Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Foster care in New York City: Another pol tries to exploit a child abuse tragedy

            A month ago on this Blog I wrote about the first child abuse death in several years to get significant media attention in New York City.  I concluded that post by noting that even before this tragedy the Commissioner of New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), John Mattingly, had rolled back almost all the gains made before the last high-profile case, the death of Nixzmary Brown in 2006, and added:

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.

            Last week, that surge became more likely.  Another politician rushed to exploit the tragedy.  The Brooklyn District Attorney, Charles Hynes, grabbed himself a headline and a chance to bask in the glow of contrived righteous indignation.  In the process he almost guarantees more tragedies.

            In a move that may be the first of its kind, ever, and certainly the first in the memory of anyone in his office, Hynes is investigating not just the parent accused of abusing the child, but also ACS and an outside contractor who handled the case.  A  New York Times story called it “a rare and wide-ranging criminal investigation…”

            As the Times reported, Hynes

cited the Brown case in making his decision to order the investigation. “Given the history of the Nixzmary Brown tragedy and the city’s failure to protect that child, I am sufficiently troubled enough by the death of Marchella Pierce to find out why she died,” Mr. Hynes said.

            Yet Hynes didn’t do this in the case of Nixzmary Brown herself, even though she, too, lived, and died, in Brooklyn.  And, of course, he didn’t do it for any of the scores of children previously known to ACS who died in the intervening years.  Why not?  Could it be because the media didn’t pay much attention to all those cases either?

All of this means that, if caseworkers weren’t already terrified of what ACS itself might do, now they know that they face possible criminal prosecution if they screw up and leave a child in a dangerous home.  But they can take thousands of children needlessly from everyone they know and love, consign them to the chaos of foster care (and the high risk of abuse in foster care itself) bounce them from foster home to foster home and expel them years later, unable to love or trust anyone, and while the child’s life has been destroyed, the caseworker is safe.

It’s not as if they can count on Mattingly to protect them from being scapegoated.  He’s already thrown two caseworkers involved in this case under the bus; suspending them without pay. 

They may, in fact, belong there.  I don’t know.  There was a time when I felt I could trust John Mattingly to make a fair judgment in these situations; that is no longer the case.

But regardless of whether those caseworkers should have been disciplined, the action reeks of hypocrisy for another reason, one cited by Mike Arsham, executive director of New York’s Child Welfare Organizing Project in recent testimony before the City Council.

Top ACS officials recently botched the process for awarding hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts for services to help troubled families.  It’s all very arcane, thanks to a process Arsham calls “the most opaque and unaccountable of any in memory.” But the bottom line is that it was a screw-up of truly monumental proportions – comparable in the child welfare world to how Michael Brown of FEMA responded to Hurricane Katrina.  But as Arsham points out, the managers responsible for these blunders “which devastated the entire Preventive Service system, potentially endangering thousands of children, have not been held comparably accountable.”

Frontline workers know all this, of course.  And they are rational beings.  So it's likely they will behave rationally and, once again, embrace a take-the-child-and-run approach – leading to another explosion in removals of children, even as children continue to suffer from the surge in removals following Nixzmary Brown’s death, a surge that was only beginning to ease in the past year or so.

Meanwhile Mayor Michael Bloomberg reaffirmed his support for Mattingly.  According to The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg said that Mattingly is “the best this country has to offer. Every other city would love to have this guy,”  (Of course, the fact that Mattingly stuck to blaming his frontline workers, and defended what Arsham points out are the deepest cuts to preventive services in ACS’ history, probably helped Mattingly win the continued favor of his boss.)

There was a time when Mattingly was, indeed, the best the country had to offer.  But not anymore.  The latest example of who gets hurt by his failure, - in this case a five-year-old boy - can be seen in this story from the Daily News.  As you read it, recall that Mattingly had promised to reform the way ACS responds to “educational neglect” cases, and then reneged.

Best practice in child welfare has passed John Mattingly by; now, he holds back progress at ACS.   Running a large child welfare agency is an extremely difficult job; very few people can do it well.  But there are better leaders in the field today.  Maybe the Mayor should start seeking them out.