Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Foster care in New York: A fresh start for New York City child welfare?

The resignation of John Mattingly as commissioner of New York’s Administration for Children’s Services gives New York a chance to catch up to best practice in child welfare.
Whenever the topic is John Mattingly, the commissioner of New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services, I have to choose between being an ingrate or a hypocrite.

Only an ingrate would criticize one of those most responsible for your own organization’s existence.  When John Mattingly was at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, he recommended that they fund NCCPR.  The foundation did so for a decade.

But I’ve criticized many other child welfare leaders for doing the kinds of things Mattingly has done. Only a hypocrite would set a different standard for someone who, in a former job, had gotten one’s own organization funded.

I choose ingrate.

Mattingly resigned this afternoon – to return to the Casey Foundation.  There is no doubt he was among the most dedicated child welfare professionals in America.  Like most people in the field he meant well; unlike many he worked tirelessly to make it better.  The issue is how John Mattingly’s vision of making it better changed for the worse.

The John Mattingly who took the job was a visionary, a national leader in pioneering best practices.  But the John Mattingly who leaves the job now let best practice pass him by.  He  became one of the most regressive forces in American child welfare, and New York’s vulnerable children have suffered for it.

The record is depressing:

● While state after state has adopted “differential response” which both narrows and widens the net of intervention into families while making that intervention more humane, Mattingly opposed it; agreeing to pilot it in some “educational neglect” cases and then reneging.

● While state after state embraced subsidized guardianship as an alternative means to permanency for children placed with relatives, Mattingly opposed the bill that allows it in New York.

● Mattingly even opposed a law that does no more than encourage caseworkers to think twice before automatically rushing to terminate the parental rights of mothers who are in prison or drug treatment.

On all three of these issues, the real reformer was New York State Office of Children and Families Commissioner Gladys Carrion, who favored these initiatives when Mattingly opposed them. 

● Mattingly initiated a sibling confiscation-at-birth policy, ordering caseworkers to automatically take away the newborn siblings of any child already in foster care, with only rare, difficult-to-obtain exceptions.

● But worst of all, Mattingly presided over a 50 percent surge in removals of children from their homes in the wake of the death of Nixzmary Brown.  But, as is documented in detail in our report on New York City child welfare (see especially the statistics on Page 20) key child safety indicators worsened.

And just as the surge seemed to be easing at last, the indictment of caseworkers in the wake of the death of Marchella Pierce almost certainly sent them soaring again. (We don’t know because ACS seems to have stopped posting monthly data on entries into care.) There is no indication Mattingly has done anything to try to curb such a surge.


Mattingly’s record includes some genuine progressive accomplishments that were not undone in his later years, including significantly reducing the use of group homes and institutions, and supporting the creation of strong institutional providers of defense counsel for families.

But Mattingly also has a skilled politician’s knack for making everyone feel listened to and included – and then doing what he wanted to do anyway.  And he chose his words with great care, to make everyone feel he was at least in general agreement with them.

The impression was reinforced by the fact that Mattingly sometimes made his harshest statements about reform when he’s not in New York City. 

At a conference in Massachusetts he denigrated differential response and Intensive Family Preservation Services, even though both probably have stronger “evidence bases” than some of the ideas he has pushed.

At a conference in Washington he minimized the problem of racial bias in child welfare and even suggested efforts to stop the removal of children from battered mothers just because the mothers have been beaten may have gone too far.

What accounts for the change?  I don’t know, but I’ll venture a guess: too many fatality reviews.

Anyone who runs a system the size of New York City’s constantly will be immersed in the hideous details of the worst cases.  And because John Mattingly really does care, and really does take every case to heart, my guess is he immerses himself in those details more than most.  That means he may be looking at autopsy photos and reading about unspeakable acts committed against children for hours or days at a time an average of once every ten days or so – because that’s about how often a child “known to the system” dies in New York City.

Spend enough time doing that and I’m sure it’s easy to start thinking of every parent as a sadist or a brute.  It must be easy to forget, in one’s heart if not one’s head, that the overwhelming majority of families caught in the ACS net are nothing like that.  They’re more likely to be like Lillian Lucas Dixon, whose seven-year-old son was taken because he was home alone for an hour so she could make it to her shift at a subway token booth, or the families traumatized by phony “educational neglect” allegations – the kinds differential response could do so much to ease.

I think it was loss of perspective that turned John Mattingly from reformer to obstacle to reform.

Of course I say all this well aware that, depending on who replaces Mattingly, reformers might well wind up looking back on the Mattingly years, even the later Mattingly years, as “the good old days.” [UPDATE, JULY 27: Mayor Michael Bloomberg has named Queens Family Court Judge Ronald Richter, a former deputy commissioner of ACS, to replace Mattingly.] 

But when Mayor Michael Bloomberg chose John Mattingly it was a wise choice.  If he makes another wise choice, he can return New York City to the forefront of child welfare reform.