Sunday, December 18, 2016

UPDATED: The politics of foster care panic in New York

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is exploiting a child abuse death to score points 
in his longstanding feud with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio

One politician after another exploits child welfare tragedies, fueling a surge in needless removal of children

UPDATE, DECEMBER 22: NCCPR has updated its comprehensive report on New York City child welfare.  And see also below for our take on the latest report from City Comptroller Scott Stringer.

The previous post to this blog discussed the foster care panic that appears to be underway in New York City – the third time in 20 years that a high-profile tragedy has led to a surge in the needless removal of children from their homes.

We’ve already had the Ritual Sacrifice of the Agency Chief – the reform-minded Commissioner of the city Administration for Children’s Services, Gladys Carrion, has announced her retirement. That might well be what really happened, but when mayor Bill de Blasio’s press secretary was asked if the mayor  would have fired Carrion had she not quit, he refused to comment.

The state Office of Children and Family Services (OFCS) has demanded that de Blasio hire a state-approved “monitor” to oversee ACS.  (De Blasio didn’t help matters when he misled the press and public, claiming the monitor was his idea.)

And who is fanning the flames? One politician after another.  It’s reached almost comic proportions, with one grandstanding pol actually complaining that the monitor might get to take cheap shots before he does!

The problem is not that these pols are falling all over themselves to criticize ACS. The problem is that they’re not being critical enough. By focusing only on errors that lead to deaths of children in their own homes, they leave the false impression that this is the only kind of mistake the agency makes.

In fact, while ACS has improved in recent years – in fact the agency’s safety outcomes are the best they’ve been in at least six years – all child welfare agencies can be arbitrary capricious and cruel, taking many children from homes that are safe or could be made safe with the right kinds of help, even as they leave other children in danger.

The demagoguery by grandstanding pols sends a terrible message to the frontlines: There is no penalty for taking away hundreds, perhaps thousands of children needlessly – no matter how much harm that does to the children. A caseworker’s career, reputation, even their personal freedom is on the line only if they leave a child in her or his own home and something goes wrong.  Contrary to what caseworkers often claim, when it comes to taking away children, they’re not “damned if they do and damned if they don’t” – they’re only damned if they don’t.

Who would put politics ahead of children’s safety? It’s a long list:

Governor Andrew Cuomo

The undermining of child welfare reform in New York City starts at the very top – and I don’t mean the mayor. I mean the governor, Andrew Cuomo.  In New York, counties and New York City run their own child welfare systems, but the state is free to meddle as much as it wants.  Cuomo has taken full advantage of that freedom to pursue a vicious, longstanding feud against de Blasio – at children’s expense.

How bad is their feud?  The New York Daily News says it has been

… uniquely personal, bitter and public … Close observers of both men wonder if Cuomo will not rest until he has buried de Blasio politically.

Cuomo is the son of the late Gov. Mario Cuomo, one of America’s most inspiring, most compassionate – and most complicated – political leaders.  The reporters who covered him regularly (for about I year I was one of them) knew he had a dark side.

Andrew has all of his father’s dark side, some of his eloquence – and little, if any, of his compassion.  As far back as 1987, when he was a close advisor to his father, he was portrayed in an annual musical comedy revue performed by state government reporters as Darth Vader. Click here for the video.

Think he wouldn’t play politics with children’s lives? He already has. One of Cuomo’s first big fights with the far more progressive de Blasio involved the governor’s efforts to thwart the mayor’s plans for universal pre-kindergarten.

“Public Advocate” Letitia James

Letitia James
New York City is unusual, perhaps unique in the United States, in having a citywide elective office of Public Advocate. As the name implies, the principal power of this office is the bully pulpit.  Its principal function seems to be to launch mayoral campaigns.  The first Public Advocate, Mark Green, ran for mayor and lost. The third, Bill de Blasio, ran and won.

Green took a smart, nuanced approach to child welfare, issuing scathing reports often focused on failures in all directions, including wrongful removal and how the deck was stacked against families.  It’s exactly the kind of critique needed now.  But I can’t link to the reports because  Green’s successor, Betsy Gotbaum, removed them from the Public Advocate’s website.

All of Green’s successors – including de Blasio – used their bully pulpit to undermine child welfare reform and take advantage of high-profile tragedies for political gain. (That’s why it was  a heartening surprise when de Blasio named a real reformer, Carrion, to run ACS.)

No Public Advocate has been worse on this issue than the current occupant of the office, Letitia James. She, too, is said to be interested in running for mayor.  And she’s been the perfect partner for Cuomo.  Working with Marcia Lowry who used to run the group that so arrogantly calls itself “Children’s Rights” and who has become a key figure opposing reform nationwide, James sued the city and, technically, the state.

I say technically because the suit against the state required almost nothing from the state – except that it “monitor” ACS.  So of course the state rushed to “settle.”

As I noted in a previous post, perhaps most appalling, the settlement actually would have barred anyone else from bringing a class-action suit against the state during the term of the settlement. (Presumably Lowry and James would have sought a similar ban against suing ACS had they reached a settlement with ACS.)  In other words, Lowry and James simultaneously maintained that their suit was essential and every other possible class-action suit was worthless.  The arrogance behind this position is breathtaking.

The “settlement” maneuver was so transparent that when a federal judge threw out the settlement, she suggested the state, the public advocate, and Lowry may have engaged in – her words:  “collusive activity.”

As far as the part against the city goes, the suit was a thinly-disguised effort to force ACS to curb efforts to keep families together (efforts that, as noted in my previous post, improved child safety) and rush to terminate parental rights in more cases.

The suit was so bad that not only did all of the groups providing legal representation for parents unite to oppose it, so did all of the groups providing legal representation for children – including a group that actually had partnered with Lowry on a previous suit.

So on one level, James and Lowry deserve credit: It takes a truly awful, destructive lawsuit to  unite ACS, the lawyers for parents and the lawyers for children.

Further raising questions about the suit is what happened after the horrifying death of Zymere Perkins.  First Cuomo, apparently seeing another chance to try to “bur[y] de Blasio politically” ordered the state Office of Children and Family Services to “investigate.”  Then, last week, OFCS ordered the city to name a monitor – someone who would have to be approved by OFCS.  In other words, the state did on its own what the settlement would have “required,” reinforcing the perception of “collusive activity.”

And James sank to a new low, taking the occasion of a child abuse tragedy and its aftermath to issue a sanctimonious statement that boiled down to: Nyah, nyah, nyah – I told you so!

But the person most upset by the naming of a monitor may be the next of the great grandstanders ...

 Mark Peters, commissioner of the New York City Department of Investigation (DOI)

Mark Peters

Peters was an early master of Donald Trump-style fearmongering-by-horror story, exploiting such
cases to make broad, sweeping, unfounded generalizations. Now he seems to be afraid someone else may beat him to it.

In a statement apparently issued when people still thought the monitor was de Blasio’s idea, Peters said: “DOI is the independent monitor for ACS; we are not sure what another independent monitor would add."

Translation: It’s hard enough sharing the cheapshot limelight with Letitia James, now this new monitor will have first dibs!  I suspect that sentiment is shared by …

New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer

Scott Stringer
He also announced an “investigation” into the Zymere Perkins case – supposedly a follow up to a
“scathing audit” he’d issued in June.

[UPDATE, DECEMBER 22: And lo and behold: Stringer now claims to have conducted a comprehensive review of 3,692 cases – in less than three months. The resulting report appears to suffer from the same methodological failings as Peters’ work.

It’s hard to tell, though, since the report somehow was conveniently leaked to the New York Post one day before its release. The Post published a story, but no link to the document itself. So there’s no way to fully evaluate exactly what Stringer was looking at or how he looked.

But, the Post reports - at the very bottom of the story that

Both ACS and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office disputed Stringer’s findings, saying 21 of the 38 deaths Stringer cited had no prior history with ACS. They also said seven other deaths stemmed from unsafe sleeping conditions, two were illness-related, one was determined to be accidental, and the official cause of two others remained pending. The existence of five other child death cases cited by Stringer is being disputed by the de Blasio administration. “It’s no surprise that ACS’s data was cherry-picked to support a simplified and largely inaccurate conclusion,” mayoral spokesperson Aja Worthy-Davis said. “This report contains many inaccuracies — such as a base misunderstanding of child-protective review protocols and legal rules regarding risk assessment. 
In short, the Stringer report appears to be one more politically-motivated smear from one more mayor wanna-be.]

 As for Mayor de Blasio, he hasn’t exactly been a profile in courage either.  As I noted in my previous post, he could learn a lot from Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy – who has backed up his child welfare agency chief, Joette Katz, when she’s refused to cave to very similar political pressure.

 We all need to be monitors

In fact, the best independent “monitor” of ACS is all of us.  In New York, Family Court hearings are open to the press and the public. Anyone can sit in, day after day, and see how the system really works in the typical cases, not just the horror stories.  There also is a well-developed infrastructure of advocacy in New York City, including those lawyers I mentioned for children and parents, grassroots advocacy groups such as the Child Welfare Organizing Project and Rise, a New York-based magazine written by parents caught up in the child welfare system. And state law gives ACS unusual leeway to comment on cases. If officials at ACS don’t comment, odds are they’re stonewalling.

All of this is why scholars like Tina Lee can produce great books such as Catching a Case – the story of how the New York City system really works. Few jurisdictions offer as many avenues to real oversight of their child welfare agencies. Journalists just need to take advantage of it.

Again, none of this means ACS should be immune from criticism. On the contrary, as I said in my previous post, we need to hear more bad news, not less.

Mark Green was as critical as anyone of ACS.  But his criticism was not only scathing, it also was thorough, sensible and smart.

But, of course, Mark Green never did get to be mayor.