Monday, March 28, 2011

Foster care in New York: Two views from the frontlines

On Friday, the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School in New York City, which publishes Child Welfare Watch, sent out excerpts from an interview with a caseworker for New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services.

It was pretty much what you’d expect, and pretty much like dozens of other such stories that have appeared all over the country.  The caseworker talked about the enormous stress of the job and the constant fear of having something go terribly wrong with one of the cases on her caseload.

It begins this way:

I always wanted to work here and now that I'm here I'm like, "You've gotta be kidding." When the school year picks up, we just get case after case, and once a case is generated the clock is ticking. It's like a ticking time bomb. It's a juggling act. It's like that guy in the circus spinning those plates, and that's how I feel, I'm spinning those plates, and I can't drop one because that means a kid could be dead or a kid could be hurt.

As I read it, I was reminded of another perspective from an ACS worker.  The worker herself wrote it, more than ten years ago, for City Limits magazine.  This was not the typical “life of a caseworker” story.  Rather, it was what really went on at the time.  Some excerpts:

To the manager … who makes the fateful decision to remove a child and the judge who approves it, a child exists only on a piece of paper, alongside a list of disturbing circumstances.  They don’t see a child having a panic attack at 3 a.m. because he is suddenly alone in the world.  Or slamming his head against the wall out of protest or desperation.  The good intentions that go into the decision to remove a child often have little to do with the sometimes brutal outcomes of that choice. … Unlike fatalities, the trauma a child endures from being wrongly removed, followed by years of difficulty growing up in foster care, are not measurable.

A manager or supervisor has no one to answer to if a child who shouldn’t be in foster care is removed from home anyway.  There is no penalty for the wrongful taking of a child.

At moments of uncertainty, the mantra was ‘Cover your ass’ – a phrase heard often around the office. … The obsessive concern with liability at the field offices quickly overshadows the reasonable criteria [workers] have been taught for identifying abuse and neglect. Most quickly learn to abandon their training and to do what it takes to survive.

One week after the investigation begins, caseworkers have to file an electronic report.  The computer offers two options: ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe.’  But my manager accepted only one.  Any time I determined a child to be ‘safe’ my manager rejected it and returned it to me.  The first step to protect yourself, I quickly discovered, is to determine that a child is ‘unsafe’ from the outset of an investigation.

Any caseworker can tell you that they have done removals that they did not personally agree with. But they rarely complain to management, since they will never get in trouble for removing a child under supervisors' orders. Caseworkers are also quiet about unnecessary removals because doing a removal and then transferring a case to foster care takes them a lot less time than keeping it and trying to work with a family. Keeping a case obligates a worker to do regular home visits and follow-ups to make sure a family is getting preventive services. It also means dealing with anything that may go wrong and continuing to be responsible for the children's safety.

By the time I resigned, I felt strongly that the system was working against children instead of for them. 
[Emphasis added.]

Back when it was written, New York City was taking away even more children than it takes now.  Gradually, the culture changed.  Removals steadily declined.  Workers no longer had to be constantly on the defensive about choosing the best option for the overwhelming majority of children the overwhelming majority of the time: leaving them in their own homes.

But then came Nixzmary Brown and a new surge in removals.  Today, the rate of removal in New York City still is lower than it was in 2000, when this caseworker told her story.  But now a grandstanding D.A. has responded to the death of a child “known to the system” by bringing charges of criminally negligent homicide against a caseworker and his supervisor. How much longer will it be until the CYA, take-the-child-and-run mentality this worker described once again is the norm at the Administration for Children’s Services.