Sunday, April 1, 2007

Some (still) unanswered questions in New York City

A high-powered panel spoke at the Hunter College School of Social Work last week on the topic “One Year Later: A Forum Reviewing the Status of Child Welfare in New York City.” (When it comes to child welfare, nobody in New York City has to ask: “One year later than what?”)

There was the city’s “Public Advocate,” Betsy Gotbaum, who co-hosted the event and who has never missed a chance to exploit a child abuse tragedy. The commissioner of the Administration for Children’s Services, John Mattingly was present. So was Brooklyn Family Court Judge Susan Danoff. Also taking part, one of the city’s most astute advocates, Ilze Earner of the Immigrants and Child Welfare Project, and one of the system’s most perceptive critics, Andrew White of the Center for New York City Affairs. White edits the center’s Child Welfare Watch reports.

I wasn’t there, but from what I hear, a lot of important questions were not asked. Before getting to those questions, a few caveats:

● ACS is a much better agency than it was in the first years after Elisa Izquierdo died in late 1995. In fact, in spite of everything that’s happened, it’s a much better agency than its predecessor was before Elisa Izquierdo died. Mayor Bloomberg, John Mattingly and Commissioner Mattingly’s predecessors, William Bell and Nicholas Scoppetta, deserve a lot of credit for that.

● ACS is a much better agency than most of its big city and big state counterparts and that, also, is largely a function of good leadership.

● In the year since Nixzmary Brown died, the courage Mayor Bloomberg has shown in not pulling the plug on reform, not firing Mattingly, and not issuing demagogic calls for a foster-care panic, has been extraordinary. (One need only compare him to his counterpart in Philadelphia to see how much worse things could be).

● Commissioner Mattingly deserves enormous credit for pushing ahead with important long-term reforms, of which the recently-announced change in financial incentives (see the previous entry in this Blog) is only the latest. He’s also letting contracts for institutional providers of defense counsel for families, reducing the proportion of children in the worst forms of placement, group homes and institutions, and making progress in increasing kinship placements, an area where New York has lagged behind other progressive systems. (Commissioner Mattingly came to the job from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which helps to fund NCCPR).

All that said, there are still some things I hope someone asks the next time a reporter runs into someone who was on this panel:

To Public Advocate Gotbaum:
● You say there should be an independent ombudsman’s job created to watch over child welfare. Were you aware that one existed – in your own office - the day you walked in the door? The office was created by your predecessor as Public Advocate, Mark Green. It was run by a very capable leader, Hank Orenstein. Did you know Orenstein ran what was probably, at the time, the best such office in the country? Why didn’t you keep him? Why not bring him back? Why not at least put his office’s outstanding reports back on your website?

To Judge Danoff:
● Before becoming commissioner, John Mattingly served on a panel of national experts created by a settlement of a lawsuit against the city child welfare system. At that time, Mattingly co-authored a report which found that judges, with remarkable candor, said they rubber-stamped ACS decisions to remove children even when they felt ACS hadn’t made a good case - because they were afraid of what would happen to their own careers if they sent a child home and something went wrong. Have you ever done that?

To Comimssioner Mattingly:
● ACS has bragged that even as the number of children entering care has soared, the number in care on any given day has remained about the same. That raises the possibility that there is a lot of churning going on – children taken away, perhaps because of a hair-trigger mentality, then ACS realizes it was a mistake and sends the children home in a matter of weeks or months, much the worse for the experience.

At one point, before Nixzmary Brown died, you said you wanted to target cases in which children were in care for three months or less to see if there were ways to avoid placement. Has the proportion of such cases increased? If so, does that suggest some of these removals are not necessary? If not, what accounts for so many new entries and little increase in the total number of children in care?

● Ever since Nixzmary Brown died, ACS has maintained that there was no increase in needless removals because the ratio of removals to reports alleging maltreatment did not change. But that is no longer the case. According to the most recent Mayor’s Management Report, from July through October 2006, the number of reports increased 27 percent over the same months in 2005. But the number of removals increased 52 percent. So is the reverse also true – if removals are increasing faster than reports, does that mean some of these removals were not necessary?

● Schools, in particular, are now said to be a major source of a huge number of false reports and trivial reports. Those reports subject children to enormous trauma when their families are investigated, and drain away resources from finding children in real danger. Yet Mayor Bloomberg’s nonstop message can be boiled down to: Turn in anyone and everyone for anything and everything, and let ACS sort it out. How much collateral damage, in the form of traumatic child abuse investigations, should children have to endure as a result of such a policy? And doesn’t this also simply overload your own workers, reducing the chances that they will find children in real danger?

● If you were an inner-city parent who wanted to, say, challenge your child’s special education plan, could you honestly say you wouldn’t feel afraid to do so, given the speed with which some schools reportedly are using calls to ACS as a weapon? What about cases where a school official is not trying to coerce anyone, but is simply afraid for his own job if he doesn’t make a call, even when he believes it is absurd to do so? Will mandated reporters ever be taught what not to report, as well as what to report?

To anyone who wants to answer:
● Does the rate of deaths of children previously known to ACS tell us anything about overall child safety or not?

If the answer is yes:

● Why did deaths get so much attention toward the end of 2005, even before Nixzmary Brown died, when the rate of such deaths was, sadly, not unusual, yet there has been far less attention now, even though we know that such deaths increased by 50 percent, to a record high of 45 in 2006, even as removals of children increased significantly?

If the answer is no:

● Same follow up question.