SEE UPDATE AT THE CONCLUSION OF THIS POST
About 400 people rallied at City Hall in New York Tuesday to protest slash-and-burn budget cuts to services that help keep children out of foster care.
In response, the commissioner of the city's Administration for Children's Services, John Mattingly, blamed the city's "current budget situation," which, like the budget situation in most cities and states, is dire.
But that's not the whole story. Odds are these cuts would not be necessary if not for Mattingly's own retreat from reform.
In 2005, the year before Nixzmary Brown died and The New York Times invented a non-existent "series" of child abuse deaths, (the deaths were tragically real, but there was no series), ACS removed fewer than 5,000 children from their homes. Of course the Nixzmary Brown case terrified workers and they rushed to tear apart more families. Instead of curbing the surge in removals, Mattingly encouraged it. So now ACS takes away nearly 7,500 children every year.
Proportionately, that's still better than Los Angeles or Philadelphia, but it's a huge trend in the wrong direction. Instead of making children safer, key indicators of safety, reabuse of children and foster care recidivism, have worsened, and deaths of children "known to the system" have increased. (For details, see NCCPR's report on New York City child welfare.)
In addition to the increase in children taken from their parents, ACS is taking into court far more cases where they intend to leave children in their own homes – essentially so that if something goes wrong, they can blame a judge. (Indeed, it was particularly disingenuous for Mattingly, in a recent AP story, to blame the courts for delays that prolong children's time in foster care, when he is among those most responsible for those delays getting far worse. The only thing more disingenuous is condemnation of the budget cuts from the city's Public Grandstander – sorry, Public Advocate - Bill de Blasio. When he was practicing for his current role as a member of the City Council, he never missed a chance to pour gasoline on the fire of foster-care panic.)
In addition to all the other harm, foster care also happens to cost more than better alternatives. Dragging more cases into court also adds to costs. So the main reason ACS is cutting help to families now is the failure in leadership at the agency since the death of Nixzmary Brown.
The result of all this is a cycle of failure. ACS takes more children needlessly, using up funds that could have gone to services to help families. So the services to help families are cut. So more children are taken needlessly.
The failure of leadership was seen again in still another retreat from reform this year. Late in 2009, the highly-respected Vera Institute of Justice issued a report on how child welfare agencies in New York State handle allegations of "educational neglect." Their conclusion: These cases do nothing but harm families and waste caseworkers' time. If they're going to be handled by CPS agencies at all, they report said, it should be done through an approach called "differential response."
In January, Mattingly, a longtime opponent of differential response, promised to give it a try in some educational neglect cases, on a pilot basis.
Now he's retreated from that reform as well – as reported not by any of New York's big news organizations, but by some enterprising students at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, whose work now has been picked up by The Huffington Post.
UPDATE: This just in. Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced today that New York City is going to address the problem of chronic absenteeism and truancy with - wait for it: an Interagency Task Force! And this won't be just your everyday Interagency Task Force. No, this will be a Mayoral Interagency Task Force.
Of course ACS will be represented. ACS had two people at the news conference announcing the Interagency Task Force. But do you think the Mayor even knows that his ACS commissioner shot down one of the best possible ways to curb this problem: finding alternatives to burdening families with child abuse allegations in these cases?
The Center for New York City Affairs at The New School claims the Interagency Task Force is a response to a report they issued - in October, 2008. That report concluded that school personnel overreport absences as "educational neglect." According to the report:
Often, it would be preferable to collaborate with an outside organization to help engage families and organize community-based family support or other services. Teachers should also be more skilled at identifying other forms of neglect, so they know when and where to turn for help.
Why do I have this sensation of going around in circles?
There will be more on "educational neglect," and ACS' retreat from this reform, in future posts.