Monday, September 6, 2010

Foster care and family preservation In New York City: There are very few “gains” left to lose

There's been another death of a child "known to the system" in New York City. Actually, that's not unusual. In a city as huge as New York, that happens once every nine days or so.

But this one is the first in awhile to get a lot of media attention. The case is more ambiguous than the death of Nixzmary Brown, whose death set off a huge surge in removals of children from their homes. In particular, it's not at all clear that the city's Administration for Children's Services could have seen this one coming.

But facts have never stopped Bill De Blasio. He chaired the City Council's Human Services Committee at the time Nixzmary Brown died, and he never missed a chance to score political points by attacking ACS in ways that encouraged the agency to take even more children.

Now, De Blasio is telling The New York Times he's concerned that some of the "gains" in child protection since the death of Nixzmary Brown have been lost. He can relax. There were no gains in the years since Nixzmary Brown died, there were only losses.


There were considerable gains made starting in 1999, when the first commissioner of ACS, Nicholas Scoppetta, abandoned his embrace of the take-the-child-and-run approach and began pushing efforts to keep families together. But almost all of those gains under Scoppetta and his successors were wiped out after Nixzmary Brown died in January of 2006. And the person most responsible for that is the current ACS Commissioner, John Mattingly.

ACS' own statistics and the annual Mayor's Management Reports show that the "gains" since then are a fiction. The perception of improvement is a result of some slick pandering by Mattingly, who either played to the crowd or worse, really believed the answers lay in talking tough, tearing apart more families, creating a sibling confiscation policy, and opposing just about every real reform in child welfare.

Since gut instinct says that should work, people like De Blasio, who fanned the flames of hysteria throughout, were glad to claim that it did. (It certainly worked for De Blasio. It probably helped him get elected to his current job as the city's "Public Advocate.")

But the numbers tell a very different story. The table below is an excerpt from the data page (Page 20) of NCCPR's report on New York City child welfare (where you'll find data for some measures all the way back to 1993 as well as full source citations). It shows entries into care, deaths of children "known to the system" and the two key measures used to evaluate child safety: Reabuse of children left in their own homes and foster care "recidivism," – the proportion of children taken from their homes who have to be placed again. The time period starts with the last year before Nixzmary Brown died.

Does this look like progress?  Do these look like “gains”?

Entries into foster care
Recidivism %
Re-abuse %
Fatalities, “known to the 
*-Fatality data are for calendar years, the other measures are for fiscal years.

Every measure has gotten worse. I agree with those who say you can't judge safety based on fatalities (I only wish I could convince more reporters). But you can get some idea based on reabuse and recidivism – particularly when it's a trend over several years.


And it doesn't end there: The list of ways John Mattingly has retreated from reform keeps growing:

reneging on a pledge to use "differential response" (a national innovation he's long opposed) to deal with some "educational neglect" cases, opposing state legislation to encourage workers to be slightly more flexible about rushing to seek termination of parental rights for some mothers who are in jail or drug treatment, and even opposing legislation to place more children permanently with relatives through subsidized guardianship. Fortunately, both bills passed despite Mattingly's objections.

Now, even one of ACS' signature achievements during Mattingly's tenure, a remarkably successful initiative in the Highbridge section of the Bronx called Bridge Builders, is in jeopardy. (In 2005, NCCPR received a grant from one of the foundations that helped create Bridge Builders, the Child Welfare Fund, to write about the initiative).

Mattingly's actually become one of the most regressive forces in child welfare nationwide. In an appalling presentation to an Urban Institute symposium last December, he suggested that child welfare agencies were going too far in efforts to combat racial bias, took another swipe at subsidized guardianship, and said we really shouldn't talk so much about foster care as a "bad outcome" because it makes foster parents sad. He even suggested caseworkers might be getting too careful about not taking children from battered mothers.

The damage Mattingly has been doing becomes even clearer when his retreat from reform is contrasted with the dynamic, progressive leader of New York State's Office of Children and Family Services, Gladys Carrion. She championed the bills Mattingly opposed, and has led a huge reform of the state's juvenile justice system (an issue where she and Mattingly are in agreement).

Mattingly's retreat from reform has harmed children not only directly, through needless foster care, and making all children less safe, but also by scarfing up resources that could have been used to save prevention programs from recent budget cuts.

While it is progress of a sort to see Mr. De Blasio zero in on cuts in prevention as his primary concern – or so he says at the moment – it's also hypocritical, given how much he did to push ACS into taking away so many more children. There could be a lot more money available for such programs had the number of children taken from their homes each year not shot up by 50 percent.

Not everything is gone. Mattingly has done a good job of curbing the use of group homes and institutions. And he's made a serious attempt finally to set up a mechanism to hold accountable the scores of private agencies that provide almost all foster care and most other child welfare services other than investigations. It's been partially successful. Though ACS botched the scoring on the latest "request for proposals" as part of this process, causing turmoil among the agencies, I don't think that was Mattingly's fault.

So relax Mr. De Blasio. John Mattingly already undid almost all the progress he made in his early years as commissioner, and before that, as an advisor to Scoppetta. In New York City child welfare, there are very few "gains" left.

The only thing to be determined now is whether this latest tragedy will set off another surge in needless removals of children, make things even worse, and jeopardize what little progress still exists.