Thursday, June 24, 2010

Foster care in New York City: Another retreat from reform – on two fronts at once

Many good things have happened in child welfare around the country in recent years – but by and large, they haven't been happening in New York City.

On the contrary, ever since the death of Nixzmary Brown in January 2006, the Commissioner of New York City's Administration for Children's Services, John Mattingly, once thought to be a reformer, has been leading a full-scale retreat from reform. I won't repeat the list of failures here, they're in this previous post to the blog (though nearly a year, and several more acts of retreat later, I'd have to say I gave Mattingly too much benefit of the doubt in that post).

Just in the past year, Mattingly opposed legislation that finally would allow New York to join 39 other states in offering the option of "subsidized guardianship" to relatives to want to adopt foster children they're caring for, but don't want to put their own children through termination of parental rights in order to adopt their grandchildren. Mattingly even opposed an extremely modest bill, now law, that encourages caseworkers to consider using the legal exceptions to automatically seeking termination that are in the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act when a parent is in jail or in drug treatment.

So I was pleasantly surprised when, in January, Mattingly promised to move forward on two reforms at once: curbing the harm done to families by allegations of "educational neglect" and experimenting with "differential response," a way to deal with certain child welfare cases that has had significant success across the country. But, it seems, that promise is now null and void.

Differential response (also sometimes called "alternative response") is a highly-successful approach that is gaining ground all over the country. It's now in use in all or part of 18 states – including New York, where six counties are experimenting with it.

The way it works varies across the country, but it amounts to this: In cases where the initial report suggests risk is low, workers still are sent to the home, but not to do a full-scale investigation. Instead, they go out and offer help. In some parts of the country the workers are from the child protective services agencies, in others, differential response cases are handed off to a private agency.

Yes, I can hear the fear-mongers now: But how do you know it's low risk? If you don't come in fingers wagging with all the coercive power of the state, how do you know you won't miss something?

We know because, as the Vera Institute of Justice points out in its report on "educational neglect" every single study of differential response, all across the country, and there have been 13 of them, has found no compromise of child safety. Many have found that safety improved. That shouldn't come as a surprise. If you go into a home where the allegation is, say, educational neglect, extending an open hand instead of a wagging finger, you are likely to get more cooperation from the family.


Differential response has particularly strong potential in New York. That's because in New York, the hotline that accepts calls alleging child abuse and decides which ones are passed on for investigation is run by the state. But the child welfare systems which are ordered to investigate are run by counties and New York City. That creates a huge incentive for hotline operators to pass on calls that should be screened out – rather than risk being blamed if they screen out a call and then something goes wrong. Obviously, it makes sense to give localities an option other than a full-scale investigation in such cases.

A perfect example of the kind of case for which differential response is likely to work best is an educational neglect allegation. As noted in the previous post to this Blog, the Vera Institute report suggested that educational neglect cases often should not be handled by child protective services agencies at all, and in many states, they're not. By and large, the report found, the traditional CPS response does nothing to keep children safe – or improve their school attendance – it just scares families away from getting help. If such cases are going to be handled by child welfare agencies at all, the report said, it should be done through differential response.

But differential response has been slow to catch on in New York, in part because of the longstanding opposition of John Mattingly. That opposition predates his arrival at ACS. I first heard him speak in opposition to this approach at a public hearing in Maine in 2001.

So it was good news when Mattingly said in January that ACS would pilot using differential response in some educational neglect cases.

Too bad it didn't last.

As revealed by some enterprising students at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, the pilot program is now "on hold." Even the plan for the pilot is still "under development" and no one at ACS knows when it will be fully developed. In other words, like the parrot in the famous Monty Python sketch, differential response is not dead – it's just resting.

Instead, ACS will be represented on a brand new "interagency task force" on truancy and chronic absenteeism in the New York City schools.

The excuse for this is budget cuts. But it's hard to believe no one at ACS saw the budget cuts coming in January.

No, the reason New York City is in retreat both on differential response and finding a better way to deal with "educational neglect" is because John Mattingly never really had much enthusiasm for moving forward on either.