initiative called the Bridge Builders in the Highbridge section of the Bronx. (A few years ago, NCCPR received a grant from the Child Welfare Fund to help publicize this initiative.) But we also included praise for the general progress that had been made by ACS.
That part is no longer there. For the first time, we've had to take something off our list of "ways to do child welfare right." Because in New York City, there simply has been too much retreat from reform, for too long.