Thursday, December 15, 2016

Once again, New York City children pay the price of foster care panic

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. Photo by Kevin Case

And it comes just as data show City children "known to the system" at their safest in at least six years.

The data are still preliminary but, as first reported by the website Gothamist, it appears that for the third time in two decades New York City is in the midst of a foster-care panic – a sharp sudden increase in children removed from their homes in the wake of a high-profile tragedy.

Zymere Perkins, a child “known to the system,” died in September. Politicians immediately started tripping over each other in the rush to advance their careers with the usual demagoguery. That had the usual effect. Data from the city child welfare agency, the Administration for Children’s Services, show that in October the number of children taken from their homes apparently was 75percent higher than in October, 2015. (ACS keeps these data online for only a month at a time, the link goes to a cached version of the rerlevant data.)

Making this doubly tragic: In Fiscal Year 2016, before the panic, key measures of child safety show that New York City children were safer than at any time in at least six years.  In contrast, foster-care panics make children less safe.

That doesn’t mean all was well at ACS. I am not suggesting there is validity to the common complaint about the media: “You don’t report the good news” – and Mayor Bill de Blasio needs to stop whining about this.  Of course media don’t report the good news. When I was a reporter, I didn’t go out to the airport to write stories about all the planes that landed safely.

What is needed is more reporting about the bad news: Tearing apart far more families needlessly does the children in those families enormous harm. We need more reporting on that kind of bad news – as Gothamist has done.  ACS and other agencies like it routinely err in all directions – we need more reporting on the stumbling and bumbling that leads to needless removal, as well as the stumbling and bumbling that leaves children in danger in their own homes.

In the absence of such reporting, the foster care panic will go on for years, just as it did starting in 1996 and again a decade later. Many more children will be harmed, and all New York City children will be less safe.

That’s because of the message to the frontlines: If the only kind of blunder for which a caseworker can get in trouble, or wind up on the front page, is leaving a child in danger in her or his own home; if there is no penalty for making scores or hundreds of blunders that lead to needless foster care, then, of course, caseworkers will remove children needlessly.

What the data tell us

There are two key measures of child safety – they are the standard measures used by the federal government: One is the percentage of children re-abused after they become known to a child welfare agency after a given period of time. The federal government measures reabuse within six months. New York City uses a tougher standard, reabuse within a year. The second standard is foster-care recidivism, the percentage of children returned home from foster care who have to be placed again within a year.

The percentage of children reabused in 2016 was the lowest since 2009. The rate of foster-care recidivism was the lowest since 2006.  Data and sources are in NCCPR’s report on New York City child welfare.

Now, consider what happens during foster care panics.

The 1996 panic, set off by the death of Elisa Izquierdo late in 1995, did nothing to make New York City children safer. Removals skyrocketed, reaching the highest number in decades in 1998. That same year the rate of re-abuse was the highest it’s been in any year since, and foster-care recidivism barely budged.  And, of course, thousands more children were exposed to enormous inherent harm of needless foster care, and the high rate of abuse in foster care.

After Nixzmary Brown died, in January, 2006, removals shot up again from 2006 through 2009. So did rates of reabuse and foster care recidivism. As entries into foster care went down again, first recidivism and then reabuse rates slowly declined.

What about fatalities?

Of course, the measurement of choice for politicians isn’t something relatively reliable such as how many children actually are re-abused. The measurement of choice is: Was there a particularly horrifying case in the news that supposedly “proves” the child welfare agency is incompetent? 

By that measure every child welfare agency in America is incompetent, always was incompetent, and always will be incompetent. Because there is no child welfare agency that can prevent every tragedy – or even every tragedy in which the case file had more “red flags” than a Soviet May Day parade.

But here’s what we do know: Foster care panics make children less safe, even when the measure is the number of deaths of children “known to the system.”

That’s actually a lousy measure – for reasons for which we all should be grateful. Though each is among the worst imaginable tragedies, let us be grateful that the number of such tragedies, even in a city the size of New York, is low enough to rise or fall due to random chance.

That’s why it’s irresponsible in the extreme to try to draw sweeping conclusions, as the commissioner of the city’s Department of Investigations tried to do, based on examining only the horror stories.

But as long as everyone insists on using such deaths as a measure, I’ll point out that during the two previous foster-care panics, deaths of children “known to the system” in New York City increased.

Here’s something else we know: The only places in America that have succeeded in improving child safety are those that did what New York City has done in recent years – rebuild to emphasize safe, proven alternatives to tearing apart families. In contrast, there is no place in America where foster-care panic has made children safer.

And there’s one more thing we know: Foster care panics are not inevitable.

The state run child welfare system in Connecticut also has had high profile tragedies in recent years. Those tragedies have been followed by the same sorts of self-serving demagoguery seen now in New York City.  But there’s been no foster care panic – for the simple reason that the leader of the state child welfare agency refuses to allow it, and her boss, the governor, is backing her up.

A dose of Connecticut courage is just what New York City needs right now.