Friday, December 23, 2016

Child welfare in New York City: Another mayor wanna-be tries to exploit child abuse tragedy

New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer
NCCPR's updated report on New York City child welfare
is available here.

And see this excellent column from Errol Louis in the New York Daily News for more about Scott Stringer's so-called report, and other politicians who "preen at kids' expense"

It’s good to see New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Administration for Children’s Services fighting back against the alleged “report” from another mayor wanna-be. This time it’s City Comptroller Scott Stringer seeking to exploit child abuse tragedy to advance his political ambitions.

I say alleged report because I can’t seem to find it anywhere.  There is a press release on Stringer’s website – but I can’t find an actual report.  I assume it exists, since a NY1 story shows video of a document trumpeting “preliminary findings.” [UPDATE, DEC. 27: In an excellent column in the New York Daily News Errol Louis writes that "In reality, what Stringer issued was nothing but a two-page letter to ACS, along with the all-important press release..."]

Stringer’s apparent shyness about posting his findings is surprising. One would think he would be proud to show us all how he managed to conduct a thorough review of 3,692 child abuse investigations in less than three months.

As for the numbers Stringer spewed out, it’s worth looking at the fine print.

The actual “report” – as seen in a screenshot of the NY1 story  - says that of the 3,962 ACS investigations conducted from July 1 to September 25, 38 were high priority because they involved a report of a death of a child. That does not mean ACS knew about all 38 children. Some of them may have been high priority cases precisely because the death was the first ACS knew about the family.  Stringer goes on to claim that ten of the 38 deaths were in cases where ACS in fact had received at least four reports on the child. 

But here’s what ACS says:

● Among the cases studied by Stringer’s office, there were 26 fatalities during the three-month period and 33 fatalities in all, not 38.
● Four of the deaths occurred before 2014.
● 15 of them were in families not known to ACS.

Gothamist reports that, according to the city, of the fatalities in cases that were known to ACS:
● Six allegedly died due to  unsafe sleeping conditions.
● Three died due to illness
● One died in a fire
● One died due to an accident. 

In three other cases, the cause of death is not yet known.

The best indication that ACS’s numbers are right comes from how Stringer responded: He tried to change the subject, saying in effect: Pay no attention to the fatality figures I used to grab cheap headlines, what about the findings on whether workers completed all their required tasks?

We all know the answer: Had the report focused on that in the first place, there would have been no cheap headlines.

Here are a few basic facts to put this, and any other report on child abuse fatalities, into context.

● There are about 1.8 million New Yorkers under age 18.

● There were 55,329 reports alleging child abuse in New York City in Fiscal Year 2016.

● Even by the Comptroller’s own estimate, there were 3,692 “high priority” investigations in a period of just three months.

● In a typical year, somewhere between 40 and 50 children previously known to ACS die. 

● “Known to the system” can be anything from one report on a family to many more. And the time frame can be anything from known to the system a day before the death to known to the system ten years earlier.

● In many cases, the death is not due to child abuse. For example: A spike in deaths of children known to the system in 2015 was due to an increase in deaths due to natural causes.

● Determining if a death is due to abuse, neglect, or accident can be surprisingly subjective. Suppose a toddler wakes up early one Sunday morning, manages to unlock the door, wanders outside and is hit by a car.  Accident or neglect? Given the biases that permeate child welfare, if the child lived in Riverdale, it probably would be labeled an accident.  If it’s the South Bronx, it be more likely to be labeled neglect.

What we can – and can’t – learn from death numbers

What does it all mean? Though each is the worst form of tragedy, and the only acceptable goal for such deaths is zero, a child abuse death is, fortunately, very rare – so rare that it is almost impossible to determine if a child welfare agency is doing better, or worse, by trying to count them.

It also means that the children who are going to die if ACS doesn’t find them first are a very small number of needles in a very large haystack.  And the case which, after a tragedy, seemed to have more red flags than a Soviet May Day parade may have looked before the tragedy just like hundreds of other cases where nothing went wrong.

You will never succeed in finding the needles by trying to vacuum up the entire haystack – in other words, by tearing apart far more families and consigning far more children needlessly to foster care. New York City tried that after Elisa Izquierdo died and after Nixzmary Brown died. It didn’t work. And it’s probably happening now, too.

There are better ways to measure ACS performance: What percentage of abused or neglected children known to the system face any form of abuse or neglect again? What proportion of children sent home from foster care have to be placed in foster care again?

By these measures, ACS’ performance in FY 2016 actually was the best it’s been in at least six years.

And it’s not good enough.

No free pass for ACS

None of this means it’s time to give ACS a free pass and turn to other things.

As I suggested in response to a report from another mayor wanna-be, there are far better ways to evaluate ACS. 

As for those performance measures in Stringer’s report, maybe it’s time to look at a more fundamental question: Do those requirements actually improve practice, or are they just CYA protocols.

For example, according to the New York Post, one of the “shocking” findings in Stringer’s alleged report is that “31.9 percent of the cases were closed without first being reviewed by a supervisor five times.”

Five times?  Really?  Perhaps we should start by considering whether reviewing the same case five times is the highest best use of a supervisor’s time – as opposed to a CYA rule added after some past high-profile tragedy in which a supervisor only reviewed the file three or four times.

The price of panic

And finally, if in fact the proper checks aren’t being made, if the investigations are too superficial, if workers are engaging in what’s been called “drive by casework” that’s almost certainly because those workers are overloaded.

Political grandstanding pushes workers to rush to tear apart even more families. That kind of foster-care panic further overloads workers. So the investigations get sloppier – and more children are endangered. Scott Stringer’s grandstanding is making all vulnerable children less safe.

Surely Stringer could have found a better way to campaign for mayor.