Friday, September 16, 2011

Foster care in New York: Legacy of a failed commissioner

Two very good stories this week offer rare insight into how child welfare agencies really work, the dynamics of foster-care panic, and the price paid by children for poor leadership.  In a future post, I’ll discuss a Washington Post column about the legacy of former-Mayor Adrian Fenty’s dreadful response to a high-profile tragedy.

First, though, to New York City and its Administration for Children’s Services.

New York Magazine has a very good story  by reporter Jennifer Gonnerman about a caseworker and supervisor indicted on charges of criminally negligent homicide after a child on their caseload, Marchella Pierce, died.  (Gonnerman was interviewed about the story this evening on NPR's All Things Considered)

The portrait of caseworker Damon Adams and supervisor Chereece Bell painted by a grandstanding Brooklyn District Attorney is of two workers who didn’t give a damn and one who allegedly falsified records to cover incompetence.

The New York Magazine story paints a very different picture.  Adams fell behind on his paperwork because he was so extraordinarily dedicated that he kept helping parents, and former foster children, who called him even after their cases were closed.  Bell took on the unit that handles all the toughest cases – and she was denied the help other supervisors got because she was so good at her job that others supposedly needed the help more.  She even received an award – “a wooden plaque commending her for her ‘extraordinary efforts to protect children.’” from then-ACS Commissioner John Mattingly.

We’ll probably never know for sure if they’re really that good, anymore than we’ll ever know if they were as bad as the District Attorney claims.  I suspect New York Magazine came closer to the mark, though there are some comments Bell makes in the article itself (which I’ll get to below) which raise concerns.

But the fundamental reason we won’t know for sure is that incompetent workers hide in incompetent systems.  When it is impossible for even the best worker to do the job, it’s hard to tell the best from the worst.


The New York Magazine story captures brilliantly how the system sets up everyone to fail – and the culture of fear created as a result.

The story documents how everyone is mindful of what happened to workers after Nixzmary Brown died in 2006 – not least Bell herself who would tell the caseworkers she oversaw to make those extra calls and visits because

 “You’re not going to make me lose my job; you’re not going to have my face on the front page of the news”

Obviously, such a culture of fear is going to lead to a lot of children being taken away from their parents needlessly.

There was a time when John Mattingly understood that.

More than a decade ago, several New York City Family Court judges said almost exactly the same thing to a commission advising ACS – explaining that this was why they would rubber-stamp ACS removals even when they thought the agency had no case.  John Mattingly served on that panel.   At the time he was appalled.

But after Nixzmary Brown died, Mattingly brought exactly the same culture into ACS – with the same dreadful consequences.  He took a series of actions that all sent the same message to the frontlines: Take away all the children you want and, while the children may suffer terribly, your jobs are safe.  Leave one child in her of his own home and let something go wrong, and I’ll hang you out to dry.

That’s what happened in the Pierce case. 

If, in fact, either Adams or Bell falsified records then they deserve to be fired.  There might even be a case for some kind of criminal charge specific to falsifying records.  But criminally-negligent homicide?  No way.

Mattingly should have been the first to condemn the D.A. for grandstanding at his caseworkers’ expense.  Instead, he remained silent right up until his recent resignation.


But the revelations don’t end with the culture of fear.  The New York story got past Mattingly’s spin on another key point, his claims about worker caseloads.  According to the story:

Mayor Bloomberg, with ACS’s then-commissioner John Mattingly by his side, was telling reporters that the workers’ average caseload was only ten families—less than the national average. This enraged the workers even more, since they all knew this calculation didn’t reflect their entire workload. It includes only active investigations, but not court cases. After an investigation goes to court—often because ACS is trying to get custody of a kid—the case can still stay on a worker’s plate for months, requiring the worker to trek to Family Court, do more paperwork, and sometimes visit the home.

And, as everyone knows, anytime you have to go to Family Court, you’re at the mercy of a notoriously inefficient system. Compared with his co-workers, Adams had “a really bad draw,” as Rae Phillips, a caseworker in the Hospital Unit, puts it. Co-workers recall Adams was in court three or four days a week, sometimes more than once a day. “That’s where all your time goes,” Phillips says. Bell estimates that at the end, Adams had fourteen open investigations and at least twenty court cases. When he was interrogated after Marchella’s death, Adams said his caseload totaled about 40.

The fact that Adams makes this claim doesn’t make it so.  But the entire New York press corps, which normally prides itself on its skepticism, simply took Bloomberg and Mattingly at their word concerning caseloads – unlike decades past when newspapers exposed a shell game behind similar claims during the administration of former Mayor Ed Koch.


The article also illustrates how the culture of fear can undermine even the few progressive moves Mattingly retained even after Nixzmary Brown died, such as Child Safety Conferences.

They’re supposed to work this way: When a caseworker is about to remove children from the home she or he convenes a meeting involving everyone who cares about those children (and if they’re old enough, sometimes the children) in an effort to find a better option.

But the New York article describes a process that has become a sham, in which workers either are too closed-minded, or simply too afraid, to consider any other options:

In practice, caseworkers say, the decision about whether to remove a kid is almost always made ahead of time, rendering these meetings virtually useless. “A fantastic idea, terrible in actuality,” says [a] … former caseworker. “A monumental suck of time.”

Bell often had two of these conferences a day, maybe three, each lasting one and a half to two hours, sometimes even longer. All the while, phone calls are flooding into her voice-mail … and the paperwork was piling up. To a friend in the office, she’d say: “How am I supposed to get anything done with all these f------ conferences?”

These meetings not only consumed much of her time but also left her emotionally drained.

If Ms. Bell finds actually coming face-to-face with the families whose lives she is about to turn upside-down too draining, then maybe the job has become too much for her, and it calls into question some of the portrait in this article.

So does the way she responded to some of Adams’ efforts to go the extra mile for families:

 “Get off the phone!” Bell would holler when she heard him counseling yet another parent whose case had been closed. “We don’t have time for that!” Sometimes she would rip the phone right out of his hand and slam it onto the receiver.

(As that comment indicated, Bell argues this isn’t what she wanted to do, it’s what she had to do in order to keep up with the workload.)

But while it’s hard to blame workers trapped in a culture of fear for refusing to take the conferences seriously, the fact is in other parts of the city, workers have risen above that culture.

Michael Arsham, executive director of an outstanding grassroots family advocacy group, the Child Welfare Organizing Project,* discussed this in a comment on the New York website:

CWOP has partnered with the Manhattan Borough Office of ACS and the Center for Family Representation [which provides high quality legal representation for families caught in the ACS net], training life-experienced Community Representatives to staff CSCs in East Harlem. CWOP parents have staffed over 700 of these conferences, and have helped avert non-relative placement of children in about two-thirds of them. In the over four years that we've been involved in this initiative, we have never heard any of our ACS partners deride CSCs as a distraction from their duties. In fact, there is nothing more fundamental to good child protective work than talking in a direct, straightforward way with parents about child safety concerns, and how best to address them through use of extended family supports and community services.

Because of the unit in which Bell and Adams worked, the article also risked leaving a mistaken impression of typical cases.  As Arsham pointed out:

ACS is repeatedly characterized as the agency that investigates "abusive" parents. It would be much more accurate to say "allegedly neglectful" parents. The large majority of parents called to the attention of ACS - 85 - 90% - are accused not of abuse but of neglect, usually related to poverty: substandard housing, lack of health insurance or daycare, children resistant to attending failing schools, etc.


The article concludes with the final irony:

These days, the fears that keep Bell up at night concern her own children, her 12-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter. It seems the ultimate irony: the possibility that this whole saga might end with her being removed from her home, taken away from her two kids. For Bell, it’s the most terrifying part of this whole ordeal. In the courtroom, in front of the prosecutors and the reporters, she tries to conceal her fears, but to a former co-worker she admitted the truth. “I’m scared,” she said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. Do you know I could go to jail for four years? Do you know how old my son will be when I come home?”

That prompted a question, posed on the NCCPR Facebook Page, by Melanie Williams Smotherman, the director of another outstanding grassroots organization, the Family Advocacy Movement in Nebraska:  She wonders if Adams and Bell realize how similar their treatment is to the way many caseworkers treat families?

*NCCPR receives funding to assist CWOP with media work.