Tuesday, May 3, 2016

NYC Dept. of Investigation uses Trump-style tactics to attack City child welfare agency

The New York City Dept. of  Investigation could have investigated the City's
child welfare agency without sinking to HIS level. --Photo by Gage Skidmore
If there were a Donald Trump School of Fearmongering-By-Horror-Story, the Commissioner of the New York City Department of Investigation (DOI), Mark Peters, would graduate with honors.

Peters issued a report on the city’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) blasting the agency for alleged systemic failings that contributed to two child abuse deaths and one near fatality.  At least the report strongly implied the failings were systemic – Peters provided no actual evidence for this.

Peters got exactly the headlines and stories he apparently craved: “ACS Conducts Lax Investigations Into Child Abuse And Neglect,” says Gothamist,  “Rampant ACS Failures Let 2 Children Die and Allowed Abuse: Investigators,” said DNAInfo.  Or, as the New York Post put it:

The Administration for Children’s Services is so rife with “investigatory failures and deficient casework, lax oversight of foster care providers and a lack of data collection’’ that it may “actually have put [kids] in harm’s way,’’ according to Mark Peters, …

The report itself substantiates none of this. Indeed, the methodology makes such substantiation impossible.

The way to know how any agency typically fails is to examine typical cases.  DOI could have truly helped New York’s vulnerable children by examining a comprehensive, random sample of case files.  That would have given DOI an excellent sense of how – and how often – ACS makes mistakes.  And it almost certainly would have revealed mistakes in all directions; with caseworkers wrongly placing some children in foster care even as it wrongly left other children in dangerous homes.

Instead DOI opted for the Trump approach – wild extrapolation from horror stories. DOI chose to focus only on three horror story cases where children were killed, or nearly died in their own homes – leaving the misimpression that this is the only kind of error ACS makes. Then DOI painted with the broadest of brushes, suggesting with little or no evidence that the failures in the horror stories were widespread. For reasons discussed below, this approach to “investigating” risks making all children less safe.

What DOI did here is the equivalent of examining the failures at The New York Times that allowed Jayson Blair’s made-up stories to get into the paper, and then claiming that the Blair case proves the Times suffers from a widespread, systemic problem of fabricating news stories.

DOI claims that they don’t know how widespread the problems really are – even as they imply that they’re probably rampant – because ACS didn’t have precisely the data DOI wanted at the time DOI asked.

That’s a copout.  Had DOI chosen to look at a random sample of cases, that problem would have been solved – the random sample would tell DOI, and the rest of us, - if a given failing was isolated or widespread.  But it would be less likely to get Mark Peters into the newspapers and on TV.

And there’s another reason DOI can’t accurately generalize from the horror story cases.  Apparently, the deaths and the near-fatality occurred in 2014 – only months after Bill de Blasio became mayor and named Gladys Carrion to run ACS. (Oddly, the report itself never mentions when the deaths and the near-fatality took place – I had to find that out from the Daily News.) And in two of the cases, the errors cited in the report began fully 12 years earlier, spanning a time period ACS was engulfed in a foster-care panic, a huge sudden surge in removals of children from their homes – following the death of Nixzmary Brown in 2006.

DOI even was highly selective in its choice of horrors. Surely the case of Cesar Gonzales-Mugaburu, who allegedly was allowed to abuse children placed in his foster home by ACS and its private agency contractors for decades, was just as worthy of investigation.  That case is a reminder that foster care is no panacea.  And study after study shows high rates of abuse in foster care itself.


In two places, DOI did cite actual data.  But in one of these places, DOI was remarkably selective.

The report notes that the rate at which children left in their own homes are maltreated again – 16 percent - has not declined in recent years.  And yes, that rate is too high.  (The only acceptable goal is, of course, zero.)  But DOI does not mention that this rate is lower than the 17 percent in 2011 and 2010.  The rate also was 17 percent in 1998 – the same year that the city took away more children than any other in more than two decades.  So to imply, as the report does, that this rate would decline if only more children were torn from their homes, is irresponsible.  Indeed, given the rate of abuse in foster care, any such implication is dangerous to children.

The report authors also wrote as though they were shocked – shocked! – that private child welfare agencies contracting with the city don’t take part in a mad rush to terminate parental rights if a child has been in foster care for 15 of the previous 17 months.  Yes, the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act requires this – under some circumstances.  But there are multiple exceptions. 

And that’s fortunate.  Because the mad rush to TPR has led to an explosion in the number of “legal orphans” – children who “age out” of foster care with no ties to their birth parents and no adoptive home either.

When a private agency supervised by ACS doesn’t seek TPR within the required time frames it means that in some cases they did indeed fall down on the job. More often it’s probably because, as AP aptly documented just a few days ago, the city and its contracted private agencies are realizing the harm in that approach.

And the fact that an agency fails to document a “compelling reason” not to file for TPR does not mean no such reason exists. It may just mean the agency failed to do all the right paperwork.

As for DOI’s hyperventilating about these agencies supposedly violating federal law – I doubt there is a child welfare agency in the country that manages to comply every time (and those that come closest, as the AP story aptly documents, probably are doing children a lot more harm than those that don’t).

The recommendations are not the problem

Of course it’s possible to learn lessons by examining the worst failures, as long as it’s understood that those failures don’t, in and of themselves, tell us what is systemically wrong with ACS, or any other agency.

And, by and large, the specific recommendations in the DOI report appear to be reasonable; though it’s hard to be sure since, again somewhat oddly, the report does not include all of the recommendations.  The problem with this report is its overall tone, as if Peters is nostalgic for the days in which a take-the-child-and-run mentality plunged ACS into chaos, destroyed thousands of families needlessly – and made all of the city’s children less safe. 

Since 1995, foster-care panics have occurred twice in New York City – and both times children became less safe as a result.  Starting such panics is easy; stopping them is a lot harder. 

It must never be allowed to happen again.